Retiring to a foreign country and start a new life is very relaxing and a great expat lifestyle. Many expats, particularly those from North America and Europe, come to Mexico, Central and South America with the intent of making a difference in the local community. However, a common problem that arises among these expats is a tendency to adopt a “white savior complex,” where they believe they are better equipped to solve the problems of the local community than the people who actually live there.
The white savior complex is a term used to describe the belief that white people are inherently superior and have a moral obligation to save non-white people from their supposed inferiority. This mindset is often characterized by a lack of understanding and respect for the local culture and customs, as well as a lack of interest in truly understanding the root causes of the issues they are trying to solve.
One of the main issues with the white savior complex is that it perpetuates a sense of dependency among the local community. When expats come in and try to “fix” things, they typically do so without considering the long-term effects of their actions.
For example, a group of expats may decide to build a community center in a poor neighborhood, but they don’t consider the fact that the community already has a functioning community center and that the expats’ center will likely be seen as a symbol of their superiority. This can lead to resentment and mistrust among the local community, who may feel that the expats are trying to impose their culture and values on them.
Another problem with the white savior complex is that it can be harmful to the expats themselves. Many expats come to expat friendly countries like Mexico with the best intentions, but they quickly become disillusioned when they realize that the issues they are trying to solve are much more complex and entrenched than they initially thought. This can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness, and many expats end up leaving feeling defeated and unfulfilled.
What To Do
So, what can expats do to avoid the white savior complex and make a positive impact in their new community?
The first step is to truly listen to and understand the local community’s needs and concerns. This means taking the time to learn about the culture and customs, as well as the history and politics of the area. It also means being open to feedback and criticism from the local community, and being willing to adjust one’s actions and approach as necessary.
Another important step is to work collaboratively with the local community. This means involving the community in the decision-making process and sharing the responsibility for solving problems. It also means being willing to let the local community take the lead and to step back.
Many expats see homeless dogs and immediately go into rescue mode. But, many of my Maya friends here in the Yucatán Peninsula area have told me directly that they and their dogs are cohabitates of the land. Where foreigners would see a homeless dog, the Maya see a neighbor. Feeding a dog and not hiring a person is taken as just plain rude.
I have feed many truly homeless dogs I’ve seen away from people. I have dog treats in my backpack when I go hiking around Maya pyramids and ruins here in Yucatán, Mexico. Furthermore, I’ve seen homeless dogs beg for food along 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen, and I feed them. It’s a short-term solution.
But, the real solution is to support a local person to rescue the dogs. They know the local culture and can find out which dogs are truly homeless and which are just loose while their owners are at work.
The solution is to help a knowledgeable local person who can tap into the local government programs to make it all work. They can also figure out a sterilization program and how to administer it.
And yes, sometimes some dogs that are in bad shape are fostered by expats, fixed up and adopted out to other countries where there is a lack of dogs.
I’ve seen many heart-warming videos of half dead dogs fostered, cleaned up and trained and then adopted to Canada and elsewhere.
And a local rescue team helped the expats do it.
Finally, expats should be mindful of the long-term effects of their actions and strive to create sustainable solutions that will benefit the local community eventually. This means investing in projects that will create jobs and provide education and training opportunities for the local population, rather than simply providing handouts.
If you have expertise in something that could help, then train a local in it, so they can apply that knowledge to their community.
Helping your fellow neighbor is always a good thing, just be mindful of how.
Here in México, the Spaniards were so forceful and brutal trying to wipe out the local native communities so many centuries ago, and there is still some class resentment.
I’ve seen some racism and social level differences that is a bit shocking. Some rich Mexicans really do look at native populations, as one told me, “totally clueless”.
The federal government here in México doesn’t allow any pre-Hispanic ceremonies at any Maya, Aztec and other pyramids and ruins. Says that right in their standard contract. I’ve seen Maya have a traditional ceremony in the parking lot of a ruin because the federal government won’t allow it inside the ruin. But, almost anything else is okay with permission at some sites (not all).
I think education is the key thing that will help. I here in México each child needs to pay for their supplies and uniform. Many families can’t afford that, so their children grow up without a formal education. We’ve helped pay for those that couldn’t. Making sure everyone has a chance at education, I think, is key. Help them so they can help themselves.
And not taking credit for their success. We helped, but they are responsible for making the best out of a situation I can’t fundamentally change. I’m just a retired expat, I can’t change the politics, the money flow, the education system. But, I can help people, my fellow neighbors help themselves.
In conclusion, it is important for expats to be aware of the potential to adopt a white savior complex when living in Mexico. By being mindful of the culture, customs, and needs of the local community, and working collaboratively with them to create sustainable solutions, expats can make a positive impact in their new community without perpetuating a sense of dependency or resentment.
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