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UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

White saviorism or sisterhood? – volunteering with female African refugees in Germany Wittmann, Xenia


In the past decade the so-called ‘voluntourism’ industry has registered an increase in predominantly young, white volunteers from the global North travelling to countries in the global South with the intention of helping or saving. At least since Teju Cole coined the term ‘white savior industrial complex,’ the harmful effects of this dynamic have become known to a wider audience. Activists and scholars have criticized the ‘white saviors’ and their uncritical perpetuation of white privilege and white supremacy in the name of humanitarianism and benevolence. Often missing from the conversation are accounts of voluntary work carried out in the European context which would add a valuable perspective as they can demonstrate that the problem with white saviorism is not limited to the Global South. Implementing scholarship from the disciplines of sociology, literary history, ethnography, educational studies, pedagogy, and political science, this thesis explains the key terms benevolence, humanitarianism, white saviorism (including the delimination of the term white ally), white supremacy, white privilege, whiteness, solidarity (including the distinction of political solidarity), empathy and friendship including their historical background. After introducing the short story Etenesh, an account of voluntary work between German, Ethiopian, and Nigeria women in Regensburg, Germany, the key terms are related to the short story and accounts of voluntary work in general. The purpose of this work is to explore the question: How could voluntary work be channeled into a tool that helps dismantle white supremacy instead of reinforcing it? The short story thereby serves as a resource to draw upon in order to answer this question. This thesis argues that good intentions and genuine empathy do not absolve us of the harm we cause as white volunteers but also that voluntary work and activism do not have to be mutually exclusive but that working towards the dismantling of white supremacy within voluntary work is not only possible but necessary.

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