Visiting the Homeland – Our own White Saviour Complex

Lahore

Recently, I travelled to my country of origin; Pakistan.

The nation gets a lot of press. Stereotypes exist about most countries, but few exceed the capture of the public imagination that Pakistan has unwittingly managed to achieve. So I found myself consciously navigating some of the difficulties of interacting with ‘back home’ from the perspective of an ‘educated’, Western mind (not entirely Anglicized, mind you).

I was keen not to expect the country to conform to the headlines; constant explosions, acts of blatant misogyny and endemic corruption. As HONY put much better than I ever could recently, limited headline space lends itself to negative news; most countries in strife are depicted with disproportionate negativity in Western (and probably all) media outlets. So I wasn’t expecting chronic insecurity and societal meltdown – I understand people still get on with their lives, and that the idea Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state is a horrendous mischaracterization of the nation.

Sure enough, the country pleasantly surprised me. I was not made to feel unsafe even once, in the mountainous regions or the cities, and if I was it was more due to the audacious traffic and winding mountain roads than any aspect of culture or social norms. The Kharokhorum highway is an incredible feat of engineering, and Lahore’s streets were remarkably clean and well-kept, and we encountered no obvious corruption or police misbehaviour. I don’t mean to say there aren’t great problems facing the country, but the idea it is an unliveable hell and filled with angry extremists is patently absurd.

Now, to my difficulty. How does an outsider, a Western, British-Pakistani Muslim, go about evaluating and discussing the faults and shortcomings of ‘back home’? It is no easy matter. Firstly, one needs the humility to accept people who live in the country know it far better than our reading of the headlines allows us to. Secondly, we also need to accept norms and cultures may very justifiably be different back home from Western society.

These don’t come naturally for one simple reason; the ‘White Saviour Complex’ that we criticize so unfailingly ourselves, is also something we have implicitly accepted and adopted into our own narratives of back home. This is evidenced by how many immigrant communities, a few generations down the line, almost instinctively cast disapproving proverbial glances back in the direction of their ancestral lands.

We enumerate the many ‘backward’ elements of the culture of our elders, and by extension our countries of origin. We also presume that, merely by virtue of our Western education, we know the solutions to most if not all the problems of our nations, implying that the people there are in their less-than-ideal situation simply due to their comparative lack of competence. Isn’t that arrogant?
We make sweeping generalisations only based on the headlines we read giving no thought to the possibility there may be more to the country than that; we essentialise entire nations with the bad, ignoring the mountains of good. And there is always good.

Sheltered ‘Brit-Paks’ lounging in leafy suburbs, radically divorced even from the reality of inner-city London, making broad pronouncements about the hopelessness of Pakistan and the backwardness of its culture, makes me want to do things I would rather not verbalise. It is horrendously naïve, arrogant and ultimately a product of the broader Western narrative, into which we have been rather successfully integrated. Responsibility for this cultural failure lies only on us, and nowhere else, even if the forces of influence that push us in this direction are fundamental to Western society.

This cannot mean that we refuse to discuss the situation of our countries of origin at all. Rather, we need to acknowledge our views can often spill into prejudice and ignorance, both of which can very easily occur in relation to one’s own people. Thereafter, it would hopefully be easier for diaspora communities from developing countries to have a meaningful engagement with said nations. This would benefit the latter, but also the former in allowing us to adopt a more balanced approach to fusing the cultures of Western society and that of our ancestral homelands.

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