Whites in Shining Armor
Posted on September 1, 2010 at 5:49 am
Pick up your local newspaper after any disaster and you’re likely to encounter a story about someone from your area saving lives, a photo of a movie star or other well-known person flying in shoes or clothes, or stories of international search and rescue teams pulling people from the rubble. Rarely will you see stories about local people, charities, or the government helping in the rescue efforts. Yet the majority of people rescued after every disaster are saved by family members, neighbors, by-standers, and local disaster response teams.
Our news coverage is so focused on Whites in Shining Armor that my sister-in-law, who is well-educated, reads two newspapers each day, and is an avid NPR listener, was surprised to learn that locally run charities exist outside of the Western world. Why did this surprise her? Because she never hears news stories about local non-profits. Yet there are locally run nonprofits all over the world, even in Myanmar with it’s military junta. When Cyclone Nargis stuck Myanmar over 500 local charities and community based organizations contributed to the response efforts, but they received little if any news coverage.
Why don’t news outlets cover the work of local organizations more? Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, provides some insight in his response to a question posed to him from the author of the blog Texas in Africa. The question was essentially why do “many of his columns about Africa seem to portray ‘black Africans as victims’ and ‘white foreigners as their saviors.’” Kristof admitted “That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there”. Why the focus on Whites in Shining Armor? Kristof says that having a foreign protagonist is the best way to capture the interest of his readers.
This is the same technique your local paper is using. If they were to print a story about an Asian charity doing work in their community somewhere in Asia the story would very likely not get many readers. But a story of a hometown boy or girl going to that exact same village to do charity work has a local spin and local interest. Thus the story line of Whites in Shining Armor is endlessly repeated.
Charitable advertising perpetuates this misperception as well. In order to get people to pick up the phone and give, charity advertisements show only the worst of the problem. They do not mention the work of any local organizations or the government as this would detract from the urgency of the message. The stereotype of Whites in Shining Armor is reinforced by the commercial’s main message – they are the only ones that can help.
Does your charity, social venture project, or news outlet perpetuate or break the Whites in Shining Armor stereotype?
Guides by Good Intentions are Not Enough
Articles linked to in this post:
A Numbers Game – Wanderlust
Support to local initiatives in the Nargis response: a fringe versus mainstream approach – Humanitarian Practice Network
the white man’s burden – Texas in Africa