OPINION: The philanthropic white savior problem – and the mutual aid solution

A drawing of two groups of hands. On the left, a large white hand descends from the top of the frame, holding a single dollar bill in a pinch. On the right, many smaller black and brown hands rise up from the bottom of the frame, each clutching a dollar bill.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

Staggering wealth inequality is an issue across the globe — including within the 5Cs. To combat this inequality, some students from wealth-privileged backgrounds are redistributing their money to help other students who face poverty, housing insecurity and more in a process known as mutual aid. At the 5Cs, mutual aid has been used on countless occasions, from supporting low-income students in need of financial assistance to the mobilization of Occupy Pomona during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As a concept, mutual aid defies our society’s tendency toward capitalist individualism by stressing the importance of community care and solidarity, instead of mere charity. Many philanthropist groups attempt to emulate this ideology of mutual aid under the guise of wealth redistribution. 

But I believe there’s a stark difference between philanthropy and mutual aid. Philanthropy fails to renounce power and privilege from the donor. 

The history of mutual aid has rich roots in American marginalized communities. From Indigenous populations to the Black Panther Party, mutual aid has served to satisfy the needs of community members when the system neglects them. While mutual aid often serves as a surface-level solution to systemic problems, it successfully provides food, housing, healthcare and other necessary means of survival for those in need. Oh, and one more thing: mutual aid can be a tool against white supremacy.

Mutual aid concentrates power and autonomy into the most oppressed members of society rather than forcing them to rely on people in power. When oppressed populations can fend for themselves, they can directly challenge the conditions that they are forced to endure. Thus, mutual aid is a fundamental component of social justice movements. 

On the other hand, the correlation between whiteness and philanthropy is stark. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 90 percent of foundation CEOs are white and 85 percent of foundation boards are white. And when these white millionaires allocate a portion of their funds to a charity or nonprofit organization, they’re still millionaires. They still hold power over the marginalized group that they claim to be uplifting. So, not only does power remain concentrated in the upper echelon of wealth, but it also remains concentrated in white supremacy.

The white savior complex complicates any philanthropic attempts to redistribute wealth in hopes of alleviating suffering produced by the system. White people, then, assume the role of the savior when engaging in this kind of wannabe mutual aid — not because they feel that oppressed people deserve to thrive and prosper — but because they feel that said people are helpless victims. 

This is not mutual aid at all. Many of these philanthropists are incentivized to donate for tax write-offs or social gratification. This white savior kind of philanthropy does not require any  intention of actually standing in solidarity with oppressed people or dedicating as many resources that can be spared toward their liberation.

Mutual aid has prioritized the marginalized as organizers, allowing communities to resolve the conditions that marginalized them in the first place. If the relationship between many communities of color and philanthropists is transactional and in favor of the oppressor, then mutual aid is philanthropy’s antethis. Mutual aid exemplifies the success that marginalized communities can achieve when they mobilize together in mass numbers. Think about it like this: if 100 people can redistribute $5, they can raise more funds than one person who redistributes $100. 

But there’s more: mutual aid does not only empower marginalized people — it’s actually more responsive in addressing community needs than government programs. According to HuffPost, “grassroots responses … referred to as ‘the people’s infrastructure,’ can react more quickly to specific local needs than a legislative body allocating and distributing funds from afar.” Times of crisis require immediate attention, which current tedious processes of obtaining government funding don’t provide.

If time is of the essence, then a system by which funds can be raised overnight depending on the size of the existing network is a huge deal. Mutual aid is an efficient and effective answer during a state of emergency that rivals the delay in receiving government support, especially if support is not available or accessible for marginalized communities to begin with — but that’s another story.

In a political, economic and cultural system where white people have outsized control over material resources, white dominance and non-white subordination are reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings on a daily basis. Philanthropy allows white supremacy to manifest itself into a relationship of dependence between white people and people of color — and mutual aid is the perfect counter.

Through philanthropy, communities of color are provided resources on the terms of white philanthropists, who determine whether people of color are deserving or qualified to receive assistance at all. If we give white wealth the responsibility to provide access to life saving resources, we are effectively giving them the power to decide who lives and who dies. Reflect on those optics — and re-evaluate how you give. 

Linda Phan PO ’24 is from Seattle, Washington. She loves frisbee and music.

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