'The neutral, third-party researcher is an oxymoron'

The (Researcher) Saviour Complex

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Some say it is important to know history so we do not repeat it. But I disagree. The past explains the present and it can’t be reduced to a lesson or reminder—what’s behind us is in us.

As a university, we are arguably one of the most racist, colonial institutions in our society today. That is a fact. As a university in the Netherlands, we are here thanks to centuries of invasion and occupation of foreign lands and peoples. To justify this, the colonial project relied on the racial logic of the white saviour who civilised and saved the native other. These ways of thinking were produced and maintained by universities, who at the same time accumulated wealth and positioned themselves as the ultimate producers of knowledge.

This is our history. It explains how racist texts became classical literature and why in our society it’s more important to have a framed degree certificate than real-life experience. Or rather, three to four years in a classroom is now seen as life experience even when the environment is rarely repeated again.

With these legacies in mind, we need to look more closely at research as a field. The idea of a neutral, third-party researcher is an oxymoron. The research we do, how we do it, and who that ‘we’ is made up of, is informed by histories of the world and university. Some fields have more obvious traces of problematic pasts, while others need closer inspection.

The white saviour complex has become a familiar trope. White person goes to faraway place where Black and Brown people live, usually in suffering and poverty. White person ignores their own complicity in global systems of oppression, voluntours their way through this region and breaks the Instagram algorithm by using locals, usually children, as props in their genetically blessed, traditionally attractive social media feeds. White person feels good and everybody claps.

But what about the researcher's saviour complex? Researcher goes to a different place with people who are different to them. Researcher spends their career trying to understand, help, bring awareness to, and authentically experience the different lives of these different people. Researcher plants trees, saves indigenous species, lives in a refugee camp, the list goes on. Researcher publishes articles and books, becoming the expert on these different people with different lives who are not considered the experts on themselves. Everybody claps.

These are the pitfalls I want to avoid. The activist whose intentions can’t make up for lack of lived experience. The researcher whose research question was cooked up in the confines of a classroom instead of in conversation with the people involved. The student who forgets the university is reliant on reproducing hierarchies, exclusion and the other.

No doubt, I have made, and will make, similar mistakes. Whether it’s getting tripped up in my own biases or amassing student debt in the name of an education that only looks good on LinkedIn. I don’t know the answers, but the questions are still important.

We’re the next students who are shaped by, and shape, the university. What are we going to do about it?