Picture it: a weekend morning three or four weeks ago. I am mindlessly tapping through my Instagram story feed when I come across a series of bubbly videos posted by an influencer I only vaguely remembered. In the first frame, she shared that she was going for a walk with the goal of giving away a box of old clothes to homeless people along her route. Every few minutes, she updated her followers on her progress with pictures of the box growing less and less full until- ta-da!- all the clothes were gone. At the end of the series, the influencer shared a message about how the key to your own happiness is helping others. I believe there was hot pink typewriter text involved, but I’m honestly not sure- truth be told, I was already fed up with what I was seeing. I unfollowed the influencer shortly thereafter.
When I was little, one of my favorite picture books was The Good Samaritan. Adapted from a Biblical parable, the story described the plight of a traveler who is injured by a group of thieves. After waiting all day, one plain-clothed man finally stops to help. This version of the story emphasized how the good Samaritan not only asked for nothing in return, but refused to create a fuss over his good deed. Helping the traveler was the obvious choice for him; he did not need the gratification of others to feel good about what he had done.
Observing my peers on the Internet today, I think that we are losing our grip on what it means to be a good Samaritan. Thanks to social media, we operate on a currency of gratification; for many of us, every experience is fodder for a social media share. So when I see someone sharing a photo from a park clean-up, clothing donation run, or even a protest, I cannot help but wonder if these actions are genuine, or if they are motivated by a desire for digital ‘congratulations’ on a job well done.
One could argue that those who share pictures and videos of their “good Samaritan moments” are trying to inspire others to engage in an activity that they genuinely find meaningful. It’s impossible to know what someone’s true motivations are, but I would argue that, if one is truly engaged with what they are doing, they are probably not reaching for their phones to post on IG stories. To that end, I also believe that no one- not even the most mindful and positive social media users- is exempt from the twinge of excitement that comes from the likes, comments, shares, etc. that reinforce and congratulate our behavior. I say this not from a place of judgement, but as someone who is constantly disappointed by my own attachment to external reassurance. For both myself and those around me, wish we were better as grasping the meaning that’s right there in front of us.
As I write this, I am also aware that all of the posts I am thinking about were made by white womxn. I only follow maybe a handful of men on Instagram, but I wonder if other users observe a similar pattern from the white women in their feed. Given the pressures society places on womxn to embody certain ideals, it makes sense that womxn might feel more attached to the social media feedback loop; unlike the white guy in the next cubicle, their acceptance by others is not guaranteed.
The problem here is, of course, the eternal dilemma of the “white savior.” Issues such as poverty, environmental damage, and hunger disproportionately affects people of color; when a white woman posts an Instagram photo from a soup kitchen or donating clothing, it’s hard to shake the image of a privileged individual prancing into a marginalized community and seeking praise for their humility and charity. If actions speak louder than words, than the actions you share on social media speak the loudest. In this era of 24/7 sharing, perhaps it’s time we considered the values we project at top volume.
As I mentioned above, the white savior complex is not a new phenomenon playing out over social media. Over the past few months, I’ve encountered repeated headlines about Renee Bach, a white American woman who spent her twenties in Uganda operating an unlicensed clinic for malnourished children. Bach, who has no medical training, documented her experience through a blog and social media; she is now facing a civil lawsuit in Uganda for unlawfully practicing medicine. Despite Bach’s attempts to justify her behavior, it is hard not to wonder whether her real motivated was validation and praise for being a “good Samaritan”-- a goal that ultimately contributed to the deaths of over 100 patients.
Looping back to the story of the good Samaritan, I believe that true good deeds come from a place of compassion, caring, and awareness. Not only should we not seek outright attention for our efforts, but we also need to be mindful of the fact that, depending on the nature of our activity, we get to walk away at the end of the day. Unlike the influencer I mentioned above, many people cannot nonchalantly give away clothes, because then they would have to somehow replace them. And when you spend an hour or two feeding the homeless, those you are serving will be back again and again, while you can always leave. It’s wonderful that those who are able to will lend their time and resources to a good cause, but that good deed does not erase the privilege we might possess. With that said, I want to challenge myself and those reading to perform good deeds without documenting them on social media. Instead of likes and comments, let’s focus on the reality of what we are doing, who we are affecting, and what else we can do to help.