Some Thoughts on

White Privilege


Humanitarian Aid...

As a white professional/authority figure for children of so many backgrounds, I am still training myself to notice bias in my approach and content, and to address equitable access to the arts in my community.  In my global travels over the past year, I am aware that my expectations for how I will be treated are embedded in white (and American) privilege. I am only beginning to understand how this manifests in other cultures.


White privilege is everywhere, of course, but Samos is where I couldn’t avoid constant awareness of it from from the disparities I observed--and I’m sure my grasp of the situation is superficial at best given my short time on the island.  I noticed immediately that all the NGO aid workers I met were white Europeans, none of them Greek. The Greeks I met were frustrated and tired of the situation, and really just wanted the refugees to go away--to put it in polite terms. I saw refugees turned away from businesses and restaurants, unless accompanied by an obviously western (white) person.  I was anxious on my first Sunday evening in town when I noticed my daughter and I were the only women walking around, and that we were the only white people. I worried that my position of privilege and my sex made me a target.  

Everything I did on Samos made me uncomfortable, because I was constantly aware of how different my life has been.

It was uncomfortable meeting kids who have seen more trauma than I can imagine.  

It was uncomfortable talking with my Greek landlady about the situation, and hearing her wish that all the refugees would just go somewhere else so tourism could get back to normal.


It was uncomfortable noticing that all the aid workers were white like me.


It was uncomfortable walking around in my warm winter coat, while refugees walked around in battered flip flops in the bitter cold.


It was uncomfortable lying in my warm quiet bed, knowing that a few miles away, some of my students’ tents were blowing away in the wind, or getting soaked by icy rainwater sheeting down the steep hillside of the camp.

It was very uncomfortable walking up into the camp, knowing that I wanted to understand the conditions my students were living in, but also feeling strange and afraid of what I would encounter there.


It was uncomfortable to engage in conversations with asylum seekers who are desperately seeking what I have always taken for granted:  a life without violence.

It was painful to listen to children from Iraq and Afghanistan talk about the life they are escaping, knowing my country’s complicity in that situation.

If this all sounds like white guilt, I can only say I’m sure that is part of it.  But this experience has been more than just that. In my life as a teacher, a psychotherapist, and an artist, I have learned to be aware of my emotions, examine them, and move on as productively as I can.  On Samos, I never let my discomfort stop me from engaging with everyone I met.  People seemed to want to share their experiences, to feel seen and heard in a situation that often left them feeling dehumanized and invisible--my thanks to Mohammed, asylum-seeker from Ghana, for sharing that insight with me.  I forged connections where I could--with Abraham, from Ghana, who was frustrated by his inability to implement his teacher training and experience in a camp so desperately in need of education for children. With J., a teenager from Iraq, who told me about his family’s journey and his hopes for resettling in Germany with his aunt someday.  With my friend Majida, called the “Queen of Samos”, a Syrian refugee who made it out of the camp only to stay on Samos and dedicate herself to serving as interpreter and mentor to other refugees in the camp. With Jacob and Ali and Brody, Europeans working through their NGO’s to try and alleviate some of the suffering of the residents. With every connection I made, my fear lessoned, but my discomfort never did.


“At the heart of this is an imbalance of power between those who provide aid and those who receive it.”  Erin Moore, Confessions of a Foreign Aid Worker.

In reading about white privilege and humanitarian aid, I came across several issues I’ve thought about in the context of this project.


  • The relationship between donors and NGO’s and recipients of aid is complicated.  More people donate more money if they are responding to a simple drama of human suffering.  Organizations walk a moral tightrope in their struggle for sustainable funding/survival: they have to seem both necessary and effective.  The information they offer about a situation is carefully curated to achieve this balance. I’m not judging them for this--we all curate our public image--but I am very aware of it.  Recipients of aid struggle similarly with presenting their situation--to continue to receive aid, they must present suffering/need. But such portrayals can ultimately reinforce a worldview that the groups receiving aid are helpless and dependent upon western society for survival.  My project was funded by the state department of the United States--which doesn’t mean these questions are not relevant.  The chain of funding is simply a little more distant.  My project needs to justify sustained funding for Fulbright, especially in the current political climate.  I believe in the mission of Fulbright and am also aware of the responsibility I have in making their investment in me worthwhile.


  • Who gets to decide what people need?  I saw NGO’s offering nutritional support, hot showers, clothing packages, safe centers for women, classes in English, Greek, art, music, yoga, meditation, physical education, computer skills, counseling, legal aid, and more. Obviously not enough to fully address the need--for example, there is always a waitlist of children Mazí simply doesn’t have the space to serve.  But in every case western organizations are deciding what the refugees need. Mazí is attempting to address this with a student council to help advise and shape the program. A few organizations like Refugees 4 Refugees are focused on recruiting refugees to implement their programs. This spring, international NGO’s are blooming on Samos in response to the reports of conditions, but international NGOs can also divert attention and resources from community-driven work.(1)  On the other hand, in this situation, would there be any community driven work?

My own project is not exempt from this scrutiny.  What I offered the refugee children was an experience that served my research, and I wondered how appropriate it was to paint and make art given the conditions these kids are living in.  Indeed, the mural was not even meant to be left in the community that created it, but instead would become something that I present to the world.  I can only say that given all this I wanted to try it and the kids chose to create it, seeming to find joy and comfort in the process (see impact).  I hoped to use the process of making art to build a cross-cultural dialog, and build relationships between the children.(2) In fact, the idea that the mural was going to travel and be seen was a source of pride and part of what made it meaningful for some of the children (see Samos).

  • Who benefits when you take on the role of storyteller for another person’s experience?  There is no neutral here--anyone making an effort in the field of social justice or humanitarian aid is doing so for personal gain of some sort: financial, emotional, social, etc.  By speaking up about the situation of another from our position of privilege we risk drowning out the voices of the people we are trying to serve.(3)  My biggest struggle as a teacher and artist in this project was how to balance my influence/authority with empowering the children to make decisions and create at their own level.  I have also wrestled with 

this issue throughout the writing of the articles for this website.  I have tried to stay focused on my own experiences or directly quote the children when possible, in the same way I tried to let the children’s images and interests guide the work when we created the mural.  Of course my hand and my voice are evident in all aspects of the work, but I am hoping the effort will keep me true to my purpose: to empower children.

I hope to become an ally to those I serve.  Being an ally means never feeling truly culturally competent, constantly striving, with humility, for critical social consciousness.  Being an ally means taking responsibility for my own learning, acknowledging my unearned privilege, being willing to be confronted, consider change, and take action.   Being an ally means being willing to take risks despite my fears, make mistakes, and understand that my own needs ultimately drive my quest for social justice.(4)


(1) The Secret Aid Worker, “Who will save the white saviors from themselves?” The Guardian, 4/19/2018

(2) Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Crossing Boundaries, Connecting Communities: Alliance Building for Immigrants Rights and Racial Justice,

(3) Paula Akpan, “Re-telling other people’s stories isn’t allyship, Lena Dunham – it’s classic white feminism,” The Guardian, 10/3/ 2018,

(4) This definition of the word ally comes from Adams, Bell, and Griffin (2007) Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, and Mary Ann Clements, What Role Can Privileged White People Play in International Development, from Bright Magazine, Oct. 4 2018

© 2019 by Sarah Cornette

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