Beware the savior mentality
Mesmin Destin Ph.D.
Many of us have sat uncomfortably through cringe-worthy portrayals of "well-intended" people trying to use their position and resources to improve the lives of others. Some popular examples like Hollywood hits "The Blind Side" and "The Help" seem largely unaware of the condescending pattern that they exemplify. Other examples, like the group "We Got Y'all" from the series "Insecure," seem thoughtfully crafted to draw attention to the ways that good intentions can miss the mark. In psychology, any faculty member who conducts research related to social disparities in education is very used to receiving a regular stream of applications from potential graduate students who unabashedly hope to save those who cannot save themselves. The problem with this attitude, of course, is that it is often grounded in underlying assumptions about a group's inferiority or sometimes simply reflective of a person trying to cope with guilt about holding privilege in an unfair society. Ultimately, however, people know when someone's charitable approach does not genuinely appreciate their humanity or potential, which usually leads to more harm than good.
Despite this common pitfall, it is possible to work toward reducing inequality while acknowledging the strengths, assets, agency, and abilities of people who are disproportionately stigmatized, minoritized, and exploited by those around them. A recent special issue of the journal American Psychologist1 focused on reconsidering the idea of marginalization through approaches like "positive youth development," which aim to support desirable outcomes for young people by recognizing and leveraging their personal and social strengths that often go unrecognized in educational contexts. Some of the research in my lab aims to adopt a similar perspective by testing the effects of experiences and programs designed to provide students with the space to cultivate their interests and images of what they desire for their own future through what we call identity-based motivation2. In other work, my colleagues and I aimed to have a positive effect on the experience of college students by setting the standard that it is a strength to come from a background that might be seen as different from the norm, rather than something to overcome. When first-year students received these messages about difference as a strength through a panel of their peers, it had a particularly strong positive effect on the academic outcomes of students who were the first in their family to attend college3,4. It was especially important, though, that the message came from their peers and that it was not presented in a condescending manner that would actually convey low expectations for success.
Although it can be easy to express the values of positive youth development rather than a "deficit-focused" approach, it can be much more difficult to put them into action consistently. Rarely is a program or research study completely focused on student assets or completely oriented around perceived student deficits, but you can more often find some complex blend of the two. Rather than devoting our energy to condemning work that could do better, a more productive practice would be to always exhibit openness to constantly improving our own research, programming, or educational practice toward recognizing our biases and basing our work more squarely in the strengths of those who we aim to serve.
(Mesmin Destin, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Northwestern and a fellow of its Institute for Policy Research. He researches socioeconomic disparities in educational outcomes during adolescence and young adulthood).