Date of Award

May 2019

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Communication and Rhetorical Studies

Advisor(s)

Erin J. Rand

Keywords

humanitarian, Instagram, postcolonial feminism, self-branding, visual culture, white savior

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences

Abstract

Humanitarian aid work, service trips, and missionary volunteer opportunities are ingrained in much of Western society. Situated at the intersection of visual culture and rhetorical studies, this thesis uses a postcolonial feminist lens to explore how the online discourse of white saviorism came to be accepted and valorized while making invisible the imperial undertones of humanitarian work, and what strategies or efforts are being made toward disrupting this trend. I look at images and posts by current Peace Corps volunteers on Instagram to explore the performance and ethical substance of today’s humanitarian. Additionally, I examine ironic representations of this discourse through the Barbie Savior Instagram account and explore how the use of comic framing both critiques and contributes to this discourse. I contextualize current humanitarian trends and incorporate work from critical whiteness theory to develop the concept of white saviorism. Some of the major communicative shifts in how we visually document humanitarian acts and suffering on the body stem from visual culture scholarship to today’s digital media research. Through this foundation, I explore how service for others is increasingly becoming a personal branding technique for individuals online and this branding both a performance to be viewed by others and a process in which one crafts the self into the role of the white savior. Rather than land acquisition, domination over others, or relieving suffering, today’s white savior is aimed at creating their best image and brand. The morality found in service for others is not in the act of service itself, but in the framing, photographing, and publicly posting that act on social media, which drives today’s white savior. I conclude that decolonization and communication can come together through both academic research and social media practices to name white saviorism for what it is, debunk the humanitarian myths that perpetuate the white savior fantasy, and decenter Western logics within the discourse.

Access

Open Access

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