‘Benevolent’ Racism?

Where do I assume that my actions are good for others without those people having a chance to give input, share leadership and correct me?

I used to think racism looked like people in white hoods. People who made other people drink at different water fountains. People who enslaved others.

And it does look like those things. But I’ve learned now that those are extreme and conveniently bygone examples of a disease that is much more pervasive, even today, than my education led me to believe.

When I look back at the language used by people who were enacting policies that are now widely recognized to be deeply racist, I notice something else at work besides explicit hate. I see a “Father knows best” attitude – we need to rule over you; we need to make decisions for you because you are not as “developed” as us. You don’t know what is best for you, and we (white Europeans) do.

Misguided convictions
Consider this quote from Nicholas Flood Davin, a politician and journalist who was sent to the U.S. by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald to learn how to set up residential schools: “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions” (Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds).

Or this quote from an 1876 Department of Indian Affairs report: “Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State.” It’s obvious now that residential schools and other policies that aimed to force Indigenous people to abandon their cultures and communities to become like white Europeans were unspeakably harmful.

Or consider this quote from Abraham Kuyper when writing about the people of Java (now called Indonesia), who had been colonized by the Netherlands: “We do not have in mind to keep these peoples under tutelage forever, but rather to take them for what they are, minors” (“Oversees Possessions”). Thinking like this was quite convenient for Europeans – it meant that we got to rule over people of colour and extract resources from their lands, all while believing that we were being good and helpful. Prime Minister Kuyper was expressing a conviction that was common at the time.

Recently I heard a young missionary say that, although she is not a mother herself, she teaches parents in the East African community where she serves how to parent well. Think about that for a moment. How could she possibly know more about parenting than they do? What gives her that kind of confidence, especially in a culture that’s not her own? What assumptions around the superiority of her culture allow her to feel comfortable doing this, despite her own obvious lack of experience in parenting?

To be honest, paternalism is a trap that I’ve fallen into in the past and will certainly fall into again. There are so many examples, all embarrassing in retrospect. This attitude can easily show up in refugee ministry too, when volunteers assume they know what’s best for the refugees they’re welcoming and make decisions for them, instead of helping them to understand their options and empowering them to make their own decisions. In my own work, I’d like to create more ways of being accountable to people of colour.

In order to avoid paternalism, I think each of us can ask ourselves the following questions: Where do I assume that my actions are good for others, especially people of colour, without those people having a chance to give input, share leadership and correct me?  And how can I change that?

Further resources

  • Contact anti-racism facilitator Bernadette Arthur for a workshop or consultation.
  • Read The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri.
  • Listen to the Truth’s Table podcast.
  • Check out the Witness blog and their Pass the Mic podcast.


  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

    Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is a Host Connector with Open Homes Hamilton, a Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality in Hamilton, Ontario.

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