White-Saviour Complexes in Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This

A vein of utopianism runs through Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This, as Greg Marnier struggles with his own sense of belonging. Greg Marnier, or Marny, a thirty-something college-educated white American male, daunted by the burden of his stagnated life, decides to up-sticks to the “black city” (Markovits 63) of Detroit. While Marny is numb with apathy, traversing life like a “computer game” (24), it is his Yale pal Robert James who fervently speaks of his “Groupon model for gentrification” (17). It is apparent Robert has been reading his Thomas More, as he convinces Marny of the potential in the empty but “beautiful big houses” (17) that stand empty on the streets of Detroit. With sovereign authority, he has already considered how to organise the division of labour, the “plowing [of] land in to farms”, among his “mass of people” (17).

Thomas More’s Utopia Image taken from ctscatholiccompass.org

Robert’s utopian endeavors, however, provide a self-serving colonial undertone to the narrative. He reminds us of the early settlers of the America’s; that they were “shipped over by private companies” in a “business venture”, and that he believes his project in Detroit belongs “to the same tradition” (53). Robert is correct. In 1606, James I of England granted charters to establish two joint-stock companies to pay for the establishment of permanent settlements in North America (Lombard and Middleton 152-53). Early settlers were recruited with the promise of a utopian vision of society where they would be free from religious persecution. It is this colonial tradition that influences Robert’s every action concerning his new settlement. From his early conceptions, to his “big political fund-raiser” (162) in which he plays on the “story of the Pilgrim’s feast” (168) to emulate a sense of fraternity, Robert James is the poster boy for white male entitlement.

Blind to his privilege as a white man, and ignorant of his inherent racism, Marny also suffers from “entitlement disorder” (Hall 577). Entitlement disorder, as Ronald Hall posits, occurs when “perspectives of White male[s] are distorted by power and [a] sense of entitlement”. It is a “need to dominate in whatever venture” (Hall 562). Marny, despite his station, and even after attending the prestigious universities of Yale and Oxford, has not been afforded the luxuries he was promised. He has itchy feet and a desire to find meaning, as he wonders whether there is a “better test” of who he is than “middle-class American life” (Markovits 4). It is not an altruistic personality that brings Marny to the “hip and cheap” (27) Detroit, but rather because he has lost his “momentum” (12).

Teju Cole, contemporary author of Open City (2011), succinctly summarised the definition of ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’ in a seven Tweet Twitter thread in 2012. He states, “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” (@tejucole). These are not new ideas. Cole describes the age-old question of the white man’s place in the world. How does the white man navigate the world in its post-coloniality, while still upholding their dominion? If Markovits’ novel is anything to go by, the answer is to commit further missionary acts. Each year, under the guise of well-meaning intentions, thousands of privileged youths will pay to be involved in volunteering missions to rid the poor of their poverty. These short-lived trips barely scratch the surface of the people’s customs, or their country’s cultures or problems, ultimately serving the volunteer as a CV booster. In few cases, people like Louise Linton will regurgitate Heart of Darkness rhetoric, of Africa as a place of the white person’s ‘living nightmare’ (Linton, 2016) .  Marny, too, was one of these “middle-class teenagers stripping walls” (47). I do believe the intentions of volunteers are almost always honest, but why then do they often leave focused on their improved sense of self? Just as Marny keeps thinking about his summer of volunteering, and “what it meant that fifteen years later [he] was fixing up one of these down-and-out places” (48) for himself, white Westerner’s development can be attributed to the struggles of people of colour.

Selfie-obsessed white saviours in Africa. From Henry Johnson’s ‘The White Savior Mentality’

Cole’s intentions behind his Tweets are to break down the “enforced civility” surrounding marginalised voices; to challenge the “policed language” (Cole, para 6) used when calling out racism. There is a certain amount of “White Fragility” (DiAngelo, 2011) preventing white people from confronting their innate racist tendencies. According to Robin DiAngelo, they live in an “insulated environment of […] racial comfort” in which tension builds so much so that a “minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 54). Marny exhibits these behaviours when antagonised by Beatrice on his generalisations of black Americans. He becomes hot under the collar, raising his voice to Beatrice to say, “Maybe I don’t like being told that I’m a racist” (52). Despite his obvious flaws, there may be hope for Marny yet, as he recognises the shame in the poverty tourism to be found at Robert’s fund-raiser function. He notices “photographs on the walls, a lot of disaster kitsch, Detroit landscapes, burned out houses and teddy bears in the snow”, and feels depressed by the financially advantageous nature of those behind the camera. Marny, by the end of You Don’t Have to Live Like This, appears to have found a place in his new cross-cultural community, but how far has he really been assimilated?

Burned house in Detroit by Steve Neavling


Teju Cole, (21 March, 2012). ‘The White-Savior Industrial Complex’, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/

Robin DiAngelo, (2011). White Fragility, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy Vol 3, pp 54-70

Ronald E. Hall, 2004. Entitlement Disorder: The Colonial Traditions of Power as White Male Resistance to Affirmative Action, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp.562-579

Louise Linton, ‘How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare’, The Telegraph, (1 July, 2016), https://web.archive.org/web/20160701064204/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/how-my-dream-gap-year-in-africa-turned-into-a-nightmare/

Anne Lombard and Richard Middleton, 2011. Colonial America: A History to 1763 (4th ed.)

Benjamin Markovits, 2015. You Don’t Have to Live Like This (London: Faber & Faber)

3 thoughts on “White-Saviour Complexes in Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This

  1. I definitely do agree with your assertion that, in ‘You Don’t Have to Live Like This’, Markovits is implying there is a continuation between America’s colonial past and Detroit’s gentrification present. You have observed that Robert James very unabashedly admits that he partakes in America’s colonial tradition. Alongside this, you have implied that Marny’s actions render him complicit to the same colonial project, in suggesting that his ‘white saviour complex’ and ‘entitlement disorder’ mean that he reinstates the same power dynamics that Robert readily admits to. Marny, of course, is blind to this. We only get a sense of Marny’s racism from the novel’s other characters’ observations, as you have rightfully observed. Marny takes pride in the fact that he being a ‘good American citizen’, for choosing a black partner and living willingly in a derelict Detroit neighbourhood. He thinks he is aiding socio-political advancement, as opposed to hindering it. Considering things in this context, then, my question for you would be this: who is guiltier – Robert or Marny? Is it worse to own up to ideologies that demonstrate parallels to colonialist agendas, and shamelessly pursue them anyway? Or is it worse to genuinely believe you are doing the right thing, but actually be unknowingly guilty of a heinous societal ill?

    1. Hi Amy,
      Thank you for your comment, and for your reflections on my post!

      Great question, but tricky. I’ve been pondering over my reply for a few days now, and this is what I’ve got:

      Upon recognising where your faults are, if there is a willingness to then educate yourself and work on those faults, there would be no need for guilt. I believe, since the internet has made it so easy for us to educate ourselves and learn of other opinions (i.e. a black person’s position on gentrification, in Marny’s instance), there is no such thing as an innocent ignorance. Just speaking generally here, I guess, but you’d think Marny – who is university educated – would know how to access the information he needs to not be so… ignorant? I suppose this is how I came to compare Marny and Robert to voluntourism; seemingly well-to-do people neglecting to go a bit deeper, or turning a blind eye, to the cultures they place themselves in.

      In answer to your question: although both Marny and Robert have something to gain from the colonial endeavours, I would say that Robert is of the guiltier party… To already have the information, and actively choose to work against it, is in my mind worse. But then, Marny had chosen to not even bother knowing… Tricky question. What do you think?

      1. Hi Kayleigh,
        This is a great answer, thanks for taking the time to think it through!
        I definitely agree with what you said about Marny’s ignorance. I think you’ve identified what I perceive to be one of the major flaws of Markovits’ novel – why does Markovits make Marny a prestigious colonial historian (from Yale and Oxford, at that!), if he is one of the only characters in the novel who can’t recognise the colonial undertones of the gentrification project in Detroit? Perhaps Markovits is trying to make some point about history, or the continuity of history into the present, or our blindness to the repetition of history. But, to my mind, it just seems like a glaring irony.
        My major problem with Robert is his capitalist motivation. He openly admits to the fact that the purpose of his gentrification project is profit. Robert claims that “Detroit could be useful as a model for urban regeneration only if it made money”, adding that “the only clear-cut way of judging this kind of scheme was by the profit it made” (48-9). He obviously doesn’t care about urban regeneration or ‘societal good’ – as long as it generates money, he is happy. Considering the extent to which gentrification wrecks havoc on the lives of the native Detroiters, however, I’m not sure money is a good enough reason to justify the project with all of its colonial undertones.
        So I do think I agree with you. Marny is painfully ignorant, which makes absolutely no sense. But if he is not deliberately trying to harm anyone, and his intentions are genuine (which I think they are), I’m not sure we can cast too much blame on his shoulders. Robert is a different story. He is well aware of the harm he is causing, but he follows through with it anyway in the name of money. Not a good guy!

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