Background Knowledge

Online seminar for volunteering at Europe's (external) borders


2. Racism, Eurocentrism, White-Saviourism, Voluntourism

As volunteers working with and supporting people on the move, we think it is very important to critically engage with structural racism, the concepts of Eurocentrism, White Saviourism and Voluntourism. Don't be put off by the complicated terms if you don't know them. Click on each of the four concepts for a short definition and an explanation why they play an important role in this context.. Some parts of this unit especially chapters like “What does this mean for you and your work with people on the move?” are designed especially for privileged people from the Global North without any own experience in Racism and for people not negatively effected by border politics.


[this chapter is about to explain Racism especially for those people not being negatively effected by Racism]

In short: What does racism mean?

  • Racism is a global social phenomenon that cannot be viewed isolated from its historical connection with colonialism, enslavement, economic exploitation and the emergence of capitalism, which impacts today’s society in large.
  • It is not that easy to recognize racism in all facets and manifestations, especially not for those people who are not negatively affected by racism:
    • Racism can be expressed in a very clear and obvious manner, for example by people who declare their racist and xenophobic attitude openly. In this, humans are explicitly seen and treated as less-human and less-worth merely because of their birth place, their outward appearance, their religion or language. This also includes denying other people safety.
    • Racism also manifests itself in other forms of subconscious individual behaviour, thought and language, but also in our institutions and law. It is much more difficult to point out these subliminal and complex forms of racism. Our society and therefore all of us carry many of those unconscious forms of racism with us. Because of those different forms of racism, the term racism is also used in plural. Therefore, it is always important and necessary to deal with racism and racisms responsibly, even if you already understand yourself as anti-racist.
Consequences of racism

  • This is racism: If white people divide groups of human into “we/us“ and „the others“ based on place of birth, nationality, religion or just their looks, and determine “we/us as positive and “the others” as negative.
    Have a look at this short Video.
  • This is racism: Some people get visa easily or even do not need one to travel around the globe while others have to risk a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea or other routes to try and find safety.
    Please have a look at the Henley-Passport-Index, which shows how many countries you can travel to without a visa with which passport and demonstrates how nationality influences (un)freedom to travel.
  • This is racism: If people are given a certain value depending on how productive they seem to be for the economy and all asylum and migration law is basically based on this. This means that people are denied freedom of movement if they are not considered economically productive.
    Our book tip: Achille Mbembe - Critique of Black Reason
  • This profounder form of racism is also called structural racism.

This means:
  • We all have racist patterns of behavior and thought inside of us because we grew up and were socialised in a racist world.
  • We all live in structures that privilege certain people and discriminate against others.
  • These structures have developed historically in the course of colonisation and the systematic oppression and exploitation of large groups of people and continue to do so today.
  • Precisely because it is a structural phenomenon, racism is less bound to single individuals, but rather is implemented in ideas, in world views, in media representations, in the work of institutions, in international law. Small, perhaps even seemingly harmless questions or comments about the appearance or origin of people can therefore be racist due to their structural roots.

You don't have to be a racist to think racist, to reproduce racism or to profit from racism. White people of the Global North benefit from these privileges whether they actively want to or not. If you belong to this privileged group, there is little you can do about it at first. However, you should always be aware of your position and deal with it critically and reflectively. The following topics and explanations will help you to critically examine your own position and its significance in relation to support work with refugees.
What does this mean for you and your work with people on the move?

  • Do not try to deny your own racism: Because the traces of racism in our society are structural and profound, no one can exclude themselves from them just by not acknowledging them. They shape and influence our socialisation, our thoughts and our actions. It is therefore all the more important to recognise one's own ways of thinking, ideas and images shaped by racism, to become aware of them and then to actively counteract them.
  • Get to know the perspective of those affected: White people (often) cannot see discrimination of People of Colour because they themselves are not negatively affected by it. This does not mean, however, that you should or have the right to interrogate affected people about their experiences of discrimination. They are not responsible for your internalised racism and should therefore not be used as your personal educators. There are many articles, videos, podcasts and books in which people affected by racism share their experiences for others to get an understanding and learn. We have provided a small selection for you below.
  • Become aware of your responsibility: White people have the privilege of not having to deal with racism because they are not negatively affected by it, but this means that white people have a (historically grown) responsibility to actively and self-critically deal with their own racisms and to fight against them. This also means questioning and fighting racist institutions and laws.
  • Deal with your own stereotypes, prejudices, and your own Eurocentric perspective: Try to rethink your own ideas about people and groups of people and to expose and discard prejudices. Critically question your own idea of how people and societies ‘have to develop’ and to what extent this idea is shaped by your own origins.

More tips on literature or videos on this topic:
  • Video explaining day-to-day RacismHow micro aggressions are like mosquito bites
  • Ted Talk by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie The danger of a single story
  • Book by Alice Hasters (2019): “Was weiße Menschen nicht über Rassismus hören wollen aber wissen sollten” (DE)
  • Book by Tupoka Ogette (2018): “Exit Racism” (DE)
  • Book by Mohamed Amjahid (2021): “Der weiße Fleck - Eine Anleitung zum antirassistischen Denken” (DE)
[Alle drei All books available as audio books on Spotify . .]


[this chapter explains Eurocentrism for people grown up in a eurocentric environment]

What does Eurocentrism mean?

  • Eurocentrism refers to an attitude that places European ways of living, thinking and acting, norms and values, or those understood as ‘Western’, unquestioningly at the centre and as the standard.
  • This does not refer only to the phenomenon that a person’s experience and belief system is always grounded on cultural and social specifics, on what people are used to and know from their upbringing - as this counts for everyone. Rather, Eurocentrism is about an active and globally reproduced dissociation from ‘the others’. It is a devaluation of the latter and a subsequent self-exaltation of ‘one's own’. Eurocentrism (which is considered part of ethnocentrism) is therefore not about trying to understand other cultures or ways of life better but keeping up and legitimising certain hierarchies.
  • The fact that these European or ‘Western’ norms, values and ways of life claim worldwide validity originates to a large extent from colonial history and its consequences, which are still manifested today.
Consequences of Eurocentrism

  • Colonial history brought about a strong imbalance in the global distribution of wealth and therefore power in favour of the Global North. This imbalance still exists today and is reproduced and even reinforced in global capitalism and exploitation of labour.
  • One consequence of this unequal global distribution of power is that the position to define what is the standard, the norm and what desirable is taken by the Global North.
  • Based on the assumption that the cultural and political systems of Europe (liberal democracies based on Christian values) represent the ideal model of universal reason and human development, Europe or ‘the West’ is seen as the benchmark of social analysis and political practice.
  • This presumption of superiority is often accompanied by the assumption that ‘the others’ are in a backward stage of their political, social or cultural development.
  • The mindset that non-European or non-Western societies remain at a stage which ‘the West’ has already overcome also leads to the arrogant attitude that ‘the West’ must ‘help’ them in some kind of progressive development.

This means:
  • These classifications into ‘progressive’ and ‘backward’ are not objective truths, but European constructions and fantasies designed to keep the Global North and Europeans or white People in a position of supremacy.
  • For example, by explaining the unequal economic and political relations between the Global North and the Global South from a Eurocentric perspective by saying that ‘the others’ are not yet as modern, progressive, developed as ‘one selves’, it is made easy for oneself: People from the Global North hold the people of the Global South responsible for the situation and deny their own responsibility.
  • Such narratives ensure that the violent colonial past and the current political and economic conditions that have arisen from it are ignored and concealed.
  • At the same time, people from the Global North can perceive the benefits they derive from it daily as their own achievement and pretend that they are entitled to them almost as a matter of course - even though it is not their personal merit. In this way, inequality is constructed as a natural fact that does not call into question its continued existence. It follows, that not addressing such complex history and one's own advantage in society is an active, interest-driven action and not simply innocent ignorance or forgetting.

You can read more about eurocentrism here:

What does this mean for you and your work with people on the move?

  • Reflect on your perspective and your evaluation of other people's actions: During your work with people from other countries of origin and cultural backgrounds, you will probably find yourself in situations where people make decisions, act or react differently than you would have done. You may find this difficult to understand based on your upbringing and experiences. The important thing in these moments is to respect other approaches, decisions or actions, and don't automatically put your own opinion and perspective above others.
  • Reflect your own eurocentric attitude: Try to recognise where and in what form you follow eurocentric thinking. The following questions may help you:
    • How could the people I work with, my team members, but also the local population, perceive and judge certain situations considering their socialisation and cultural background?
    • What do I assume about people and their behaviour? What norms and standards do I need to question?
    • Are there ethical principles in your own world view that set limits to accepting the values and practices of other cultures?
  • Do not communicate in instructive manner: The people you are or will be working with have different ways of life, experiences and often have had a traumatic flight. You may not be able to understand some of their choices or thoughts, because you may not understand their experiences, habits or preferences. Be careful not to put your opinions and decisions above theirs and never try to teach them.


White Saviourism

What does White Saviourism mean?

  • White Saviourism describes the wrongful idea or belief that it takes the intervention of white people of the Global North to ‘save’ other (non-white) people from oppression or from their living situation that is perceived as insufficient.
  • White Saviourism thus describes the phenomenon that people believe (consciously or subconsciously) that their origin, upbringing and education in a country of the Global North gives them the right, knowledge and legitimacy to ‘enlighten’ and educate other people. In this, Eurocentrism plays a big role, as such shaping or educating usually goes according to European standards, which are believed to be the achievable norm.
  • Read more about White Saviourism in our Blog entries (DE).
Consequences of White Saviourism

The phenomenon becomes particularly clear when looking at the numerous motivated but untrained high school graduates from Europe who travel into the world or the Global South in their ‘gap year’ in order to ‘do something good’ or to ‘help’ in so-called aid projects without any qualification, but in search of an adventure.

This means:
  • The fact that such young unqualified people are nevertheless deployed in projects of so-called ‘development cooperation’ every year emphasises the arrogance of the Global North associated with this format.
  • This way, not only historically established hierarchies and racist images of the passive and needy ‘others’ are being reproduced, but complex political and social coherences are also presented in a highly condensed form.
  • The phenomenon of White Saviourism is not only to be found in the work of Western organisations working in the Global South, but also in many (day-to-day) practices like the self-portrayal of people in social media or in numerous Hollywood films in which 'white heroes’ are supposedly necessary or central to free other people from their discriminated position.

What does this mean for you and your work with people on the move?

  • Be aware of your position and role: As a volunteer with people on the move, you will probably find yourself in a situation that includes power dynamics and dependencies that are hard to bear. Be aware of your own position, do not take advantage of it and try to create ways of deferential contact and responsible interaction. (Please have a look at our Unit 6 to find out more about this aspect).
  • Try to honestly fathom your own motivation: Try to understand why you want to do this job. What motivates you? Maybe you have a desire to ‘do something good’, maybe even a need for gratitude and recognition. Be aware of these aspects and try to reflect on them critically. Talk about this with your teammates. It is okay to have such thoughts and wishes, but they should not be the main part of your motivation. You should always speak to someone as equals.
  • Pay attention to the external impact of your work: Always be aware of the effect your reports or posts can have on social media. (On this topic, have a look at unit 7)

Further recommendation about this topic:



What does Voluntourism mean?

  • A special phenomenon of international volunteering today is so-called voluntourism, i.e. a combination of 'volunteering' and 'tourism', with the latter being the main focus. Providers are usually agencies that promote volunteering as part of an exciting trip or adventure. The qualification and suitability of volunteers for working in the project is less important than their financial possibilities.
  • Volunteers often pay large sums of money to take part in these programs, but in most cases, this money goes mainly to the agencies rather than into the local projects.
  • Even very short activities of volunteers, embedded in a larger trip, can be understood as voluntourism.
  • In the context of volunteering with people on the move, voluntourism shows itself often in ‘dark tourism’ or ‘disaster tourism’. Numerous people travel to camps and humanitarian projects primarily to get a look at the crisis situation, take pictures and ask people about their flight in order to report about the situation back home. Such volunteering shows touristic and exploitative elements, which should have nothing to do with volunteering and support work.
Consequences of Voluntourism

  • The benefits of such voluntary work are solely for the benefit of the volunteers themselves: They experience an international and intercultural ‘adventure’, make new acquaintances and friends, can usually use the experience in their CVs and conclude their stay with the feeling of having done ‘something good’ - irrespective of the real impact for people they work with.
  • For the people who are to be supported, however, this form of voluntary work is usually more harmful than useful, because the experience and pleasure of the volunteers is prioritized over the actual and sustainable support of the project or the local population.

This means:
  • Through such forms of volunteering, historically anchored hierarchisations and racist-influenced images of the passive and needy "others" (here: people on the move) are once again reproduced, as it is implied that they should / must be happy about any attention from volunteers.
  • At the same time, volunteers often lack expertise and qualifications, which is not necessarily the fault of the volunteers, but which must nevertheless be problematized:
    • Due to the enduring situation at Europe's (external) borders and the lack of political will to change anything about this situation or even to provide professional and trained personnel for this political crisis, the work of many volunteers in this field is still needed.
    • This also means that people who do not actually have the necessary qualifications in this area are working in projects and coordinating them.
    • Despite – or because of – these circumstances, it is all the more important that the projects themselves have a certain stability and are able to function in the long term in the current situation. Projects that fizzle out after a short time create expectations or hopes that are then not being met or even disappointed and thus cause a greater deal of damage than they actually support a positive long-term outcome and solution.

What does this mean for you and your work with people on the move?

  • When choosing your organisation, take a close look: Does the organisation you want to work for fulfill a certain degree of sustainability and critical self-reflection? Projects that are well-intentioned but cannot last long enough or make promises they do not keep can cause a lot of damage. Do no harm!
  • Self-critically question your motivation: Try to listen to yourself: Do you find aspects of voyeurism in your motivation? In other words: Does the attraction that such crises and political catastrophes sometimes have on us play a decisive role in your motivation? Try to question your reasons self-critically on this basis. Support work with people on the move should never be disaster tourism, but an act of solidarity.