Belafonte, the Peace Corps, & ‘White Saviorism’: The great activist and entertainer was ‘Cultural Advisor’ to JFK’s effort to assist and engage the world, a mission that still endures

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Harry Belafonte to serve as a “Cultural Advisor” to a new federal agency: the Peace Corps. A half-century later, an interviewer asked Belafonte why he accepted the role.

“The Peace Corps was a new dimension in foreign policy,” he replied. “We could send weaponry, we could send food, we could send soldiers, we could send spies, but very rarely did we think about sending human beings to work with, and to help fellow human beings.”

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That’s still the spirit of the Peace Corps. But it’s come under assault in our own cynical era, when any form of “help” is often imagined as some kind of racist or imperialist ploy. So we need to recapture the idealism of people like Belafonte, who died Tuesday after a long career in the arts and politics.

A native of Harlem, Belafonte’s remarkable singing voice and stage presence made him the most highly paid Black performer in history by 1959. He used that fame to advocate for African-American civil rights. He was a trusted confidante of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he bailed out of jail; he even paid for King’s life-insurance policy, making sure that King’s family received the proceeds after he was murdered.

To Belafonte, the Peace Corps was a global extension of the domestic civil rights movement. It sought to bring people together, across races and cultures, in the service of a common goal: goodwill and understanding.

That’s what lured my father into the agency, which made him a country director in India in the 1960s. And it’s the reason I joined the Peace Corps in the early 1980s, when I served as a volunteer in Nepal.

But the Peace Corps doesn’t resonate as strongly with today’s college students, who have been taught to value racial identity over everything else. So they often dismiss the Peace Corps as “White Saviorist,” which is pretty much the worst thing you can be.

The term dates to a set of 2012 tweets — later expanded into a magazine article — by Nigerian-American journalist Teju Cole, who indicted American overseas volunteer efforts as fantasies of racial domination and condescension. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole wrote. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

The term went viral after that, generating its own popular Instagram account: No White Saviors. And one of its favorite targets was the Peace Corps. When the coronavirus panic forced the agency to bring all of its volunteers home, in 2020, No White Saviors urged it to close its doors for good.

“No more pretending inexperienced young people are actually useful in countries and cultures they are alien to,” No White Saviors declared. “No more spending money on flights or evacuations, no need to teach language or culture.”

Never mind that the vast majority of Peace Corps countries — across time, and into the present — have requested more volunteers, not fewer. To the anti-saviorist crowd, that simply shows that our non-white hosts have “internalized” white-saviorism themselves.


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That sets up No White Saviors as the judge of what’s really “good” for the natives. What could be more imperialist than that?

It’s also worth noting that the Peace Corps isn’t quite as white as critics imagine. In 1990, four years after I returned from Nepal, just 7% of volunteers were racial minorities; in 2020, 32% were non-white.

I didn’t join the Peace Corps to “save” anyone. I simply wanted to live — and, most of all, learn — in another part of the world. And I wanted to find a way to connect with people who were different from me, but human all the same.

That’s what Belafonte wanted, too, when he agreed to serve as a spokesman for the agency. “It was powerful and important — this idea that we could call up volunteers — the volunteer spirit of American citizens to come with their skills and their best foot forward and go to the most remote parts of our planet,” Belafonte recalled.

In 1965, Belafonte and Dinah Shore performed a televised “musical salute” to the Peace Corps. It included a song that described what volunteers do “to earn their 11 Cents an Hour.”

I didn’t make much more than that. But I gained a world of knowledge and understanding, which I’ve been fortunate enough to share with my own students. Many of them think they are defined simply by their race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. Thanks to Belafonte — and the Peace Corps — for reminding us that we are all much more than that.

Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the Peace Corps in Nepal from 1983 to 1985.


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