The White Savior Complex

The White Savior Complex is something that has been around for decades, and although the intent might seem pure, it is actually much more sinister than it appears. Seen in the real-world and portrayed in movies, I’ve seen this topic being discussed more since the Black Lives Matter movement where people are starting to critically analyze society. So what is The White Savior Complex and why is it harmful? Well, it is a white person’s desire to help a Black person in a self-serving way. Now, when you hear this, the first thing that might come to mind is mission trips to countries in Africa, or when White celebrities pose with African children. That is a perfect example of the white-savior complex.

Although, you might think helping people in impoverished countries is a good act and well-intentioned, it actually is much more harmful. The white-savior complex exists for many reasons: to somehow prove that the White person isn’t racist, to boost their own ego, and most alarming, to attempt to “save” people of color and get them out of unfortunate circumstances. This leads me to the discussion of the White-savior trope in film. This is a narrative seen in film where the White character helps the Black characters get out of difficult situations. A prominent example is the movie The Blind Side, which is about a wealthy White family who helps a homeless Black teen named Michael, give him shelter, school, and get him involved in football. However, in the film, Michael is not the person in charge of his fate. It is the White family who takes him in, that “fixes” him. Michael could have very well gotten his life back on track without the White family’s “charity”. It seems as though films that are supposed to be about Black people and their experiences, are often centered around White people. Black voices should be the ones telling their own stories, without the need for White people trying to take the limelight. This leads me to an important question: Where do we draw the line between White people genuinely wanting to help others and White saviorism where it is done in a self-serving manner?

5 thoughts on “The White Savior Complex”

  1. What should white people do if they’re afraid to help African Americans because they’ll be labeled as Racist? Even if a White person wanted to do it right and help support someone in their local community and uplift them and what they do. I feel as if these days White People really can’t do anything in relation with African Americans without it somehow ending with the White person being Racist. Not to say that these pandering movies aren’t Racist, or that White savior complex isn’t real, its obviously very present in society, but this is a genuine concern of mine. As a white person I feel as if I don’t have the ability to not be labeled as racist because of all the bad that White people have done and how many are openly racist bigots these days. I’ve never been called racist, and I don’t believe I’m racist, but the simple act of me not believing I’m racist could make me a racist in someone else’s eyes. Do you have any suggestions for what White people can do to help, or is our best option just to hide away?

  2. Emily this is so interesting, so many times in film it is projected that Black people must be saved by White people as if there is always something wrong. This media portrayal only promotes stereotypes and biases without truly acknowledging the issues of racism within society. Like ok, yes, a white person is helping a black person but that does not completely disassociate the relevancy of racism. Good job, you helped someone that is not white, let’s make a movie about it! White centerness is still so prevalent in this. The White Savior Complex is very interesting, I have not heard of it prior to this post, so thank you for this!

  3. This is somewhat similar to what Danielle commented, but I do really think that we should lift up people already in communities that are doing the work. So often white people enter these spaces with problematic motives and get praised when there are actively people living in these communities who are doing the work and don’t have the resources to continue. I think the white savior complex has been able to exist for so long is because white people tend to center themselves in most situations. And because of this, they can’t comprehend a problem being fixed without their intervention.

  4. Emily, I really like the topic you chose to write about. I feel like this is something that should be spoken about more because it has been going on since times of conquest and colonization. I don’t understand why whites have this complex that they need to be the hero. On one hand in certain situations could use people stepping in and giving of their time, resources, and advocacy. Yet on the other hand if it is for selfish motive like the examples you list here it is not for genuine purposes. Maybe if this complex is spoken about more often the accepted norm can be diminished leaving whites who genuinely want to help people of color.


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