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?

10 thoughts on “The White Savior Complex”

  1. I care very deeply about access and equal treatment, whether the barriers are because of language, racism, disability, wealth, or whatever. Once we know about and find exclusionary or inequitable policy/design/procedure we can change it so that everyone has equal opportunity to participate.

    I just came from a racial equity training that I was excited to attend, and was surprised and incredibly upset when one of the Black partipants stood up partway through and accused the white participants of this very thing, or coming because we were “indifferent enjoying the theatre of our Black pain as your sick form of entertainment.” She also accused us of, at best, having a white savior complex. I don’t remember all the specific accusations, but it went on for over ten minutes and most of the white people there were in tears. As a survivor of childhood abuse, I froze and, as usual, only discovered my anger after it was safe for me to leave and I could escape outside. I also endured a much milder version of this the last time I came to participate in a community discussion on race. In both cases, I was automatically assumed to be a fake *because* I am white and was attacked accordingly.

    I don’t think that either of these partipants was speaking for all Black people, and obviously each carries an enormous amount of pain and trauma in their background (racial, familial, or others in combination). I will still go on seeking out the experiences and voices of people of color so I can change the systems I have access to (in who I hire, in my church leadership, the HOA board, the bicycle advocacy community, etc.). I will always listen to help ease pain, but I need not be the object of attack for others’ trauma.

    As far as what I do in the future, I’ve decided that if these two people or anyone else is convinced I am working for change for self serving reasons, I will never convince them otherwise. If the choice is between helping someone and automatically being labeled as having a white savior complex versus not helping them at all, I’d rather help and deal with the flack.

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  2. 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?

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    • Extrapolating from conversations with people in my past, I think many white people reject the term reflexively because they feel like being called a racist is a permanent indictment on their character, rather than a temporary problem that they can fix one thought at a time and one behavior at a time. I certainly started like this, but only realized it as I listened to these behind-the-door conversations. When you believe something is a permanent internal failing, it’s easy to get defensive and just say, “Well, I’m obviously not a racist”, by which you mean, “I can’t possibly be permanently flawed, so this must be name calling. I have flaws, but I am a generally good person!”

      For me, it’s been much more helpful to think of myself (and all people) as having varying levels of internalized racist beliefs. It’s our job to pause, sort back through our recent thoughts, pluck out that one twisted or stained by racist beliefs, and put it up to the sunlight. When we examine it, does it assume something is true simply because of someone’s skin color or race? Then that’s a racist belief. Even something as simple as, “Oh, of course she did well on that test, because she’s Asian.” (Self response: does that mean that all people who are Asian HAVE to do well on tests? Surely they are not perfect all the time). Or “How dare she treat me that way? Do I LOOK like a criminal?” (Self response: Hmm. Wait. What am I saying a criminal DOES look like?). Then once I have gently observed my reactions and dug through the background that may have led to it, I try to replace it with a more balanced thought. (“She tends to work much harder than I do on studying. Maybe I should ask to studying alongside her and see if she has any good tips for focusing. Or she may also be under extra pressure from home that I’m not experiencing.” Or “While that neighbor was being incredibly unreasonable, it is still true that criminals can look like me. It looks liks I’ve internalized a very particular picture of criminality.”). For me this unwinding process can take quite a while, involves quite a bit of journaling, and requires that I observe my thought processes with nonjudgmental curiosity.

      Whether or not someone else thinks I’m racist is mostly irrelevant, especially if they are using it just as an attack. They don’t have access to my thoughts to see which ones might have racist overtones or blatantly racist beliefs, and they have no way of knowing if I’m doing the work to root things out. If I think there’s even the tiniest seed of truth in their accusation, though, I definitely begin the process of combing through my thoughts and words to see if there’s racism hidden in there. Sometimes I conclude that the person was just angry and lashing out at me. Sometimes I realize there was a piece there that was truly problematic and that needs to get processed.

      Beyond that, I think the best thing is to keep learning to see if there are blind spots I’ve missed (there always are) and to keep listening, listening, listening to hopefully understand someone else’s lived experiences and where the system keeps tripping people to eventually deny them opportunities. And then when I realize I’ve caused someone pain, to apologize.

    • “What should white people do if they’re afraid to help African Americans because they’ll be labeled as Racist?”

      Do it anyway to see if it even happens at all. If you are genuinely afraid, perhaps there is like a community coordinator if you’re volunteering who would be willing to discuss things with you. The point however will be to close yer snout and listen.

      NOW there’s a big caveat in that it’s not other races’ job to educate us on how to be anti-racist, and its not other races’ jobs to fix the system that’s been wrought by people who look like us. We have to have conversations like this, which I imagine will be painful (I’ve been there) but absolutely necessary.

      The main thing is to just kinda, sorry but shut up and listen. That goes for me too. It’s really as easy as not talking and listening to what the other person has to say.

      If you bristle when folks suggest that you might have racist thoughts or actions, or are racist I believe it’s (y)our job to ask (y)ourselves why we feel that way. It can go a long way in a short time towards realigning your thought processes towards antiracism.

      Blarg I just whitesplained to whitepeople, I’m sorry not sorry it has to be done.

  3. 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!

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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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    • I recognize white saviors. The problem is that while the stereotype exists, it is not a fundamental characteristic of all white people. Many white people are genuinely trying to help. What we are supposed to do changes every few years. A few years ago, many black people on campus agreed white people should not talk about traumatic things or raise awareness. With Black Lives Matter, it was changed to “Silence is Violence” and they should speak out and raise awareness.
      While these stereotypes are significant, all white people are judged by this a stereotype before they open their mouth. “White supremacy” is a loaded word. I don’t want to be judged by what white people in the KKK did just because of my skin color, any more than someone of color wants to be associated with black people who committed genocide in Rwanda or an Asian person being associated with the Khmer Rouge.
      I notice the “sorry not sorry” approach by people who think the white savior complex is the norm for white people. I also notice the “white-splaining” approach.
      People think Western whites are uniquely racist in the world. They are often unable to see people genuinely trying to help others for the right reasons because they are already expecting them to be white saviors. POC are not removed from racism, even in its most extreme forms. Many white people are trying to help, but get conflicting wisdom from POC (e.g. “Silence is violence” and “Don’t talk about police brutality because it’s traumatizing”).

      White people are often faced with a lose-lose approach. If they help, they’re demonized as a ‘white savior’ or someone fishing for Facebook likes. If they don’t help, they’re demonized “as complicit with white supremacy.”

      White people are not uniquely racist. Many white people are genuinely trying.

      How can anyone engage in meaningful dialogue if they weigh an entire population to a stereotype? ( a white savior).
      How can anyone claim to be anti-racist when they dehumanize an entire demographic based on skin color?

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