Unpacking White Saviorism
How white and western society’s desire to help can do more harm than good
Driving out to the city’s suburbs, I attended a meeting at a wealthy, predominately white church around the concept of “white saviorism.” Walking in I was not expecting these suburbanites to be up to speed on social justice lingo and activism, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find radical feminists in the room nursing their babies at the table while they talked about decolonization and ending the culture of white supremacy in the US.
The term “white savorism,” refers to an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. Throughout the white savior’s journey they themselves are centered: they are often portrayed as messianic and tend to “learn something” about themselves in the process of rescuing others. This trope is commonly seen in movies and literature in Western society, and is reinforced by our own educational system, media, movements, religious and nonprofit sector in America as well as our foreign policy views toward the rest of the world.
Written in 1899, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Kipling urges the U.S. to assume colonial control of the Philippine islands during the war with the U.S. The term “white man’s burden” became a euphemism for imperialism in years to come.
“Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child
Take up the White Man’s burden”
Effectively, a part of “white saviorism” is to save a people from themselves. This is the rationalization we saw in forcing Native American kids into boarding schools where they were coerced into abandoning their beliefs, language and Native American communities. This is the rationalization we see for Western white feminist trying to “free” Muslim women from wearing the hijab. This is white saviorism, or Western saviorism, and it is not pleasant. It is deadly to culture, communities and lives. Because it is framed as benevolent and “coming from a good place,” it is generally not critically challenged, and this must change if we want any kind of systemic change in society.
Colonizing Education, Media and Movements
There is such a thing as sharing ideas with humility, and listening and learning from those different from the dominant narrative that we belong to, but if we grew up in American schools- there is no doubt that our education was centered on white and Western voices.
“U.S. schools often promote a predominately white, eurocentric curriculum, which sends the message that Western civilizations are far more important than others. Our U.S. Advanced Placement program only offers courses in European History and U.S. history, but nothing specifically on Asia, Africa or Latin America,” writer Amanda Machado explains.
The small circle of white men, women and non gender conforming folks around me at the church meeting speak about children’s books- and how their boys don’t want to read books with a female protagonist. Could the same be true, inadvertently, for books featuring children of color? What color were the main characters in the books we read growing up, and what impact did that have on our lives now as adults? Humans internalize subtle messages, and the system of white patriarchal supremacy perpetuates itself with this foundational learning.
We also talk about the recent movie, Hidden Figures, a recent film about three female African-American mathematicians who worked for NASA. Even though this movie is about women of color, a white man is still centered in the ending- and he didn’t even exist in this real life story, he was added in. This is just one example in a whole production line of entertainment trends centering white male characters.
As far as social justice movements, we have began to see a shift toward intersectionality, and stepping back to let communities speak for themselves. This is still relatively new, and definitely not as predominate or widespread as it should be. During the Dakota Access Pipeline water protector protests which the news media did not really cover, the Native Americans spoke for themselves, instead of having someone speak for them. However, different movements have appropriated this media attention for their own movements- i.e. the environmental movement which is predominately white and does not have a good history of opening the floor for people of color to lead- jumped on the DAPL coverage and claimed solidarity when they had not previously been in a relationship with these communities.
Colonizing the nonprofit sector, missionaries and foreign policy
A few white women in the group had adopted children who were not the same race as them. We discussed the adoption system in American in our small group. There is a language of “save the baby” in adoption circles. Another woman talked about how some of her relatives were completely supportive when someone adopted a non-white baby, but were not quite so pleased when someone married a person of color. Another woman works at an adoption agency, and she spoke about how adopting a child of color was less expensive than adopting a white baby. Why is this? She said that the agency had a harder time finding adoptive parents for children of color, so the expenses were lowered to help with that process. Is the adoption agency racist? The woman said its not her adoption agency that’s racist, they are merely a part of a racist system- a racist world.
“Helping” other groups and “empowering them” takes away a sense of a people’s own ability to help themselves. Additionally, it seems that white and Western people want to “help” communities that have problems caused by white and Western society. When does it ever make sense to trust the people who made the problem fix it?
We see this also on the larger scale outside of America- as America funnels money and food to poorer countries without necessarily asking the people in these countries what they need. This is an oversight by religious groups, government, nonprofits, and Western culture as a whole to critically look at the situation, and the people that are living the experience we’re trying to “help”.
“We don’t need one more celebrity doing one more campaign [in Africa], what we need is to not be excluded,” a woman states in the documentary Poverty Inc. which details how humanitarian aid is big business for wealthy corporations in the West.
White saviorism doesn’t just reach into one facet of our lives, but into all aspects of our American and Western lives as white people.
“But I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them,” American-Nigerian writer Teju Cole explains in his article The White Savior Industrial Complex.
“So what do we do?” one of the women in the circle ask as the hour and a half group conversation nears its end.
“Well… I think basically we need to stop being colonizers,” the group facilitator concluded, pulling her nursing baby off her breast and looking around the room for other thoughts.
White people need to stop centering themselves, and listen to other people. White people need to support other groups’ ideas, even if they think that they have a better idea. They need to let other people take the stage, and support new leadership. Also, white people need to educate themselves.
“When we ask women of color to take the time to sit down and educate us on the specific issues that they face and how we can be better allies, rather than doing the research ourselves by reading blogs and articles and books by women of color, we are making it about us. When we ask why women of color need to be so divisive and whine that we’re all in this together, we are making it about us. When we decide to swoop in and play the hero without asking what type of help is, in fact, needed, we are still making it about us,” Annie Theriault writes in her article, The White Feminist Savior Complex.
I think that meetings for people to talk about these issues really help flesh out the problems, and make them real and in need of fixing. Speaking face to face is so scary, but so important if real change is going to take place. Similar to consciousness raising groups for women in the 70s to recognize their shared sisterhood, I think white people need to meet more often to discuss their shared “oppressorhood,” and discuss and learn we can do about it.
As white people and as Western people, we need to practice learning how to listen. And then we need to begin building authentic and accountable relationships with people of color, and people of the world. We need to avoid tokenism, and concepts of heroism. We need to be mindful- listen and learn and not come in with any other goal than this when reaching out to other communities. And we need to center the voices we’re trying to learn about, not our own.
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