Helping people is a good thing, right?
White savior complex is a term that’s used to describe white people who consider themselves wonderful helpers to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) — but they “help” for the wrong reasons (and sometimes end up doing more to hurt than help).
Keep in mind that this doesn’t refer to all white people. White savior complex, sometimes called white savior syndrome or white saviorism, refers to those who work from the assumption that they know best what BIPOC folks need.
They believe it’s their responsibility to support and uplift communities of color — in their own country or somewhere else — because people of color lack the resources, willpower, and intelligence to do it themselves.
In short, white saviors consider themselves superior, whether they realize it or not. They swoop in to “make a difference” without stopping to consider whether that difference might not, in fact, have more negative effects than positive ones.
White saviors often speak passionately about their desire to “do the right thing.” Yet their actions usually involve very little input from the people they’re attempting to help.
Their intentions may be noble — many white saviors believe their actions challenge the white supremacy and racism so deeply threaded into American society.
In reality, though, white saviorism tends to emphasize inequality, because it continues to center the actions of white people while ignoring (or even invalidating) the experiences of those they’re claiming to help.
Here are a few examples.
Missions regularly send young people to provide short-term support to developing countries, especially after disasters. These missionaries bring with them plenty of enthusiasm and love, but they generally have little to offer by way of actual work qualifications.
missionaries set up clinics and provide healthcare services without any medical training or experience. Others work together to build schools or homes in the community, completely discounting the skilled but unemployed workers in the community who actually have construction training and experience.
Consequently, the help they provide often creates more problems than solutions for the people they intend to help. It’s a quick, temporary bandage for concerns that extend well below the surface.
Mission work can be beneficial, when it:
- asks communities what they need and offers only that support
- centers local, community-led organizations and takes a supportive, background role
- stems from a perspective of equality, not superiority
Like mission work, ‘voluntouring’ — a short trip that combines volunteer work with tourism — often focuses more on what the volunteer gains from the experience than any lasting benefit to the communities they aim to help.
Volunteers often attempt to support communities without any real knowledge or consideration of what those communities need. Often, they also lack specialized experience or skills. Contrary to what some might believe, not just anyone can build a house.
What’s more, spending just a few short weeks volunteering in an orphanage or children’s home often has negative side effects for children who’ve already experienced plenty of grief and loss.
Children who become attached to volunteers might experience further trauma and separation anxiety when those volunteers return home.
Before taking a voluntour trip, ask yourself:
- Do I have the skills and experience needed for the job?
- Could I use the money I’m spending more efficiently by directly donating to the organization I want to support?
- Am I taking paid work opportunities from people in the community?
White teachers looking to ‘save’ students
A young, idealistic white teacher choosing to work at a school mostly populated by students of color makes a popular narrative, both in the media and in reality.
Many of these teachers step into the classroom with little understanding of who their students are and what they need.
They might recognize the diverse and unique backgrounds of their students but still fall short when it comes to meaningful discussions about culture, race, or white supremacy.
In an effort to treat all students equally, they might cling to colorblindness, emphasizing their fair treatment of all students.
On the surface, coming from a place of colorblindness might seem like a good way to avoid discrimination or bias. In reality, though, this perspective ignores the very real effects of systemic racism and allows white people to avoid examining their own biases.
Again, that’s not to say that white teachers can’t make a meaningful difference in their students’ lives. But doing so generally means:
- acknowledging their whiteness and the privilege it conveys
- recognizing their biases and actively work to address them
- learning about and acknowledging the cultures, experiences, and histories of all students
- addressing racism, white supremacy, and oppression in the classroom
Wanting to give a child a loving home is an undoubtedly good thing. Still, white savior syndrome does drive many adoptions, both internationally and locally.
Some people choose international adoption in order to “save” children from a life of poverty and crime or even their culture.
Even parents who simply want a child can perpetuate white saviorism without realizing it. Some children put up for adoption are stolen or purchased from living, loving families to fuel the ongoing adoption trade. There have been reports of this happening in many countries, including China, Chile, and Kenya.
Concerns have also been raised about white families choosing to adopt Black children from American foster homes in an attempt to “rescue” them from Black culture.
That’s not to say that white people can’t be loving parents to a child of another race. But doing so means:
- actively addressing their own racism and biases
- talking with their children about race and racism
- supporting and encouraging a connection with the child’s birth culture
The white savior trope runs rampant in the media. You can often recognize it when a white character acts as the agent of change for characters of color. The white character might not be all that important in the grand scheme of things, but their role is still highlighted.
Viewers are told that, without this character, change wouldn’t happen.
This trope implies that people of color need white assistance to get anywhere. It also subtly suggests that they’re second-class citizens who belong only in supporting roles.
White saviors in movies also serve another purpose. They offer characters white viewers can relate to — compassionate heroes who absolutely can’t be racist, since they’re working against racism.
In short, these white characters may protect those who don’t want to contemplate their own biases.
Here are a few examples from popular movies:
|“The Help”||This movie, set during the Civil Rights Movement, focuses on a white journalist who speaks out about the injustices faced by Black maids. Critics point out that the film overemphasizes the impact of the journalist’s work while almost completely ignoring the work of Black activists, among other issues.|
|“Freedom Writers”||This movie is based on the true story of a white teacher who takes a job at an underperforming school and helps her BIPOC students succeed by encouraging them to journal the hardships holding them back. It focuses almost entirely on the work of the teacher, largely ignoring the challenges faced (and overcome) by the students. The result is a message that a single white woman is responsible for “saving” an entire classroom of students.|
|“Mississippi Burning”||This movie, which takes place during the Civil Rights Movement, focuses on two white FBI agents searching for three missing civil rights activists. Though based on a true story, the film garnered criticism for its one-dimensional portrayal of Black culture and lack of fully-developed Black characters.|
|“The Blind Side”||This movie recounts the true story of a white family who supported and eventually adopted a Black football player. In the film, the family teaches him key football moves. But Michael Oher, the real-life player, was already a skilled player before he met the family.|
|“Avatar”||Maybe the white main character in this movie helps a fictional race of people, but the end message doesn’t change: The Na’vi, like so many other non-white movie characters, couldn’t save themselves without white support.|
That’s not to say that these movies are inherently bad, but they’re part of a larger pattern of storytelling that overlooks the experiences of marginalized groups.
The idea of the white savior echoes imperialist and colonialist beliefs by putting white people in the role of guiding responsibility figures. White colonialists mostly considered people of color “primitive,” ignorant, or childlike.
White savior syndrome continues to reinforce these false beliefs, implying that people of color need strong, capable white leaders and educators to create change — guides who light the way and rescue them from their own helplessness.
This is, of course, false and racist: It’s oppression and continued injustice that prevent change.
Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole expanded on the idea of white savior syndrome in 2012 in a series of tweets made after watching the Kony 2012 video.
He described what he termed the white savior industrial complex, or token, surface-level activism undertaken by white people to satisfy their sentimentality and emotional needs
“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” he wrote. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
White people who perpetuate white saviorism tend to outwardly show support for marginalized groups, but there’s little substance or action behind these displays.
You can hear notes of this when companies proclaim support for the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, but do nothing to address the racist policies still creating countless barriers.
These outward displays offer an easy out for white people who don’t want to confront their own biases: “See, I’m not racist. I care about people of color. I help them.”
That’s not to say white people can’t publicly show support for BIPOC communities, but it can be harmful when it provides a false sense of self-satisfaction that prevents more meaningful forms of support, like:
- unpacking bias
- learning to become anti-racist
- working to permanently dismantle systems of oppression
If you recognize your own actions in some examples discussed above, there are a few key steps you can take to turn your good intentions into meaningful acts of allyship.
Ask and listen
If you want to support a community or person in need, ask yourself:
- Have they openly expressed their need?
- What kind of support have they asked for?
- Am I providing the help they want or operating from my own assumptions about what they need?
Then, ask them how you can be most helpful. Listen to their answer and respect it, even if they say they don’t want your help.
Examine your qualifications and motivations
When it comes to volunteer work, aim to limit the support you provide to things you’re actually trained to do. If your qualifications and experience wouldn’t get you a job working in a similar field, it’s probably worth exploring other ways to help, like through fundraising.
Before traveling to offer support, it’s always best to spend some time learning more about a particular country, including their culture, customs, politics, and current events.
Keep in mind
Real, compassionate support stems from nothing more than a desire to help a fellow human, not any anticipation of praise or recognition of your kind and selfless nature. Sure, recognition might feel good, but it shouldn’t be an expectation or motivation.
Call it out
It may feel incredibly difficult hold yourself, or anyone else, accountable. But this work is crucial for those who want to become anti-racist allies.
While it’s important to recognize white saviorism in your own actions, it also helps to gently draw others’ attention to out problematic actions or speech.
Tip: Try offering links to useful resources in a private chat or conversation.
Let people tell their own stories
Working to become an anti-racist ally to people of color means centering their voices and experiences.
- not talking over them to describe their hardships or share your efforts on their behalf
- creating opportunities for them to speak
So, whether you belong to a volunteer organization abroad or you’re simply trying to be more supportive in your own community, encourage other white people to take a backseat and amplify people in danger of being drowned out.
This article is just a general overview of white saviorism, and there’s much more to the story than what’s included here.
You can further your understanding of the white savior complex — and how to avoid it — by seeking out other resources, including:
Before stepping in to “save” someone you consider disadvantaged, ask yourself if your actions truly serve a need — or if they just make you feel better.
It isn’t bad or wrong to want to support others and help make the world a better place, but tokens of support won’t promote equity and justice. Listening to marginalized groups and amplifying their voices, on the other hand, can go a long way.