Writer: Sarah Kapesa
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta
How can I help these people? is a question we often ask ourselves when we witness someone or something we believe to be less fortunate than ourselves in a troubling situation. However, preparing a “solution” based on personal opinion sends a negative and degrading message to these communities as they feel unheard, infantilized, and ignored in favor of those already benefiting from systems that suppress them.
The white savior complex specifically refers to certain white people who become aware of issues that, typically, non-white people or BIPOC are facing, and insert themselves into the problem to “fix” it for those suffering from it, but can sometimes cause more damage than good.
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be not racist, but we must be anti-racist” - Angela Davis.
It is important to recognize that not every white person is a savior and some may even be allies to BIPOC movements and conversations. However, there is a thin line separating allyship from a savior complex. The main separating feature comes from the fact that white allies are able to de-center themselves and listen to the needs of the community they are impassioned about. White saviors, on the other hand, are oftentimes focused solely on how they look in the eyes of others in the message of nobility and generosity. In situations where BIPOC attempts to voice their opinions on issues pertaining to their communities, it is important for allies of all races to listen, and then ask these groups how they can positively aid or influence their conversations.
The main issue with the white savior complex is that it promotes imperialist ideas that paint the white savior as a noble person, saving the impoverished and suffering as part of some heroic duty. The growing presence of social media has made it even clearer that many of these humanitarian crisis volunteers and advocates are mainly doing it to snap a pic for the gram or for self-satisfaction.
More often than not, the white savior ignores core issues and provides superficial and arguably useless aid that promotes dependency rather than self-sustainability. Believing your actions could solve systematic and deep-rooted issues that the targeted communities are facing is simply problematic and degrading, as it paints these people as reliant and voiceless.
Mission trips to the Global South have been facing bouts of criticism and public disdain for a while now. Due to that often one-dimensional view presented through these mission trips, many claim that they feed into colonial and stereotyped narratives. Most common is poverty porn, media exploiting the poor’s conditions to garner recognition or profit, which characterizes Africa as the sole continent suffering from poverty, while in actuality, many other nations are in similar situations.
Some analyze the impacts and necessity of such mission trips, and find that they do more harm than good. For example, from the promotion of harmful and degrading stereotypes, the complaints from communities who experienced these mission trips, and the temporary relief brought from these trips that many say promotes dependency and ignorance.
The White Savior Complex is also evident in the entertainment industry and is known as the White-Savior Industrial complex. Movies categorized under this heading often center around uplifting white people, exploring the idea of White Guilt, and overall centering on the white person instead of the victims of oppression. Moreover, the focus of racism and other issues at an individual level ignores the role of society in upholding these ideas.
Freedom Writers and The Help, for instance, rarely spend time analyzing the systematic structures causing the oppression of the students of House Helps, and instead create idealized and oversimplified storylines that ignore the causes of issues they are trying to solve. Moreover, these movies are often set in the past to allow white people to look back and see “how far they’ve come” and ignore the ongoing racial injustices.
To remain aware of your own privilege, it is important to understand that even with your continued support and hyperfocus on these issues, you, as a white person, will never truly know what racial discrimination feels like. Secondly, as allies, it is important to not speak over BIPOC voices nor expect their respect or any form of recognition from your interactions–you are there to listen and to help. Finally, continue to make conscious efforts to combat personal prejudices and biases.