White Saviorism refers to the belief that White people have a responsibility to save and protect Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) because of their superiority, even though they often end up causing more harm than good.
What is White Saviorism?
White Saviorism describes certain individuals who believe it is their responsibility to support and aid people of color (BIPOC) based on the assumption that they know best what these communities need.
This applies first and foremost to White people driven by the idea that BIPOC groups lack the intelligence, skills, resources and ingenuity to help themselves.
The concept of White Saviorism is strongly linked to a feeling of racial superiority that may be conscious or implicit. White saviors will work towards making a difference, even if that difference ends up causing more harm than good.
White Savior Complex
The term White Savior Complex, sometimes “White Savior Syndrome,” is used as an alternative term to White Saviorism. The definition is essentially the same, referring to a White person who is depicted as a rescuer or liberator of people of color.
The White Savior phenomenon is common in economically sub-developed countries with a majority of non-white citizens that suffer systemic discrimination by a powerful White minority. In this context, the White Savior narrative portrays a White individual, often from a Western country, stepping into a situation to “save” or “liberate” marginalized communities from their struggles.
The origin of White Saviorism
The concept of White Saviorism has its roots in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” from 1899. The poem is about the Philippine–American War that ended with the United States taking colonial control of The Philippines. However, nowadays the term is more strongly associated with Africa.
Long before Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden”, the idea of White Saviorism had existed for centuries and can be traced back to Western imperialism.
In the modern day era, its focus is mainly to provide immediate aid during wartime and humanitarian crises.
White Savior Industrial Complex
In the aftermath of the much criticized Kony 2012 political campaign, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole combined the term White Savior with the words “industrial complex” and coined the derivative term “White Savior Industrial Complex” (WSIC). The Kony 2012 campaign was centered around raising awareness about Ugandan militia leader and war criminal Joseph Kony.
Approximately 5 million dollars were raised in support of the campaign by the non-profit Invisible Children. The organization was later criticized after it became public that the majority of donations never went to those in need.
In response to the criticism, Cole published a tweet that read “the fastest growth industry in the U.S. is the White Savior Industrial Complex.” Cole then tweeted “the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, funds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”
His tweets became viral, questioning the motivations and consequences of the White savior narrative. It also sparked a broader conversation about the complexities of charity, aid, and representation in marginalized communities.
How White Saviorism manifests
‘White saviors’ tend to speak fervently about their motivations to “do the right thing” and challenge white supremacy and racism. The problem is that their actions typically don’t include the ideas, beliefs, experiences or feedback from the people they wish to help. By focusing on the support of White people, while undervaluing or ignoring the viewpoints of the communities it intends to aid, White Saviorism has the opposite effect – deepening inequality and racism.
Here are a few examples:
- Missionary work: Often in the context of White Saviorism, the concept is examined through the lens of missionary work. Throughout history, there have been many accounts of White missionaries settling in underdeveloped regions as peacekeepers and religious uplifters, only to end up exploiting, manipulating and abusing the communities they aim to protect. Some missionary organizations will send humanitarian aid or set up healthcare clinics without having any medical training. Others will build schools and houses without employing community workers who actually have the proper skills and local experience.
- Adoption: Westerners who seek to adopt a child may choose international adoption instead of local alternatives based on the idea that they want to save an orphaned child from a life of poverty in an underdeveloped country. The reality is that White Saviorism is a vital driving force of the global adoption trade. There have been many reports of children being put up for adoption after having been stolen or purchased from their parents in countries such as India, China, Cambodia and Kenya.
- Pop Culture: White Saviorism is a common trope in pop culture and mass media. In movies, the White hero who comes to save or liberate a BIPOC community from peril is still a popular storyline. Some examples are Dangerous Minds (1996), The Last Samurai (2003), Freedom Writers (2007), The Blind Side (2009) and The Help (2011).
- Volunteer tourism (or voluntouring): Volunteer tourism refers to a type of travel that combines tourism with volunteering or community service. It typically consists of individuals or entire groups of tourists participating in volunteer work in underdeveloped regions. Critics argue that voluntourism actively contributes to a White savior narrative. Those who participate often lack the knowledge, skills and consideration to know what the communities actually need to achieve lasting growth and development.
Why White Saviorism is harmful
The concept of the White Savior continues to echo the colonialist idea that people of color are ignorant, unskilled or uneducated, and that they need strong White leaders to light the way towards freedom and prosperity. Even though it is not displayed as overtly as during the imperialistic era, it is still prevalent in most Western societies.
People who perpetuate White Saviorism tend to show outward support for BIPOC communities and their causes, but there’s often little substance or concrete action behind it.
One example is the Black Lives Matter movement. At the height of the BLM movement, protests were widespread across the US, demanding justice, equality, and an end to systemic racism and police brutality. Hundreds of companies expressed their verbal support for the movement but did little to address the policies that continue to create barriers for people of color.
How White Saviorism shows up in the workplace
White Savior Complex isn’t just present within the context of aid work. It shows up in everyday life and has its specific variations in the workplace.
Here are some examples:
- In 2013, Dr. Kecia M. Thomas coined the term “Pet to Threat” in reference to how Black women are treated in the workplace when they go from being treated well to being abused by their peers. An alternative concept is the “Glass Cliff,” where women are pushed into leadership positions during challenging times. While initially being welcomed and encouraged, they are later subjected to increased scrutiny, microaggressions and discriminatory treatment once they exhibit strong leadership qualities.
- Racial gaslighting happens when a BIPOC employee shares an experience of racism and is immediately questioned or ignored. It often shows up when employees with White Savior Syndrome are convinced that they know better than their coworkers who have experienced racism.
- Another common form of microaggression is tone policing. This refers to the dismissal of a person’s way of expressing themselves on a problematic issue rather than addressing the issue itself. Because of the idea that White people know best, companies often tend to seek out the help of White anti-racism “specialists.” Instead of learning from the first-hand experiences of their employees, employers will rely on the expertise of White educators who tend to subject BIPOC workers (primarily female) to tone policing.