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:

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:

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