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Monday, August 8, 2011

White Savior Complex

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The 'white savior complex' is a perception that white folk have that they are the benevolent benefactors of helpless 'others.'

Jesus ain't white, and I'm no savior
From Europeans' earliest interactions with any other continent, there was a paternalistic drive to modernize and 'Christianize' the 'savages.' This attitude pervaded imperialism throughout Africa and Asia, and certainly innervated interactions with Native Americans, ushering the perception of the 'noble savages' who is ever grateful for white aid.  So many USA wars have been started through an exaggerated sense of our own importance, and a low estimation of sovereign countries' ability to sort out their governance. 

Today, we continue to bear the consequences of this patronizing legacy. Throughout our popular culture we experience the narrative of a white hero character, breaking from her/his own people to become a 'true friend' of the marginalized. We have an abundant supply of these white-guilt-catharsis movies and books (Check out this montage that drives the point home). Examples include 'The Help' (see my review, here), 'Avatar', 'Dances with Wolves', 'Last Samuri', 'Blood Diamond,' Blind Side. In concept, these movies could have really good messages to them, but if you look closer, they are all telling the same basic white-savior-of-the-savage story: a white male leading character "manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member" (and usually gets some pretty good exoticized sex for his trouble too). 

The 'white savior complex' is particularly strong when it comes to white aid in Africa (see this tongue-in-cheek video on common pitfalls of media portrayal). Often church missions have a concept of the 'poor starving children of Africa' and very little understanding of the self-empowerment and independence that can thrive in our absence. 

Obviously, these awkward interactions often take place within our own country. Church youth groups and mission teams will spend a week of their summer to help communities in need, getting hands-on exposure to 'how the other half lives.' They build the walls of a Habitat house, or serve in a soup kitchen, and walk away having never had a real conversation, yet feeling satisfied that they have fulfilled their quota and that their guilt may be satiated. But it chafes those who feel like their circumstances are being used to gain points in a 'good works' system. 

Unfortunately, the 'white savior complex' also creeps up in the many intentionally multicultural, reconciliation-based churches that have predominantly high SES, white leadership. Often, there are two co-leaders, one white and one black, but then the second tier leaders are still mostly white and middle class, with little other ethnicity representation beyond basic tokenism. Often, we like the idea of leading a multicultural community, but aren't willing to submit ourselves to leaders of color. 

The 'white savior complex' is basically based in pride. It reveals an attitude of superiority and paternalism, when in fact we never have anything to offer but what the Lord gives us first. It also betrays our lack of trust in God, and those around us, to do as good a job as we think we do on our own.

Rather than perpetuate the myth that white folk are somehow the world's saving grace, we need to empower others to take the lead. It takes intentionality and careful attention to provide support while stepping aside in leadership. It can be tempting to get caught up in a sense of urgency than makes it seem like things will fall apart without us, but have faith that God will raise up strong leaders of color that have many powerful gifts for the community. 

I recognize that I am have been critical in this post and I know that people often serve with the best of intentions. It is important to continue to do good work for others, and everyone is called to give of themselves to help those in need. But know there is a difference between acting out of duty, and participating in a fellowship of mutual servitude that benefits everyone in a way that builds respect and understanding. Remember that if you are not willing to be served, you probably have no business serving. 

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  1. I laugh at this loudly having experienced my own White Saviour Syndrome, but why for chrissake do you need to plant religious crud in here, it's just plain condescending white trash egomania. 

  2. A related post from A Peace of Conflict:

  3. Once we identify these issues of power and privilege, it's a matter of building trust so you can start handing over decision making.

  4. Right! Or maybe better, facilitate self-determination and decision making from the beginning...

    You hit the nail on the head with trust. It's a make or break component. 

  5. Chetler wrote..."so you can start handing over decision making."

    I think the idea here is that whites make the decisions. In a large sense, this is true. Whites make decisions that seriously impact most of the (non-white) world. This impact is due to physical power (bombs, national infrastructures, etc...), and also to influence based on the systems of finance which are geared to make everyone who is not ultra rich (whites included) believe the system works to their benefit or has much to do with reality.

    Another way to think of it would be that whites are delusional in thinking they make decisions. There is a self-induced delusion when whites think they don't influence the rest of the world, or do not receive far more than their share, or benefit from a system that is not about fairness. There is also a delusion of power in another sense. This delusion causes one to think that one's actions are more important than they are. It causes one to think that others are waiting for one's permission to live their own lives, as if they were props on the stage of one's life, rather than fellow characters on the great stage of life.

    I suppose this is almost unavoidable to some degree, but it is something that can be very concentrated along lines of unequal wealth/privilege etc...

  6. Sorry, but the CfR, Mosaix, and C4AP are all guilty of this to some extant...

  7. "mental disorders are rare" . If the fuckwit did his research, he'd know that a majority of Filipinos with mental disorders don't see therapists because THEY CANT AFFORD IT. For the white savior, the narrative is all about the natives being happy happy joy joy because of their simple lives.

  8. As i .am reading and learning about world history, the same narrative comes up, especially in regard to indigenous people and colonization, the arrogant European always wants to impose his ways on the indigenous people, i.e. Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginals, Africans etc. Because they viewed them as savages. And they end up forcing them through colonization/imperialism and oppressing them. This is paternalism.

  9. There certainly does appear to be a reoccurring pattern! smh


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