No Need for White Saviors


Seeking satisfaction of making the world a better place through activism and volunteering appears like a noble idea, however, often the phenomenon called the White Savior Complex stands in the way.

What exactly is the White Savior Complex?

The term White Savior is a sarcastic description of a white person attempting to “rescue” and “save” the BIPOC person or community from the position of the guiding figure. White Saviors believe that they inherently have the knowledge and skillset to solve the problems of BIPOC communities, especially in the developing countries. The concept of White Savior is considered modern-day version of what is originated from the 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling called The White Man’s Burden. The original usage of the term was in the context of Philippines, however, the phrase has since grown to be predominantly linked with Africa as well as other parts of the world. In the poem, the speaker implores the white audience to perform their selfless moral duty to develop non-white races. According to the author, this task was assigned to them by virtue of their whiteness. This blatantly racist poem depicts white race as superior while non-white races as uncivilized and inferior. Modern-day White Saviors believe that it is their responsibility to “help” BIPOC communities and navigate from the assumption that they know what’s best for them. In short, whether consciously or unconsciously, White Saviors have underlying belief that they possess skillset and knowledge BIPOC people do not have. 

How does White Savior Complex look in media and in real life?

In films, protagonist messianic white characters traveling to developing countries to save and inspire a group of BIPOC people is a common storyline. These films, have real life consequences as they are reinforcing already existing problematic social order.  In real life, White Savior Complex can be very well displayed through volunteering, especially in orphanages. The majority of people who want to volunteer in an orphanage have a very good intentions and the best interests of the children at heart. Yet their actions have more negative effects than positive ones. Why is orphanage volunteering harmful to children?

Keeping in mind that children in orphanages do not experience healthy psychological development, need for trained professionals to work with them is even more crucial. Children form attachments very quickly. As volunteers become regular presence in the orphanage, children begin to connect and accustom to the volunteer. However, the departure of volunteers can have a particularly adverse effect on children as they learn not to trust or invest in relationships. Every time volunteer leaves, children are left behind. This can create a sense of abandonment and invalidation. For the most part, volunteers have little understanding of the potential of their behavior to negatively impact upon the emotional stability of children.

Volunteering in orphanages contributes to the harmful practice of building and funding orphanages.  Rising number of orphanages in a country indicates an increase in the separation of children and families. The high demand to volunteer in orphanages turns orphanages in booming business as it encourages the expansion of such care centers, thus reinforces the institutionalization of children. In other words, supporting orphanages supplies the demand and creates more “orphans.” Children are being recruited to fill the spaces in orphanages across the world. In developing countries children are being separated from their families on the promise of better life, which is never fulfilled. Instead, children are used as tourist-attractions to raise money from foreign volunteers and donors. Some orphanages purposefully exploit children in their care by keeping them malnourished as well as keeping their living conditions deliberately deprived in order to leverage more donations from donors.

Another example is when White Saviors provide short-term support to developing countries. Some build houses in the community, some provide healthcare services without any medical qualification or training.  Such programs have non-existing to minimal requirements regarding the skillset needed to volunteer. Consequently, the work they provide is of poor quality, since they lack the appropriate abilities and knowledge in the relative field.  Moreover, their actions are followed by numerous negative impacts: Hindering of work process, draining local resources, disrupting local economy by putting local laborers out of work. As a result, this invokes dependency for host communities. BIPOC people or communities imposed upon by the White Savior Complex have little say in the “aid” they are receiving.

White educators traveling to developing countries to teach BIPOC kids can easily fall into the same category of people with White Savior Complex, whether they realize it or not. Many of these teachers teaching BIPOC students often have little understanding and knowledge of the community’s culture and way of life, lacking emotional and cross-cultural abilities, making them largely unprepared for the teaching environments they encounter. White educators working with the students of color are often praised for their “philanthropic” actions therefore self-serving motive behind this decision is apparent. In order to be a truly effective educators, they need to be comfortable addressing their white privilege and they need to recognize their biases to actively work on them. “Whiteness does not automatically make someone more qualified to teach students of color, just as being of a certain race does not dictate a person’s intellect or lack thereof.” 

Not to say that it is inherently wrong for white teachers wanting to work with students of color, but while doing so, it is important they learn about the culture and experiences of their students and try to reduce disconnects that exist between them.

How to avoid White Savior Complex?

Just like in most things in life, education and self-awareness is the key. The mindset that people of color need strong white leaders need to change. 

White person wanting to support people of color needs to ask themselves: Am I really needed? Do I have appropriate skillset and knowledge? Am I providing the real help or just putting band-aid on the issue? What are my real intentions and motivation? Are my actions self-serving?

Holding yourself accountable is not an easy thing to do, but it is crucial not to fall into white saviorism trap. Let us remember that good intentions alone are not enough.