We’re living in a time where the terms “woke” and “problematic” have become colloquial shorthand to describe almost any and all behavior. A simple social media search will show that the culture has developed a way of assigning almost anything to either category quickly and unflinchingly.
Babies in cages? Problematic, at least. Intersectional feminism? Woke AF. White supremacy? Problematic. White allies? Woke AF.
But, does everything fit neatly into one or the other category of social critique? The Instagram account @NoWhiteSaviors has started an important conversation around one cultural phenomenon — white saviorism — that while seemingly harmless, is in fact, an extension of privilege and white supremacy. On its face and with some audiences, it can pass as a woke attempt to uplift black and brown communities; yet it has a darker reality that is unequivocally problematic.
This Black History Month, we break down five signs of White Savior Complex, a pathology of white saviorism that many Western citizens (including POC) subscribe to, based on what we’ve learned from the experts at No White Saviors (NWS).
Assuming Your Culture Knows Best
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Well. I think we are accomplishing our goal when at least 20 of you sent us this @lindsaylohan story 😔😡😤😳 …. we finally just sat down and watched the full video. I can’t say I’m shocked… but I can say I’m angry. Angry at her entitlement, the way she laughs and makes light of the situation at different points, the way she makes herself the victim after harassing, threatening and degrading this family. If you have not seen the video yet, these tweets may not make much sense to you…. we are so tired of this. #nowhitesaviors
The internet collectively sighed when they witnessed viral footage of Lindsay Lohan following and reprimanding (and subsequently being almost knocked out by) a Syrian family because she assumed they were kidnapping two boys who actually happened to be the parents’ young sons. While some commenters immediately sensed the problematic nature of the situation, others expressed concern that Lindsay was a victim who was just trying to help.
However, one of the core things we’ve learned from NWS is how often white and Western people assume we know what is right for every family in every situation — even those we meet on the street in a country and culture that is not our own. Lohan’s actions demonstrated an assumption that she, as a wealthy white woman, understood completely the dynamics of the family and what was best for the children involved.
The hubris that fueled that belief was quintessential “white savior” pathology in action.
“Trying On” Other People’s Lives Temporarily
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Guest post from @freenegrouniversity (Go follow and learn from him) – THANK YOU, JOSH 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾 “It was my first semester of college. My friend had a white woman for a roommate. She had this picture above her bed; it was her surrounded by four or five Black children. She said it was taken during her service trip to Haiti. As soon as I heard that, I was like “oh, you one of those.” # Second semester freshman year. I signed up for this community organizing course. I was one of two Black people in the class. One Birkenstocks wearing white woman was talking about volunteering in the Chicago Public Schools system. She was scared to walk through the halls because “someone might try to give her drugs or get her to join a gang.” # Summer after sophomore year, I met this white dude from Williams College or Bowdoin (I forget) in DC. He was in Teach for America. He was going to work in Camden. After work, he was going to the mall to get some new Jordan’s so he could “better connect with his students.” # There’s a lot of things I can’t stand in this world. White saviors are toward the top of that list. The biggest reason being the harm they inflict when they do land. They, and the institutions that send them, operate from a deficiency-based, “white man’s burden” model: these children are lacking/broken and I’m here to enhance/fix their lives. They use racist tropes as a means of connecting with kids then retreat back into white fragility when called out on it. # There’s the blatant physical harm – missionaries and tourists beating/assaulting/violating Black children (Matthew Durham, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, adopted parents of Devonte Hart – the Black boy who was photographed hugging a cop). Look them up. # There’s the psychological harm done when Black children are treated like scenery for well-to-do white people. How many of us have had a white tutor/mentor make all sorts of promises to us as children only to disappear one their appointment/funding runs out. You don’t think that harms a child? # Also, what are these white people telling their friends back home?. How are they reaffirming existing anti-Black sentiments when they talk about these kids’ lives?…”
From Teach for America to Haiti missionary trips, No White Saviors points out how “[White saviors], and the institutions that send them [into global non-white communities], operate from a deficiency-based, ‘white man’s burden’ model: these children are lacking/broken and I’m here to enhance/fix their lives. They use racist tropes as a means of connecting with kids then retreat back into white fragility when called out on it.”
Many of the people doing this work show up for a limited period with promises to connect with black and brown children and offer them hope for a better future. The reality, however, is that they are part of a rotating cast of characters who enter these children’s lives, attempt to relate to them for a short period, and then move on at the end of their missionary trip or volunteer term. They “try on” culture and a life that is, for these children, a reality; then they “take it off” when they’re ready, often causing more psychological harm to the children and communities they visit than if they never came in the first place.
Offering Unhelpful, Cumbersome Aid and Expecting Gratitude In Return
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Let me just talk real quick about the first one… because people seem to bring up this argument a lot… one of the KEY elements of the savior complex is rooted in the idea that the savior KNOWS what an individual, community or entire country needs. There is no asking, no researching, no listening to the voices of the people you’re “helping”. You assume needs and assume you have the solution to those needs. One very sh*tty assumption is that poor communities can use literally whatever you donate… if you ask anyone who has worked in nonprofit/development work, we can tell you endless stories of the wild sh*t we have seen people send over here. The items we listed – used coloring books, used tea bags and… yes, someone REALLY sent a ziplock bag full of about 60 disposable wooden chopsticks 😑😑😑😑 …. The thing is, when you actually challenge this, you’re seen as ungrateful. There are so many things people will do that end up being not only unhelpful but actually create more work for those on the ground in the long run. Think before donating- if it’s trash and you’d be offended if someone donated it to you, PLEASE don’t send that sh*t here either. #nowhitesaviors
Western traditions of giving typically look like heaps of donated food, clothing, and supplies. Yet so often, people take these drives as an opportunity to dump old, unnecessary, or unusable items from their home — making it someone else’s burden.
Organizations like TOMS and others have been called out time and again for creating a cycle in which aid organizations receive more of what they don’t need than that of what they’ve asked for (i.e. tons of shoes for children, but no sustainable help in the form of food, education, and other resources). This results in more work for the organizations, both continuing their search to find what they’re in need of and determining how to sift through and discard the things they do not.
The assumption that “these people will be happy with anything” can be misguided and arrogant.
“If it’s trash and you’d be offended if someone donated it to you, PLEASE don’t send that sh*t here either,” No White Saviors sums up on their Instagram page.
Speaking Over or Speaking “For” People Who Are “Voiceless”
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You want to fix things, I know. So often, materially wealthy westerners rush in to our communities assuming they have the answers to complex problems. Real, equitable and responsible partnerships can be a beautiful and effective way to address something like the world’s “orphan crisis”…. which is so vastly misunderstood and therefore inadequately and inappropriately addressed • You do not need to be our voice but you can help support the work that we know needs to be done in our communities. Come beside, let us teach you and lead you for a change. It might feel weird at first, but I promise you that this is an important power shift that needs to happen in the culture of development and missions • Share your insight in the comments below on what responsible partnerships look like. What works? What doesn’t? Why is this important to you and the work you are involved with? • #nowhitesaviors
We’ve all heard the term “voice for the voiceless,” but No White Saviors makes it clear that voiceless people are made that way by those who do not give them a platform to speak.
While we often celebrate those who use their platform to bring awareness to various issues, we rarely see these people offer up their platform to those who have a lived-in knowledgable experience with the issues.
The most important thing platform holders must do is allow themselves to be led by those who need help. Many marginalized groups are in fact not helpless about what to do about their situations, they’re simply in need of ears to listen and platforms to amplify and support their solutions.
Participating in or Spreading “Poverty Porn”
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Many of you have sent this photo our way and we’d like to share the words of @blackvogue_se with you. Please let this sink in. ・・・ “I have written and spoken about this issue so many times. So when it comes from a person that actually follows me and knows my stance and whom I believe knows better than to do this it’s disapointing. . . White Savior travels to other countries with the idea of helping people, but often fails to understand the complexity of their problems and can even end up making things worse. One symptom of the White Savior is that they tend to perpetuate gross stereotypes on social media in posts also known as “poverty porn.” . . The problem with this White Saviour way of telling the story, is that the very people at the center of their own transformation, are shifted to the margins. Local people become bit players in the story of a Great Foreign Hero. . . We don’t need your help if you are going to center yourself as a Saviour instead of the people that work on this daily. We are our own savioura and I hope @operationsmile understand that paying celebrities to do this kind of work is not the way forward. They hold all the blame here and I hope @zaralarsson listens to the critique and takes down these posts and reformulates in a better way by decentering herself and whiteness. . . Africa doesn’t need uneducated medical personnel gaining access to surgery rooms and posing for images in a way that infantilises and if you need to center yourself in order to feed your white fragility then stay where you are” . #nowhitesaviors
Even those who travel to other communities to provide aid with the best intentions can undermine their own intentions when they commit this one common, yet dangerous, act: snapping the cliché photo of themselves holding a small black or brown baby in their arms.
No White Saviors coined these photos as “poverty porn,” images that depict Western “saviors” as the hero and the children as the impoverished, struggling supporting character. It centers the aid worker in the situation and shifts the conversation to how they are “such a good person,” rather than putting the focus on the real need. Additionally, it perpetuates a narrative that all black and brown babies are dependent upon white or Western aid to feel safety, security, and comfort.