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What is the White Savior Complex?

An unfortunate symptom of white supremacy is the white savior complex. This complex, although not necessarily outwardly malicious, is very harmful to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) and BIPOC communities. It shows up in a variety of ways, some that contribute to global racism and some that contribute to microaggressions in individual relationships. It’s important to identify and tackle the white savior complex because of its unhelpful nature in the work of racial justice and ending white supremacy.

But what is the white savior complex? I think that Health.com’s definition of “an ideology that is acted upon when a white person, from a position of superiority, attempts to help or rescue a BIPOC person or community” is a good place to start. The white savior complex, in a sense, is the result of an inflated ego. This inflated ego doesn’t affect white people individually but rather collectively, and it either makes white people believe that their skills are better than BIPOC or puts them in a position to want to help only to make themselves feel better. 

Writing down some sort of equation to figure out when someone is doing work through the white savior complex is difficult since it shows up in many ways that can be conscious or unconscious, but I believe that understanding the core nature of the white savior complex can help detect it. I think that when people do work through the white savior complex there are lots of key things missing in what they’re doing or some suspicious things that are present, and it helps when looking at these things in a holistic way.

Something that is always a red flag to me is when white people want to do things with no input. They see an issue but don’t necessarily look hard enough to see if someone already has a solution and just decide to start working on it themselves without asking questions. This gives me the impression that either they think they know what they’re doing even though they’re not experiencing the issue (so, ego) or that they want to take credit for a solution they came up with all by themselves (again, ego). 

They could care a lot about helping people and doing the right thing, but avoiding asking questions can also lead to avoiding accountability. When BIPOC are upset at the process or output of the work done, a thinly veiled excuse could be that no one told the white person how something was to be done so it’s not really their fault for how it turned out. This is avoiding accountability and the obvious issue that input needs to be an important part of the process but an even better solution could always be just supporting BIPOC doing work in things or areas they’re affected by.

Another aspect of the Health.com’s definition that’s worth addressing is a white person “saving” or “rescuing” BIPOC. This again feeds into the collective sense of ego that I talked about earlier, where white people feel like they’re at a place in society where they should or have to save BIPOC rather than support or uplift, taking away our agency and making us seem weak. Yes, it’s important that white people work to end white supremacy but that doesn’t entail rescuing people from their circumstances rather than actually working to end those circumstances. I also personally feel like when white people walk in with these assumptions, they have no actual idea of what they’re walking into and what work is actually impactful.

This also calls to attention the famous “intent vs. impact” conversation that happens in lots of spaces with community organizing. To sum it up, “intent” is the intent that people have when doing certain work (achieve x goal, help x people, etc) while “impact” is the actual end result (was x goal achieved, were x people helped, etc). Depending on who you talk to, different parts of this two-sided coin are emphasized but I think both sides are very, very important. Intent tells us not only what you want to do but why you want to do x thing and if you have a good enough grasp to understand a proper solution. Impact tells us if you were able to achieve your intent or if it was just a Band-Aid on the issue. It can also inform us if you avoided things like input or accountability in the process.

Other red flags that should be obvious are if someone is using the opportunity or work they do for a photo shoot or to brag. Common examples of this are when white people take pictures of BIPOC children overseas in areas that they’re volunteering without asking the permission of the children or their parents, almost always with the children looking their worst to portray themselves as some sort of savior. One can also argue that this is what lots of photographers do when they travel overseas to different places, and I’m not disagreeing. I actually think it’s really important for people to read Sharbut Gula’s, or “the Afghan girl with green eyes,” story.

Some white people may come to this article feeling like BIPOC should be thankful that there are white people who want to dismantle white supremacy and that we shouldn’t complain about how they participate in the process. I think that this is another really good example of the white savior complex because of the air of superiority/ego (“I am above fixing a problem that I am a part of, be glad I’m doing it”) and avoiding accountability (“because I am above fixing this problem, I don’t want to hear about how I should be doing it or if I’m doing it wrong”).

Detecting and working on the white savior complex is hard. It’s really hard. It makes white people rethink how they lead their lives as well as how they interact with the people and world around them. It makes them become critical of themselves in a really meaningful way, though. If you’re interested in reading more about racial justice, I would recommend checking out Ijeoma Olou’s “So You Want to Talk About Race” and my article “Allyship vs. Accompliceship.” If you’re interested in learning more specifically about the white savior complex, check out No White Saviors, they’re an Instagram account dedicated to this topic and to IRL instances of it.

Mahreen is currently a senior studying Political Science, International Relations and Pre Law. In her free time she enjoys reading books about politics and watching foreign films. She is passionate about helping people, social justice and self care.
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