The white-savior complex is defined as an idea in which a white person, or more broadly a white culture, “rescues” people of color from their own situation.

We see the white savior complex in film tropes like The Help and The Blind Side, but also in volunteerism and activism work.

In activism work, we commonly see this as “tokenism” – the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.

For example, companies have claimed alliance with the Black Lives Matter movement, however, many have done little to nothing to hire Black employees, particularly in upper management. At Microsoft, less than 3% of its U.S. executives, directors, and managers are black, according to the company’s 2019 diversity and inclusion report. Amazon’s 2019 workforce data shows about 8% of its managers in the U.S. are black, compared to nearly 60% of managers who are white. Public statements of allyship do nothing to fix the root problem.

Similarly, the white-savior complex also imposes the notion that the white person knows what communities of color need, rather than listening to how they can truly be of help. This is problematic on a number of levels:

  • It centers the white savior as the hero rather than empowering others
  • It imposes white/western ideals and solutions onto communities
  • It assumes there is an “inferiority” of non-white people, furthering the narrative of “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves”
  • It perpetuates “poverty porn” – exoticizing young people of color
  • It’s not about justice, but rather about the white savior having an emotional experience that validates their privilege

While you work as an anti-racist it’s important to take a step back and check if your actions are part of the white-saviorism complex. Here are some quick questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I aware of the power balance that exists between myself and the community I’m serving?
  • Do I recognize that I may not know what is best for the community?
  • Am I talking over the people I intend to serve?
  • Am I listening, learning, and centering the right voices? Am I listening to Black voices?
  • Am I expecting recognition or gratitude for my service?

Ready to learn more? Check out the following resources for a deeper dive in the white-savior complex and how it manifests throughout media, volunteerism, and activism.

The White-Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole

No White Saviors on Instagram

Unpacking White Saviorism by Annie Windholz