Written by: Gurbir Matharu and Ellena Mouzouris
Racism is not an issue of ignorance but rather an issue of power and power imbalances. The White Saviour Complex (WSC) is a power imbalance between the Western world and the African continent that needs to be disrupted. It is the embodiment of embedded white privilege and enables a false narrative that Black people are in need of white help. The complex has its foundations in British colonialism and still functions in a way that allows white people to hold coercive power over the African continent . Furthermore, the WSC perpetuates the oppression of Black people by assuming they require white Western help to function successfully socially, politically and economically, and fails to acknowledge the colonial history and damage that White people are responsible for throughout history. Although white people may think they are ‘helping’, what they often fail to acknowledge is the offense and patronising nature of their behaviour and attitudes towards Black people.
White saviorism is also deeply embedded within our education system. For example, the novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ by Harper Lee tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white male, representing and defending a Black man, Tom Robinson. Not only does this perpetuate the WSC but it also perpetuates the false narrative of criminalising Black men. This novel has countless awards. But for what reason? With this novel being one of the core texts studied during GCSEs, its narrative is damaging to young people. Not only is the story centred around a white family, Attius and his two children Jem and Scout, it frames the Black character as helpless and in need of Atticus’ help. This novel perpetuates the idea that Black people are inferior, which is why it should not be celebrated.
Another novel that has been rightly critiqued for its narrative of Black maids structured around a white female, thus guilty of conjuring white saviorism, is The Help by Kathryn Stocket. Similar to many other novels that are centred around the Civil Rights Movement, The Help depicts the white female, who tells the stories of the Black maids, as a necessary voice for the liberation of Black people. This novel has also been widely criticised for its portrayal of the lack of danger and life-dependency Black people experienced during this era. The sheer simplification of Jim Crow damages and manipulates the harsh reality Black people went through, and incorrectly amplifies the role white people played in racism. Literature that shows white people as a saviour are historically inaccurate and are a fictional framing of the past, which ultimately causes damage to those affected.
Initiatives have been set up by old and current students of the secondary schools of both of the authors of this post, in solidarity with many other students across the country, with the goal to decolonise our curriculum. In direct letters to headteachers, we conveyed the need for systemic racism to be addressed within their curriculum and the school itself alongside petitions with signatures from students past and present highlighting the urgency of the need for these changes. Methods to begin a dialogue for change included, but not limited to, studying BIPOC authors, history and music. This ensures that contributions made to literature by BIPOC are taught across all subjects. Thus, it avoids both direct and indirect enablement of The White Saviour complex to help expose and lift it from the modern-day colonial narrative.
Meanwhile, the media is still actively portraying celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Ed Sheeran perpetrating the narrative, most likely without any conscious self-awareness. The idea that children in poorer areas of the world are somehow helpless and need white assistance is conveyed from a young age both in schools (as previously discussed) and through the media. Most commonly with celebrities posing alongside African children as a form of ‘accessory’ that entitles them to praise from the wider public for drawing light to the living conditions of said children. This is damaging as it not only infantilizes communities, but also creates a perception that they are helpless and only white money and initiative from the west can ‘save them’. This approach is often taken by celebrities for good press and charities when asking for donations however, it should not be considered acceptable. Alongside the long-awaited conscious awakening of society to its subconscious colonialism, these media tactics should not have a place in contemporary international development theory or practise.
The organisation ‘No White Saviours’ (NWS) seeks to tackle this ideology by changing the way NGOs and individuals approach development to empower communities rather than degrade them. Much of the BLM movement has touched on this, encouraging white allies to read and research into Black voices too as they should be at the forefront of these campaigns. Simultaneously, white people must also take accountability for encouraging such a damaging narrative previously, whether that be consciously or not. One of the key members of the NWS team describes herself as a ‘white saviour in recovery’ because changing a prominent narrative in social culture begins with understanding why it is damaging and previous mistakes. This is not about seeking forgiveness for previous colonial-rooted conduct; it is about being accountable and standing up to admit that the previous approach taken by many was more damaging than it was empowering, whilst understanding how we should go about liberating BIPOC voices and fighting oppression from the ground up.
RESULTS as an organisation recognises that they have not always been as pro-active in tackling this ideology as they should/could have been thus have put together a series of anti-oppression and anti-racist values, of which were heavily enforced and advertised during their international conference. RESULTS USA is leading the way on these values and thus RESULTS UK is following with an updated anti-oppression plan. Solidarity is at the heart of advocacy and thus we cannot be oppressive (on any level, whether it be conscious or unconscious) if we want to tackle poverty and the issues associated. We encourage individuals to ‘check themselves’ when discussing the topic of development and improving the infrastructure and economies of middle and low income countries to ensure that the language they are using is in no way demeaning or degrading. Steps like this are a good starting point for taking accountability and challenging the White Saviour Complex.
Useful Links for More Info:
- RESULTS US Anti-Oppresion Values: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uVsFv5O5iA&feature=youtu.be
- RESULTS BLM Useful Resources: https://results.org/resources/black-lives-matter-solidarity-and-action/
- No White Saviours Website: https://nowhitesaviors.org/who-we-are/purpose/
- Barbie Saviour Instagram Page (useful and accessible resource for understanding the WSC): https://www.instagram.com/barbiesavior/?hl=en