White Saviorism is a term that refers to white people who try to “rescue” people of color (POC) from their own situations. White saviorism centers the white person as an altruistic savior, who often benefits (through self-actualization, feelings of superiority, image, etc) from the pain of others. As Teju Cole writes in The White Savior Industrial Complex, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” It looks like celebrity photo ops in poor Black neighborhoods, volunteer trips by unqualified people, or selfies of a white person surrounded by Brown children who did not consent to having their pictures posted on social media. White saviorism focuses on the good that the white person is doing more than the experiences of those they are claiming to help.
Because the United States (and many other countries) teach a false, aggrandized history (explicitly in school, as well as implicitly in the media), many of us grow up believing that white American and European people are the most cultured, intelligent, innovative, successful, and happy. Because this narrow world view puts white culture on a pedestal, white people are then encouraged to “save” POC by bringing them the “superior” aspects of that culture. You can read more in Ways Americans are Taught White Saviorism by Amanda Machado.
A look into the history of the US will quickly show that POC in the US are not poor by accident, or because they are less able to support themselves. A long history of systemic racism has made it difficult or impossible for POC, in comparison to white people, to be hired, promoted, or paid the same amount; to own property; to have the same leniency extended to them by police, judges, and juries; and much more.
White people have been taught to congratulate ourselves on providing food, money, or other resources to those in need, and specifically poor people of color. However, by understanding the history of systemic racism in the US and globally, it is clear that much of the poverty today is a result of white supremacy and systemic racism.
So how can we understand if we are participating in white saviorism? Unlearning white saviorism is a difficult process for those who have spent decades embracing and being praised for this behavior.
White people must acknowledge the blind spots and beliefs they were raised with. Learning and self-reflection are essential; there is no quick answer.
A few recommendations for next steps include:
Set aside time each week to read about white saviorism (there are plenty of articles online) and reflect on how it pertains to you.
Follow (and pay, when possible) activists who challenge you to confront your own white saviorism, such as No White Saviors.
Donate your time and resources silently, without using them for applause or social media content. Challenge your friends and family to do the same.
Put POC’s experiences and expertise at the forefront of your learning, and de-center yourself. Engage with humility, acknowledging you have caused harm, and do not have the answers. White people need to speak less and listen more.
Read about systemic racism in the US and how it has created a widening resources gap between POC and white people. By better understanding today’s wealth disparities, it becomes more clear that contributing to a mutual aid fund like the Snack Sack is not just a feel-good action rooted in saviorism, but a form of justice. Stay tuned for a Snack Sack post on mutual aid and reparations, coming soon.