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4 Ways Americans Are Taught the 'White Savior Complex' (and What We Can Do About It)

by Amanda Machado Sep 5, 2016

1. Hollywood

We’ve all seen the white-savior trope in movies: the well-intentioned, generous, and kind-hearted white person comes and saves the poor, needy people of color who are desperate for help. Doesn’t sound familiar? Some examples: Glory, Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, Django. Historian Kate Masur argued in a New York Times piece that in the film Lincoln “African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them”. Most recently, the New York Times also described how this trope existed in the movie Free State of Jones and a Native American writer also called out the same narrative in The Revenant. Asian-American actress Constance Wu also recently challenged the new movie The Great Wall, in which, again, white male actor Matt Damon leads a film that deals with Asian history. She said: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”

Often times, this narrative becomes specifically pronounced in film adaptations, even when the original source of the work is far more self-aware and empowering. For example, critics applauded writer Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game for creating a nuanced, in-depth perspective on a black athlete’s success in football. And yet, when Hollywood adapted the book into a movie starring white actress Sandra Bullock, the story suddenly became more about the white family that took care of the black athlete, rather than his own individual merit.

Even worse, films carrying this tired plot usually get rewarded with Oscars. In 2013, Salon cited this statistic: “In the last quarter-century, 10 white savior films have received major Hollywood award nominations, with fully half of those coming in just the last five years.”

The best way to send Hollywood the message that these plot lines are problematic and outdated is by refusing to support them. If a film’s plot centers around the history of people of color, make sure a person of color actually has the leading role.

2. School

U.S. schools often promote a predominantly white, eurocentric curriculum, which sends the message that Western civilizations are far more important than others. Our U.S. Advanced Placement program only offers courses in European History and U.S. history, but nothing specifically on Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

The result? Many U.S. citizens grow up with a superiority complex about their country that makes them believe the United States has achieved more than any other country in the world.

Recently, U.S. representative Steve King’s televised comments illustrated this way of thinking. King said “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization…than Western civilization itself?”

King, like many people in the United States, had probably received an education that over-celebrated Western accomplishments, while downplaying the accomplishments of others. When we are taught this limited history of the world that overly emphasizes white, Western, success, it’s only natural that we would then assume that white, Western countries are the most qualified to solving any problem. It then makes it feel completely normal, and even generous, to offer our help and “expertise” to others, without ever considering that other people are already perfectly capable of helping themselves.

We should question any class syllabus that overly focuses on Western societies, while ignoring history from other parts of the world. And if we can’t get that kind of education in school, the internet thankfully has plenty of articlesreading lists and resources for us to educate ourselves.

3. Foreign policy

As Americans, we have grown accustomed to the image of our country “coming to the rescue” when other countries are in trouble. Whenever there’s a natural disaster or deadly disease spreading, we see images of the U.S. pouring in aid to help the country in need. This imagery fuels our foreign policy. Politicians convince us that wars in other countries are necessary in order to “save” the citizens of these countries from their oppression. We celebrate the United States as brave, heroic, and virtuous for involving itself in these foreign affairs, instead of critically questioning whether our involvement could actually do more harm than good.

But as Teju Cole writes in his piece “The White Savior Industrial Complex” for The Atlantic, Western countries cannot always understand the complexity and nuance of the “disasters” they try to fix. Unlike the people actually experiencing the disaster, people on the outside cannot “connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” Cole provides some examples of these “patterns of power”: “militarization of poorer countries, short-sighted agricultural policies, resource extraction, the propping up of corrupt governments, and the astonishing complexity of long-running violent conflicts over a wide and varied terrain.”

Likewise, in the area of foreign aid, there are too many examples of Western countries coming to the “aid” of non-Western countries before realizing the problems they came to solve are far more complicated than they imagined. Instead of asking the people most directly involved for feedback, Western countries instead often assume they know what’s best. William Easterly’s famous book “The White Man’s Burden” succinctly described this pattern.

As Americans, we can’t keep voting for politicians who approach foreign policy and foreign aid from this mentality. As these examples have shown us, too often this mentality only makes things worse.

4. Stories of travel and volunteering abroad

Recent websites like Humanitarians of Tinder on Tumblr and White Savior Barbie on Instagram have satirized the way white traveling volunteers end up making volunteering all about themselves. As Teju Cole again wrote, for these kinds of travelers: “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people.” He goes on to say “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Too often, volunteering abroad becomes that “big emotional experience” we’re looking for. It satisfies our sentimental needs, and so we find little reason to stop and reflect whether it actually meets the needs of the people we’re supposedly helping.

If we truly want to help people abroad through travel, we have to ensure that our travel experiences are reciprocal, and benefit both parties equally. We also should have the self-awareness and humility to realize that the best way of helping people from a foreign country is not by making ourselves the hero, but by helping local people help themselves. Pippa Biddle articulated this idea when she reflected on her our voluntourism experience in a piece for the Huffington Post:

“I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else. Some might say that that’s enough. That as long as I go to X country with an open mind and a good heart I’ll leave at least one child so uplifted and emboldened by my short stay that they will, for years, think of me every morning.

But I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”


Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should give up entirely on trying to help. It just means that we need to do far more research, ask more questions and reflect more carefully before we do.

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