Unlearning Racism Week 5 – The White Savior Complex

WEEK 5 –  JUNE 30, 2020

Hi friends,

Wow – it’s powerful realizing we’re in week 5 of these conversations and unpacking these biases together. We constantly talk about how thankful we are for this group, for the way it makes us accountable, for what we learn in our dialogues, and for all of your feedback throughout the week. Big, big thank you to all of you continuing to show up and put in the work to unlearn racism with us. As always, we would love feedback from those who were present last night to discuss the danger of a single story; you can tell us about your experience through this form. And again, we realized that some questions might still be a little too uncomfortable to voice to the whole group or even to email us directly. We’ve made an anonymous question form for anyone to enter any questions they want to see answered in the newsletter or weekly dialogues. We’ve also made a website with an archive of all our newsletters to make it easier to share with friends (it’s not very cute because we’re not very techie but it’ll do for now. If you want to help us make it more aesthetically pleasing, we would love that!!)

Last week we talked about the white savior complex as it shows up in the stories that get to shape the dominant narrative. Last night, our breakout groups talked about the biases that might have emerged or been solidified as a result of the (usually, white) protagonists that took center stage in the stories we’ve been told. This week we’re taking that analysis a step further to talk about something that feels particularly vulnerable for the two of us: the white savior complex in ourselves

The white savior complex is when a white person “attempts” to “rescue” or “help a person of color from their own situation;” it rests on the belief that certain people need “rescuing” in the first place, or aren’t capable of rescuing themselves. This has direct ties back to global colonialism; and though it looks different today, the stated purpose historically was to “civilize the uncivilized”. Though the methods look different now, the idea that “through my benevolence, their lives will improve” often still lives at its core today. This often manifests through the guise of helping an impoverished community, often a community of color, and can look like everything from a church mission trip to showing up to a protest, without adequate information or deference to the leadership of the people in the community that we’re trying to “help.”

While often well-intentioned, white saviorism emerges in a way that ultimately does more harm than good. Like so much else re: racism (and re: life), this ties back to intent and impact. Our intent on going on church mission trips, volunteering in low income neighborhoods, or watching movies that feature white protagonists “helping” low income communities of color is probably rooted in “doing good” and “making a difference.” But our intent doesn’t negate that so much of the time when we enter these spaces, we are still centering our comfort, our experiences, and our ideas of what is “right.”

Before we dive into this, we need to be very clear with what we are saying. We do not want anyone reading this email to get the impression that we are telling anyone to opt out of showing up for our Black and Brown friends and neighbors. We repeat: We are NOT telling you to opt out. Instead, we are calling us all into a conversation about greater justice and about reallocating power, centering the stories and experiences of the people we’re showing up for, rather than ourselves.

Ways we (Emily and Ellie) have perpetuated the white savior complex:

  • Going on church “mission trips” across the world with zero knowledge of the political climate, language, or culture of the countries we were visiting.
  • Working for nonprofits in low-income neighborhoods, where the leaders of the nonprofits assumed that parents didn’t know how to properly raise their own kids, without any consideration for cultural differences or systemic factors that might play a role in a parent being late to pick up their child or using a different discipline style than we were used to.
  • Teaching in classrooms that made it very clear that only “king’s English” was appropriate – no slang, no other languages, that belittled and berated the children who spoke in a way that “wasn’t professional.”
  • Going to a protest but refusing to sign on to protestors’ demands because we thought they were too “lofty” and “unreasonable” to work.
  • Assuming Black clients didn’t actually have the knowledge to form their own defense and that I knew better than they did what resources they needed going forward.
  • Volunteering in a low income neighborhood as a means to check off a community service box on a resume. 

Often when we want to “help” low-income communities, in developing countries or in a neighborhood in our town that we otherwise wouldn’t enter, we treat “being helpful” like a hobby. We want the rush of being “helpful” while knowing that we can give it up and move on to a different experience when it no longer serves us. So often, we assume that valuable work can’t be or isn’t being done by the communities that we’ve been conditioned to see as “charity.” We’re willing to pay admission to these communities by paying for flights and hotels in “safe” parts of the countries we’re visiting or by posting all over our own social media about going to a “peaceful” protest; however, we’re unwilling to contribute to what grassroots leaders in the communities we’re visiting are actually asking for, skeptical of how they’ll use “our” cash. Some of it may be an accidental oversight, but a lot of it is rooted in our flawed, collective belief that white outsiders somehow know more than people who are actually living in the “conditions” that we’re seeking to “improve.”

At the heart of it is this: let’s assume the stated goal of a trip is to put a new roof on a house and uphold the dignity of the homeowner in the process. Consider the entire economic footprint of the trip (from travel, lodging, etc.) and imagine how much farther those funds would go if they were instead used to pay local, trained professionals who could do the job faster and with better accuracy than a group of untrained volunteers. This would inherently prioritize the homeowner’s needs and honor the skill of the local tradesperson. This rarely happens, because historically, the point/unstated goal of so many mission trips and volunteer opportunities alike is for the white people to have an experience. White people are at the center. Good things can absolutely come from those experiences, but we must actively acknowledge the price that the communities pay for our experiences. And whatever projects we work on while we are tourists in these communities do not negate that price, they, in fact, build upon it.

It is possible to accomplish good when we travel to other countries in order to learn, contribute to local economies, and even support local community efforts to enhance access to resources. However, if our trips make no attempt at cultural competence and seek to make the community just a melanin-enriched mirror image of the white community the volunteers come from, then it is merely perpetuating a white savior complex. If our volunteer and mission trips ignore the colonial forces that contributed to our white wealth and never explore how colonization or imperialism contributed to whatever oppression we’re there to “help,” we are ultimately doing more harm than good.

There can be a lot of good in after school programs or community organizing in lower-wealth neighborhoods. But if our efforts to “help” families in these communities really look like whitewashing, we’re probably doing more harm than good

There can be a lot of good in using our white bodies at protests to support our Black counterparts. But if we spend the time we’re there taking the mic, telling organizers how to run the show, or making the space about our white comfort and white feelings, we are doing more harm than good.

Okay but I want to be helpful to communities of color – how can I do this without being a white savior?

We struggle with this too! And what we keep coming back to is this: if we want true justice, it has to look like a partnership with, if not total deference to, community leaders from the place we are trying to “help.” Coming in as outsiders, both to Black communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and to Black communities in our hometowns, should require our utmost humility. It requires the understanding that we’re not part of the communities that are most affected by oppression and that therefore, we know less than the community members themselves. Their lived experiences provide the wealth of knowledge needed to fight for the right solutions. It doesn’t matter that we’re well-educated or have big dreams if our vision does not center the very people most affected by whatever harm we’re trying to mitigate. It is counterintuitive to true justice to have white saviors at the center of the fight.

To know certain behaviors historically have been imperative for someone to “fit into” our culture’s idea of what “success” looks like, and also acknowledge that our idea of “success” is based off of white-dominant ideals, is an extremely complex thing to wrap our heads around. However, if we want to be effective, compassionate, and ethical while involving ourselves in low-income communities, then it’s our job to elevate work already being done in these communities, amplifying opportunities to expand such work, and connecting our resources to people at the center of these neighborhoods. It should be our hope in all situations where we work against an unjust system, we work ourselves out of the need to do that job. 

Some questions we are learning to continually ask as we jump into “helping”:

  • Who is most affected by this project? Have we created space for individuals most affected to express their own needs?
  • Who is leading this endeavor? Is at least some leadership from the community most affected?
  • What resources do I have to educate myself about this issue on a deeper level? How can I walk into “helping” roles prepared, so that I don’t make more work for the people who I am “helping” to educate me?
  • What are ways I might accidentally harm someone by being involved in this project? How can I equip myself on the front end to not inadvertently cause harm?
  • With whom can I process any suffering or feelings of complicity with before, during, and after this experience, outside of this community and its members? How will I self care appropriately so that I don’t bring my own pain/confusion/exhaustion/outrage into this experience in a way that might be harmful?
  • Did I choose this “cause” because I don’t feel like I am complicit in it? What systemic factors are at play that have led to this problem? How can I learn more about and work against those systemic factors while meeting the immediate needs that this ‘cause’ is addressing?


Word we are learning:

What is paternalism?
Paternalism is any action that limits the autonomy of someone else, usually rooted in some iteration of the belief that the person “just doesn’t know what’s good for them.”

Doesn’t “paternal”mean fatherly? What if I don’t identify as a man?

Origins of “paternalism” are rooted in the idea that fathers would know best and therefore control their daughters’ life trajectories. Paternalism has been used to justify slavery, as enslavers cultivated a belief that enslaved people were not smart or self-sufficient enough to be free, so that enslavers could continue to hold those people hostage. Paternalistic beliefs have been used to justify opponents of women’s suffrage (“if they can vote, they will move away from and destroy families!”), opponents of gay rights (“this choice is immoral in my personal worldview and therefore I don’t believe that gay people should be allowed to be married”), and proponents of Jim Crow laws (“separate but equal because Black people won’t make the right choice on their own”), among other things. While the root of the word has to do with parenting, or more specifically, fathering, it can apply when used by all genders toward all genders. 

Why are we learning this word?
So much of white saviorism is rooted in the idea that “we” know better than “them” in regard to everything from how to manage one’s own community, to what public funds a person in poverty might “deserve,” to who receives accolades for accomplishments, discoveries, or careers. Paternalism compounds white supremacy by emboldening well-intentioned white people to believe that whiteness and white-centric ideals are just “healthier” or “more moral” because they are what’s been established as the norm (related to last week’s word of the week – dominant narrative).

Still confused – can you give me an example of paternalism in the modern world?
One example we hear (and admittedly, have said before ourselves) is, “if they would only protest like this [“peacefully,” without making it inconvenient or uncomfortable for me], then maybe I could support them.” This is paternalistic because it assumes that somehow “we” know better than “them,” that the “respectable” way to protest is inherently more productive, and that “we” (people who truly have rarely, if ever, had to protest because white supremacy culture was set up for people like us!), know better than they do. We know that this particular paternalistic vein of thinking isn’t accurate, in no small part because it has been debunked over the course of the past month!  

We want to know this word so that we can identify when our actions might be rooted in the belief that we “know more” or are somehow more “moral” than someone else, particularly when we have no real authority other than that our whiteness and what our white-dominant culture has deemed our beliefs as “normal.” If we can pause to identify the roots of a paternalistic bias we might hold, we can stop ourselves from acting on that bias. 

Term we are unlearning:
“Black-on-Black Crime”

Why are we unlearning this?
“Black on Black” Crime” is a term that has been weaponized to reduce and redirect conversations about systemic racism back to blaming the Black community. We are unlearning this for four key reasons: 

  1. It is irrelevant to conversations about racism and systemic power. When we talk about “Black-on-Black” crime, we often use it as a scapegoat for larger conversations that are making us uncomfortable. We are less concerned with the existence of this alleged criminal activity and more concerned with deferring blame from the systems that have historically protected us and not Black or Brown community members. Not only is this intentionally missing the point, it’s also pretty racist
  2. We simply don’t talk about “White-on-White” crime, so implying that the existence of “Black-on-Black” crime is something we (as nonmembers of the Black community) have no place to point out. The numbers of in-racial-group victims of crimes are comparable across racial categories. The majority of people in the United States live, work, and socialize with people of their own race, so it makes sense that when people commit criminal acts that the victims of said acts would be people in the places they live, work, and socialize.
  3. The idea that “Black-on-Black” crime isn’t being addressed within the Black community is insulting to the thousands of community programs and organizers who have been taking this initiative for hundreds of years
  4. It ignores the larger systemic reasons why someone might “commit crimes” or the broader enforcement policies that name actions criminal only when the “criminals” don’t look like the people who made the laws. 

This week, we want to plug a brand we are loving as a place to invest your cash! Okay, That’s Enough is a clothing and accessories brand that creates pieces to keep the conversation ongoing on social issues (and, the people that run it are Ellie’s real life friends!). They strive to build community in hopes to continue raising awareness and building momentum to enact change. In addition, Okay, That’s Enough is committed to giving back to organizations that are fighting for change everyday. Currently, they are supporting the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization committed to ending mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and challenging racial and economic injustice. Their new collection is handmade by a local black owned business from Ohio.


Our home state of South Carolina has a law called the Heritage Act that basically requires any and all changes to monuments or public buildings to be approved by 2/3 of the legislature. This means that in order for Confederate monuments to be removed from any place in SC, there has to be an overwhelming majority approving the removal. The problem (other than the fact that these monuments denote the losing side of the war, the majority of these monuments weren’t even erected until the 1950s when integration of schools became part of the national conversation about racism, and that monuments to the Confederacy’s functional equivalent would be memorials to Nazi troops across Germany) is that it strips the power of local control from small communities or campuses to decide what they want to honor. This week, we encourage you (yes, you! Even if you don’t live in SC!) to visit this website to learn about Repeal the Heritage Act, and sign the corresponding petitions.

Some good news: last Friday, SC Attorney General Alan Wilson stated that the supermajority required to remove these monuments is probably unconstitutional after Charlestonians called for and removed the John C. Calhoun statue in the middle of Marion Square. Still, much work to be done to get this law out of SC and states across the south. Sign and share, friends!


Primary Resource:

  • The White Savior Industrial Complex – published in 2012 right after the #KONY2012 social media push, Teju Cole explains the privilege of having a big emotional response to a far-away cruelty but accepting no responsibility or willingness to learn regarding the root factors of a “humanitarian disaster.”
    [For some context (in case you don’t remember Invisible Children or KONY 2012 because it was 8 years + 100 years of 2020 ago), a well-meaning group of 3 guys set out to document life “in Africa” and “found” a 20 year civil war, rife with human rights abuses they had never heard of back in the USA. The guys made a documentary and started an organization, both called Invisible Children, an homage to child soldiers that were prevalent as the war progressed. In 2012, the organization came out with a viral documentary called KONY 2012 that garnered international attention toward the issue. KONY 2012 made the organization famous, but it also cultivated some appropriate critiques.]
    Important note for the sake of transparency: Emily read this piece in 2012 right before she literally moved to Uganda to refugees who were displaced by the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony. Obviously this piece stung. Realizing that so much of her “purpose in life” was really just white saviorism dressed up as sacrifice stung. And now, 8 years later, she can see that she, too, fell into the trap of “making a difference” as a means of inflating her own sense of “good white person”-ness. And she still falls into that trap constantly. It’s okay if this makes you feel uncomfortable or convicted. Emily feels uncomfortable and convicted too. The pain of realizing we’ve been wrong before doesn’t mean we stop growing. 

Supplemental Resource:

Other resources we loved this week:

  • What Is OwedNikole Hannah Jones (brilliant mind behind the 1619 Project) takes on the debt that the United States owes to its Black citizens.
  • You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument  – (trigger warning: rape) – Caroline Randall Williams divulges her own geneology as a monument to the Confederacy. This piece is a powerful and deeply heavy and absolutely worthwhile read about the legacy of owning human beings.
  • In Recovery: Racism is an Addiction – remember Dr. Nzinga Harrison who gave us tips on talking to our children about race and racism at a young age? She’s also an Addiction Specialist and Medical Doctor that makes her own podcast specifically about less-discussed forms of addiction. She defines addiction as “continued behavior despite negative consequences” and in this episode, reminds us that the USA is addicted to racism

We’ll see you on Zoom this Sunday at 7PM to talk about The White Savior Industrial Complex. Until then, wear a mask, drink some water, and keep learning.

In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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