Addressing the harmful white savior complex

How help can turn to hurt without cultural understanding

Madeline Bruce, Editor-in-Chief

The institutions we grow up in, whether that be educational, religious or social, teach that helping people is a good thing. And it is; I won’t argue that.

However, a line can be crossed when you’re striving to help people and you come from a place of privilege.

My roommate and I were having a conversation about the white savior complex earlier this week.

Also known as white saviorism, the white savior complex describes white people who think they are helpers to Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC), when in reality they are the opposite.

They might be in their own eyes, but they are often helping for the wrong reasons, imposing their way of life and belief systems on people who are doing just fine on their own.

The idea of the white savior complex refers to those who assume that they know what BIPOC people need to succeed, when, in reality, they are already succeeding on their own.

The white savior complex can look like doing missionary work, not learning about the culture of the country you’re traveling to and imposing your culture and belief system on the residents of that country because you believe it is better for them if they subscribe to your way of life.

It can look like spending a year in a foreign country teaching English as a second language without understanding the native language and culture of the country in which you are teaching.

These things don’t seem inherently bad, and the intentions of the people carrying them out may not be, either.

After all, how can something be bad if it is helping people?

It has to do with imposition on and input of the people affected by these actions.

The people imposed upon by the white savior complex often have little say in the “help” they are receiving.

The typical assumption is that BIPOC need uplifted by the people attempting to help, because those communities lack the resources, willpower or intelligence to uplift themselves.

This is a very harmful idea; it perpetuates the stereotypes and practices that have led us to a society entrenched in systemic racism.

I’m not here to say people shouldn’t travel with the intent to help, whether that be teaching English as a second language or providing a form of service.

Instead, if we are to do those things, we can’t operate on the assumption that our lifestyle is better than that of the people of the country we are traveling to. This goes for our own communities, as well.

As with most things, education is key. Simply accepting our own ignorance and going out into the world to help people from different backgrounds will impose that ignorance on those communities and perpetuate prejudice. However, education only works if effort is made.

Additionally, education only works if it is used, so practice awareness, educate yourself and try to see life from someone else’s perspective. We shouldn’t assume that just because someone’s culture or lifestyle is different means that it is also inferior.



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