Food for Thought – How Not to be a White Savior

Originally, the term white savior was used to define a white person who acts to help non-white person/s in a self-serving way. Later, the term involved to include those who began to embody this whiteness by placing their experience above the experiences of the individual or community they were “helping.”

Taking the concept from the individual to the institutional and structural is Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer. He critiques the white savior industrial complex as the feel-good mentality that drives individuals and organizations (not only white) to go out and “help” the developing world. He writes The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

The most common characteristic of individuals and institutions that operate as white saviors is their failure to acknowledge that the communities they want to help have the power and knowledge to solve their own problems.

Here are some ideas for how you can check your white savior mentality:

  • Stop centering the narrative on you and what you can gain or learn from the experience.
  • Question the intention and motivations behind your actions. Ask why you are keen to help a particular community and reflect on what qualifications you possess to do the same.
  • Listen and seek to find out the needs of the communities rather than imposing your perceptions of what they need.
  • Worry about the impact of each one of your actions. You have power and privilege, use them wisely.
  • Do not speak for the community. Instead provide a platform for them to speak and help them be heard. 
  • Practice humility. Learn from the community rather than provide solutions.
  • Research. Educate yourself. Don’t expect someone to take the time to educate you about issues as it should not be their duty to make sure you are informed.
  • Promote the dignity of the people you are working amongst at all times. Be mindful of your power and responsibility and stay away from generalizations or stereotypes when you report back to people at home. Instead, give them a more nuanced understanding of the community.
  • Encourage local leadership when it comes to solving local problems. Try not to be the leader but rather be the supporter.
  • Avoid flaunting your “wealth” (yes, it would be wealth in developing countries) and offer temporary relief that cannot be sustained.
  • Show empathy not pity. The community is often not looking for someone to shed tears with them or for them. Instead, they need skills, tools, and resources to overcome the structural challenges they face.

White saviors mean well and want to “make a difference,” but let us remember that those good intentions alone are not enough. In fact, good intentions in themselves can sometimes turn harmful. Always be aware of your power and privilege. And, do the best you can to make the world a better place for all.