White Savior Complex

Hello again!
It’s been a little while. (I feel like I have been saying this at the beginning of every blog post lately lol).

A couple of things before I dive into today’s topic!

  1. I am gonna start a “book club” on here! Our first book is “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad. This book is a guide for beginners on their antiracism journey. It is a 28 day reflective work that pushes you to confront the ways that white supremacy has impacted and uplifted your life (if you are white, white passing, or lighter skinned biracial, multiracial, BIPOC). I am starting my reading journey here and I invite you all to do it along with me. At the end of the 28 days, I will post about my thoughts and feelings, and invite you all to comment on the post and engage in a dialog with me. I am super excited for us to do this together!
  2. I know my posts haven’t been very fun lately. But the topics I am writing about are important and they are important to talk about. I find more fulfillment talking about this and doing the work than I do sharing weird pictures that I have taken recently. (but the main reason is that I am not doing anything so I have no pictures lol)

Okay let’s get down the topic at hand: the white savior complex.

I saw a post on instagram today that reminded me of how important this issue is to talk about. So bringing it up today to reengage it in our conversations.

What is the white savior complex?

It is a trope and a mindset in which a white person provides help to nonwhite people in a self serving manner.

Let’s look at it in action. One of the most famous examples of the white savior complex is: the White Man’s Burden; the mindset of the colonial western powers as they took control of other countries around the world.

At the end of the 19th century, Rudyard Kippling wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden” in regards the the war between the United States and the Philippines, arguing that the United States should control the Filipino people.

I read the text in high school, but here it is for those who haven’t read it and those, like me, who need a refresher:

(Trigger warning: White people being White people in the 1800s and being super racist)

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain.
To seek another’s profit,
    And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
    And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
    The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
    Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper—
    The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead!

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
    The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Ye dare not stoop to less—
Nor call too loud on Freedom
    To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

Curtesy of Wikipedia

Gross poem, huh?

The mindset in the colonial era was that Europeans were doing the rest of the world, the “savages”, a favor by coming in and taking control of their “poor, backwards nations”. They were supposed to push through their own plight for the betterment of the “savages”. The White Man’s Burden was to bring greatness and culture to the rest of the world.

In reality, the White Man’s Burden was an intense public expression of the white savior complex. The colonizers stripped everything of areas they took hold of, and left power vacuums in their place after they abruptly left. There is honestly WAY too much I could get into about colonization, however, I will leave you read about that on your own.

So, you’re probably thinking that the white savior complex ended with colonialism. No. And another surprise, colonialism is alive and well. It has simply transformed to fit a new set of circumstances. Colonialism still dictates every relationship between the Global North and the Global South. It dictates mindsets, such as the white savior complex.

The white savior complex is seen in movies, books, tv shows where the white main character comes to the self serving rescue of all of the BIPOC characters in the show. Examples of this: Avatar (the blue people one), the Blind Side (but it was so heartwarming, right?? no), the Help, and others. I encourage you to rewatch these movies now understanding this new lens. You’ll be surprised with what you find.

But the white savior complex goes beyond the media, where it is really saturated. The white savior complex is most vivid in the missionary culture of Christianity in the United States.

This is a controversial take solely because it criticizes the work of Christians. If you been triggered or have an abrupt reaction to this or instantly go to defend yourself, I invite you to decenter yourself and listen. I also invite you to understand that this is your white fragility rearing its ugly head.

(For reference: white fragility is the discomfort and defensiveness of a white person when topics of racial inequality and injustice are discussed. All white people have it, it is a symptom of white supremacy. I have it, you have it, your neighbor has it. Don’t try to think you are above it. Accepting these things is crucial to your antiracism work. )

Anyways: why are missionaries modern day colonizers?

Rachel Card writes:

“Missionary work has become so normalized within our society that the more sinister aspects of its fundamentals have gone, for the most part, unchallenged, despite the less than subtextual nature of their racism. Missionaries show blatant disrespect toward the cultures they have inserted themselves into by framing Christianity as a touchstone of civilization, a narrative that was historically used to justify the colonization of America itself.”

https://www.ntdaily.com/missionary-work-is-just-another-name-for-colonization/

CHRISTIANITY WAS NOT IN THE AMERICAS UNTIL IT WAS ENFORCED ON INDIGENOUS GROUPS THROUGH COLONIZATION.

Just had to get that out there, phew. Missionaries are simply a new form of colonialism. It enforces the ideal that White people are superior and know what is best for the community, that their language and religion must be enforced. Colonization erases cultures.

A question that I think is important for missionaries to reflect on is : would you still go if you could not tell people about it? Would you do the same project in the US or is it all about traveling to see kids who have been trained to view you as the hero?

Your gut reaction will be “yes of course I would go” and “I would do this work anywhere!!” but reflect on it as well as the rest I have to say.

The white savior complex is dangerous; missionaries are dangerous.

They spread the word of their own religion to areas that did not have it prior to the beginning of colonization, continuing that cycle. It is disguised as this benevolent, humanitarian effort to solves the problems of Black people, Indigenous People, and People of Color. However, the same people who have colonized, wrecked havoc, exploited, enslaved, and committed genocide are the ones who are now going back to these areas and are saying they are here to take over once again. Like I mentioned before, colonialism has never ended, it has simply changed forms to adapt with the times.

It is never about true justice and solving inequalities. It is about maintaining the status quo. Making sure that these people will always rely on you. Making sure that white people will always be above others. Making sure you have a feel good story to tell on Sunday or the ability to post a photo with a Black child and be called a hero.

Having this big emotional experience helps to validate your privilege. You go and work down there for 1 week, and never think about it again. You are not continuously doing the work. You are not working with the community. Rather, you are imposing on the community. You are telling the community what to want. It is not for them. It is for you.

Missionaries often only care about intention rather than impact. Good intentions can still cause a lot of harm. Missionaries are self centers, meaning that they do not rely on BIPOC and community experts, instead they rely on White people to lead them. Additionally, and one of my largest issues with missionaries, they only focus on the symptoms of the problem. There is little effort to actually, and properly I might add, address the root cause of the issues. Their bandaid won’t fix in the long run. It will, instead like I mentioned, continue to maintain the status quo.

I know this piece won’t be one of your favorites. But the White Savior Complex is such an essential part of White Supremacy that is left out of conversations. We need to talk about the harm that it caused by centering ourselves in issues that are not about us and valuing feel good experiences over true impact.

I am against the missionary system, but I am not against helping people.

I want that to be made explicitly clear.

However, there are ways that similar work can be accomplished without centering yourself, the colonist narrative and harming the people you are supposed to be helping.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this and invite you to reflect and engage in this conversation with me.

Additionally, if you have another topic you would like me to break down and discuss, let me know! I would love to write about stuff other people are also interested in.

Thank you for giving me this space.

Remember to read and engage with our book this month! We’ll chat about it again in 28 days!

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