In The Help, Emma Stone’s character captures the stories of two Black women and becomes the ground-breaking journalist to expose racism in domestic work. In The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock’s character welcomes a Black teenager into her family (after seeing his upbringing firsthand) and becomes the star adoptive parent that saw potential in him. In Green Book, Viggo Mortensen develops a friendship with his Black classical and jazz pianist employer and protects him when faced with constant discrimination. Seems like innocent and powerful films right? But there’s an underlining common thread between them: Each film places Black stories on the back burner and makes the white protagonist the hero of the piece.
And this is just a reflection of real life. When white people try to help out Black, Indigenous and/or people of color (BIPOC), some have an agenda that can be disingenuous and profit from their struggles. And while it may look like allyship from far away, in reality, this behavior can cause more harm to a BIPOC community or individual than good. Here’s everything you need to know about what it means to be a white savior and how to avoid it.
What is a “white savior”?
White saviorism is when a white person tries to fix BIPOC issues without taking the time to understand their history, culture, political affairs or actual needs. And while the term was coined by Teju Cole in 2012, the practice is anything but new. Pick up any history book and you’ll find example after example of this “knight-in-shining-armor” mentality: A white man shows up—uninvited we may add—ready to “civilize” a community based on their ideas of what is acceptable. Today, white saviors, though often unintentionally, insert themselves into narratives or causes without considering the wants and needs of the community they’re trying to help. In doing so, they label themselves (or let themselves be labeled) the hero in the story.
Why is it *so* problematic?
White saviorism is problematic because it paints a picture that BIPOC communities are incapable of helping themselves until a white person comes along. It’s the assumption that without this person’s help, the community is hopeless and misguided. The “white savior” uses their privilege to promote leadership but completely ignores the foundation, goals and demands already in place within a specific community. Instead, this “allyship” becomes more about taking ownership even if it means assimilating and/or controlling a group of people who never asked for it in the first place. Worst yet, the results, though often celebrated, frequently wind up hurting said community.
How does “white savior” play a role in today’s world?
While we can see the “white savior” behavior play out in many ways, we mostly see this in volunteerism and tourism. One of the most common cases are taking pictures with locals and posting to social media. A small, seemingly innocent act can actually be disrespectful, racist and harmful. Often, these selfies are with BIPOC children (without any consent from their parents) showcasing them as accessories in the white person’s performative version of “helping” them.
And let’s talk about the “mission trips.” For some, it’s about finding themselves (or in some cases finding a partner). But it shouldn’t be a show-and-tell about how much of a “Good Samaritan” you are. It’s become an increasing trend to take over an area and ignore how a community actually feels about the interference. It all ties into the idea that “We know what’s good for you” instead of “how can we help you, help yourself?”
And then there are the many pop culture examples
Oh, there are a lot of pop culture examples that use the white savior trope. It’s always the same: A BIPOC person/group is dealing with obstacles (and/or "very difficult circumstances") until the main character (aka the white teacher, mentor, etc) swoops in and saves the day. And while you think the movie focuses on the struggling character(s), its main concern is showcasing the resilience and challenges of the white protagonist instead. These representations teach us that BIPOC characters can’t be the hero in their own journey. And while this relationship is profoundly troublesome, films like The Help, Blind Side, Freedom Writers and Green Book are still celebrated and awarded, illustrating even further our society’s deeply rooted policing of letting BIPOC tell their own stories.
But what if a person is really trying to help?
I already see the emails flood my inbox, “So HELPING is a problem too???” No, it’s not a problem to help others. We should step and provide to any group dealing with oppression, discrimination and lack of representation. But there’s a difference between actually helping a community and doing what you, an outsider, think will help a community.
At the end of the day, it’s all about unpacking your privilege. It’s about dismantling your unconscious bias about a person, place or group. Think, would you like it if someone comes into your home and tells you what needs to be done? Would you like it if someone took credit for “saving” you and disregarding the work done by others before them? How about using your face and likeness for a “Look at how I’m helping them!” Insta-moment. Take a moment to figure out if your assistance is benefiting or damaging the cause.
Got it. So how can we do better?
There are a few ways to be a better ally and avoid falling into white saviorism.
- Be OK with not being the center of attention. Don’t label yourself the savior or hero. This isn’t about you. It’s about helping where needed.
- Don’t confuse good intentions with good actions. You want to help. That’s great—your intentions are in the right place. But just because you want to be helpful doesn’t mean your actions are truly helping. Good intentions are not an excuse for dismissing feedback.
- Listen and ask questions. The most powerful thing you can do is listen to the community you’re showing up to help. Ask them, “What would you like?” “What’s missing?” “How can I help you?” Connect with local volunteers or leaders to get a better understanding of how you can be an asset to the cause (rather than doing things your own way).
- Don’t treat it as an Insta-worthy moment. We all want to share our philanthropy with the world in hopes of inspiring others to help too. But is that your reason or do you just want the praise, likes and comments? Ask yourself is this image really helping or is it just putting you in the best light?
The bottom line
The idea of “saving” someone only feeds the systemic oppression we’re trying to break away from. Show compassion without resorting to pity or showering people with resources that don’t serve their needs or wants. Be willing to learn, change and accept that you are not the answer to every community’s problems—but you are here to elevate them.