(Another) White Man’s Burden: The White Savior Complex

Many have probably heard at least vaguely about what is called the “white savior complex”. White people who out of the goodness of their hearts decide to volunteer to do charity work for minority communities or 3rd world countries, or even Western organizations who do charity work are accused of being “white saviors” by the Left. Many on the Left now find fault with their benevolence and personal growth into better human beings due to the perceived paternalistic attitude and history of Western colonialism. Confusing? Here’s one definition:

“The term white savior, sometimes combined with savior complex to write white savior complex, refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving” (Wikipedia).

If that’s a bit too vague, and I tried hard to find a clearer definition but couldn’t, it’s basically the attitude that altruism and benevolent actions such as charity and aid from white people or the West is a form of colonialist paternalism where it implies white people are needed to solve the issues of minorities versus minorities having the independence to solve their own issues on their terms. In essence, white people merely swoop in to “save” minorities and come out the hero and take all the credit in real life and in movies and literature ignoring the perspective of minorities. However, upon further research into the theory, I find their reasoning to have many deep flaws of its own!

On its face it sounds okay. We shouldn’t be paternalistic busy bodies dictating to outsiders they need our help when they in fact, are fine as they are, or can solve their own issues. Nor do I argue in the least we should just show up uninvited and “help” people without their consent and act en loco parentis for the world!

That said, it’s absurd to assume just because charitable people are white, or organizations happen to be from the West, helping minorities and the 3rd world is damaging and racist/colonialist. Perhaps my strongest point is well don’t they need the resources and aid they’re being given? And apparently, it’s not being provided by their own people or country. Proponents of the white savior complex theory argue that by stepping up to help them, it’s an imperialist imposition and strips the people of their dignity and autonomy. An exercise in cultural superiority. Their argument falls apart however, when it is pointed out that food, water, shelter and medical care are basic needs for every human being, and are not culturally biased towards one society!

The cold hard truth is the 3rd world and poverty stricken areas lack all such basic needs to varying levels, leading to higher infant mortality rates, succumbing to easily treatable and preventable diseases, living in squalid housing or none at all, no infrastructure, no clean drinking water, food shortages, famine, corrupt government, tyranny etc…etc… While the West is not perfect, we have what they can only dream of in terms of standards of living. If those countries want better lives for their people, they should accept that help, even if from outsiders.

Of course it’s hard to humble yourself to accept charity, but sometimes, when push comes to shove and your family’s lives are on the line, the bigger person must swallow their ego and accept help in a time of need. What’s more important, food, water, shelter, or your inflated ego? Get back to me when you’re starving, have no home and live in a squalid dangerous place along with your family. The saddest thing is that these countries can’t provide for their own people what we have to step in and provide for them. In that the white savior proponents do have a great point: Why CAN’T these people provide the aid they need for themselves? Why is it being left up to the West?

“But… but what if they don’t want our help? What if they want to be left alone and not have paternalistic meddlers in their village trying to “save” them?” The anti-white savior enforcers ask. Well guess what my answer is: Then we won’t!!! 

You don’t have to accept vaccines that prevent children from dying.

You don’t have to accept hospitals better able to treat you and your loved ones from dying by easily preventable diseases and treatable injuries.

You don’t have to accept clean drinking water.

You don’t have to accept nutritious food.

You don’t have to accept sturdy housing, better infrastructure, education, and a democratic government.

You don’t have to embrace values such as equality for women, children and minorities and live in a democratic society where everyone is at peace, not at war steeped in violence and turmoil.

They are autonomous nations and deserve to make their own choices. We’re not their colonialist babysitters anymore. However, look at where they end up with such attitudes and where Western nations are. If people want to extend the hand of friendship and benevolence in sharing our resources and privilege, why is that such a bad, flawed and racist thing? How is it racist to literally save the lives of millions of people of color? We could just turn our backs and say “Who cares? They’re just brown people in inconsequential countries.” but countless people from the West, including white people, say instead, “They’re humans just like me and I want to give them what all people should deserve to have”. I think plenty of people in such dire straights are deeply grateful that we’re helping their families and communities. Some people would like to be saved from their abusive husbands, families, and governments. If not, don’t forget all the Americans who could use and be grateful for those limited resources! If our help is “too white” for them they don’t have to have it. That simple.

This attitude of it’s racist to help people of color in non Western countries because of imperialism or some lack of autonomy or dignity, or even accusing white people of being self serving in helping others I argue is actually a reflection of how blinded the proponents of the theory of the white savior complex are by their own privilege! How many of these people have lived and experienced the deprivation of the 3rd world first hand? How many have actually taken their assumptions beyond the theoretical framework into how people actually feel when subjected to lack of medical care, starvation, corruption and tyranny?

Pragmatically, which takes precedence? Food, water, shelter and healthcare from anyone who will give it, or some abstract notions of egos and pride? For those absentminded academics who endorse such ideas without ever experiencing or seeing people in such dire circumstances, try researching Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! Then see in which tier self inflated egos go and where food, water and shelter go… It’s simply illogical to think that desperate people wouldn’t accept anything beneficial to help themselves and their families. We are GIVING them the resources as charity out of benevolence!

Not to mention, is it not racist to limit a charitable person from helping those in need because of their skin color? White people are incapable of charity without wanting an ego trip or some self serving purpose? I for one know plenty who would take nothing in return for their altruism including my own family. Is it impossible a white person may want to empower a people to become more autonomous and self sufficient? Is it out of the question a white person could embrace a society and want to help them even at their own deep personal risk and have genuine respect for those they are serving?

Another point to consider is when people are being oppressed, the oppressors won’t listen to them, but might eventually have to if enough people in power speak out. I thought speaking up for those who can’t was a virtue, not a vice. If white people really do have white privilege as it’s often accused by the Left, then wouldn’t it be commendable if more white people used their privilege to help those who don’t have that privilege in society? What about every white abolitionist in our history for one example? Were they being “white saviors”, and if so, was that bad considering the outcome? White people who use their privilege, whether racial or socio-economic to help those in need are using that force for good instead of oppression which could more easily have been done.

Overall, I’d say if you are white, and want to help the less fortunate who happen to not be white, the last thing you should feel is guilt! Go ahead and serve who want your help knowing you’re a better person for it. Kindness doesn’t have a skin color. 

We don’t need this, especially if they don’t want it!

13 thoughts on “(Another) White Man’s Burden: The White Savior Complex

  1. Although it is true that some narratives (mainly Victorian era plus or minus a bit) suggest that white Europeans have the solemn duty to enlighten that savages of the world, that thread, as you say, gets way, way overplayed in today’s woke culture. E.g., every white who writes about colonial times, even if they explicitly reject white Euro culture in favor of indigenous cultures (e.g., D.H. Lawrence in Mexico), is de facto a white supremacist, according to today’s woke critics. It is considered offensive for a white to write about things impacting blacks (e.g. William Styron caught hell for writing about Nat Turner from Turner’s point of view, the Whitney Museum was recently attacked for hanging a painting of Emmett Till by a white artist, etc.). When imagining ourselves into the shoes of the other across racial lines becomes the number one sin (as it has in woke culture), we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for. Luckily there are still some of us rebels out there 🙂

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  2. You make some important points regarding a complex issue. The Kipling poem, “The White Man’s Burden” spoke of a moral need to serve the “new-caught sullen peoples, Half devil and half child.” The illustration you included depicts Britain’s John Bull and America’s Uncle Sam carrying those “sullen peoples” to civilization. That point of view seems to persist among many of the would be “white saviors” as well as among those whom they would save. The notion that someone from the prosperous west is inherently able to come in and solve the problems of the rest of the world is both common and condescending as illustrated by the anecdote of one of your commenters about the woman who sought to introduce elder care to a society unaware that the local culture already addressed the issue.

    On the other hand, many in the third world are hostile to more practical aid because it comes from the west. For example, as part of their good will efforts, oil companies, western military and others have built wells for villages to provide them with much needed sources of clean water only to have those wells sabotaged by the people whom they were intended to benefit. Efforts to combat the ebola epidemic in Africa is the distrust of western medical aid efforts. That is part of the paradox that you raise about the relative importance of pride over such things as clean water and medical aid. One one hand, if the need is there and no one else is standing up to meet that need should those in need turn it down because of the race, religion or national origin of those who come to help? On the other hand, history is the lens through which many of the intended beneficiaries of that aid view the situation and, often the poorest of people cling to their pride because they have little else.

    In addition, good intentions don’t always translate into good results. For example, some have pointed out that massive food aid to drought stricken areas can exacerbate the problem. Providing free food in refugee centers, compels people to abandon their homes and farms. Those who don’t leave their farms to avoid starvation would have little market for their crops when the west is giving away free food. That can further damage local agriculture. While such policies might be good for short term survival but how is the country to start providing its own food again when the farms have been abandoned. Free food and other aid often end up in the hands of local warlords or dictators who use it to further oppress the people. The well known “Black Hawk Down” incident was the result of the U.S. military’s efforts to keep the local warlord from interdicting food aid to Somalia. It’s common for monetary aid to end up in Swiss bank accounts of third world dictators. Oppression and poverty go hand in hand and the more powerful the dictator, the less chance people have of freeing themselves.

    Although it appears counter intuitive, sometimes those without good intentions do the most good. The Roman Empire laid the foundations of western civilization and prosperity. Even their greatest fans would not call the Romans altruistic. Rome brutally oppressed all whom they conquered but they brought their civilization to western Europe. Historians point out that without Rome we wouldn’t have London. Going one step further, Britain built its empire out of self interest rather than from a desire to bear Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” However, Britain was the first to abolish the slave trade and did so throughout the British Empire. Sometimes one benefits from those who are not particularly benevolent. That’s one of the reasons why the issue of a savior is so complex.

    The ultimate resource is a free people who have a culture emphasizing education, hard work and thrift. Consider Singapore and Hong Kong, both former colonies that have so little in the way of natural resources that they must import drinking water. Yet, they are both prosperous because of the industry of their populace. The real source of wealth in the world is a people’s willingness to give up those old ways that hold them back and to adopt new ways that bring prosperity. That isn’t something that you can give someone. They must choose to do so themselves. Without that, any aid can, at best, offer temporary relief.

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  3. Excellent! I am a follower of Maslow as well.. and use it often to explain human interaction and behaviors.
    Anyway.. you make some good points that many times tend to be reasons for our intervention in other countries. Like the Peace Corps. A noble idea that does work.. but does also “intervene” on a moral side. Remember seeing those TV commercials of the bearded fellow asking for money to support poor and destitute children in Third World countries with the images of some crying child playing in some garbage heap? The idea is that you “adopt” a child with your donation of something like 25 cents a day. I ran into a pastor who entered that program and this is how he described it… indeed you are supporting a child with your donation and the child, if able, is encouraged to write back telling something of their life and how the support has helped. But it all stops at 18 (or whatever age is stipulated by the host government). The strength of the charity is that it serves NOT to encourage real life adoption, thus removing a citizen-resource from the host country. Many people who have “adopted” the care of a child have done so for years and can get invested in the progress of their child growing up. It’s natural to want to adopt and bring the child to America for an education, etc. The charity does not want to encourage separation from birth families nor removing children from the host countries. I mention this to illustrate that even well-intentioned charities can be a form of unintended intervention.

    I would submit, though, that when I was a kid the world population was 3 billion. Today it is 7.5 billion… and growing. We are no longer separate nations occupying the same planet… we are humans occupying the same planet. Remember Chaos Theory? Gone are the days when some local dictator runs his country into the ground without it affecting its neighbors and even across the world. People are denying the concepts of globalism but the growing population is going to make this more prevalent in our collective need to survive together. Perfect example has been Syria. Their internal struggle affected nearly every industrialized nation around the globe with displaced refugees. This is not gong to get better.

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    • “Their internal struggle affected nearly every industrialized nation around the globe with displaced refugees. This is not gong to get better.”
      Except most those refugees weren’t actually Syrian, as it turned out. The actual percent arriving to Western countries was something like 2% in some cases, while they were flooded with Muslims from surrounding areas being told Europe offered free housing, cars, phones, and food.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. White saviour complex is actually a thing – and it’s another one of those things that has been twisted into something else in our more modern times.

    I have one example that is closer to your definition here:
    ““The term white savior … refers to a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving” ”

    With this definition, I think of people (who happen to be white) who have good intentions, but have no clue that the “help” they are wanting to give is no help at all. My first example illustrates this.

    A little over 30 years ago, my in-laws lived in Bamako for a couple of years, and many foreigners who were there for temporary contracts, or were just in and out with charitable organizations, etc., tended to stay in the same area, hang out and the same clubs, shop at the same grocery stores and so on. The ones that were there longer often helped the newbies settle in to what was often a wildly different cultural environment. After they’d been living there for a year or more, my MIL met up with a younger woman who was really excited about this program she was offering to the locals. She had to work through an interpreter, but still wasn’t getting through to the locals, and she didn’t understand what was wrong. She described the program she was promoting. It was one she had been very successful with, back in the US. It was a sort of Meals On Wheels type of volunteer service, where people would bring home cooked meals to seniors living alone in various types of facilities, ensuring they had good food while also ensuring they had some company to help combat loneliness. She was really excited about how well it had been received and was eager to share it with the locals in Mali.

    After hearing the program described, my MIL very gently and diplomatically explained to her why she wasn’t getting through to the locals.

    They had no idea what she was talking about.

    In their culture, no senior lived alone. Elders were revered and cared for, no matter what. If they didn’t have any immediate family, there was always some extended family that would take them it. It was a matter of honour to do so. The very idea that their precious elders might be abandoned by their families and need such a service was actually very insulting to insinuate.

    So this was a white woman who had her heart in the right place, who had successfully met a need within her own cultural area, excited about sharing this with poor black people in Mali. She did no research to even find out if there was a need for her program. She just assumed they had the same problems with lonely seniors she was used to seeing and, with all the best intentions in the world, inadvertently insulted the very people she meant to help.

    My MIL’s explanation of the cultural differences, and how there was simply no need for this program, did help the woman understand why she wasn’t as successful in Bamako as she was back home, and she returned to the US soon after.

    Modern examples of “white saviour complex” is quite different. Now, more often than not, the “white saviour” is the person quickest to accuse others of “white saviour complex”, while at the same time trying to force their “help” onto poor PoCs, but their “help” often causes more damage. Examples of that are any sort of “affirmative action” program. This is when actual privileged (often white, but not always) people decide the people of colour, or women, or some other sub-group, cannot get by on their own merits, but must be rescued by the saviour. As a result, companies are forced to meet quotas of people who fit certain demographics. Some companies proudly embrace this. In Canada, the CBC, for example, has put out ads for positions that specifically state, no white people. Combating false racism with real racism! However, our own PM is an example of this sort of “white saviour”. Not too long ago, our federal government approved new funding to help women and children in African countries – widows and orphans. However, this money is coming with a huge catch. Part of this “help” aimed at these poor black women and children is that they must include abortion support. You see, those black women are obviously to dumb to know how babies come about, so they need our white government to help them kill their babies, and this will somehow, magically, break the cycle of poverty. Oh, and this is supposed to improve their health somehow, too. However, the countries that this funding is aimed at have strong family cultures and are very pro-life. They don’t want abortions. But they need the funding, and the women and children who need the help are desperate for it. So, the countries and the target organizations are forced to accept the pro-abortion strings attached to the funding, to get help that is actually needed. Meanwhile, back home, pro-abortion Liberals are dislocating their shoulders, patting themselves on the back, over how great they are for “helping” poor black people in Africa.

    And these are the sorts of programs those throwing around accusations of “white saviour complex” support. Which means they are the ones with genuine “white saviour complex.”

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