The White Savior Complex is real and prevalent in our society from popular movies to short-term church mission trips. In movies, it usually involves a community of black and brown people (domestic or abroad) who are experiencing turmoil and ends up being saved and rescued by a brave white character. In churches, it involves a group of dedicated people who have a desire and passion to preach the message of Christ in poor and minority communities. In social justice organizations, it looks like a group of ambitious educated advocates who fight for the rights of the disenfranchised without reaching out to the communities they are fighting for. Many of these people, both in church charities and social justice organizations, have good intentions and are generally good people. However, they often do more harm than good and reinforce systems of oppression. I applaud people who have good intentions and genuinely want to do the right thing whether it is preaching the gospel of Christ around the world, moving and teaching in an economically deprived neighborhood, or advocating for real social change through public policy. The problem is that all of the “good work” done can do more harm than good.
Why use the term “White” Savior Complex?
White people are not the only people who enforce the savior complex. Many successful black and brown people have a savior mentality in regards to charity, advocacy, and mission work. Furthermore, many poor white communities are harmed by “savior” charities and churches just as black communities are. However, the “savior” work, whether it is through movies, churches, or schools promotes a western superiority (attributed to being white) to people who are deemed socially and economically marginalized (which tend to be non-whites).
Below is a list of reasons why the White Savior Complex is toxic and examples of how we reinforce it:
1. The White Savior Complex draws assumptions about the plight of disenfranchised families: Many white Christians have a desire to evangelize in poor minority neighborhoods and non-western countries. As a Christian, I applaud these efforts on the surface, but I fear the outcomes if done in an unhealthy manner. The commitment to go to these communities often stems from a passion to share the gospel and help the most marginalized and “broken” in our society. The problem is that many groups that go to these neighborhoods know little about them. They go into these communities with pre-conceived notions about the lack of character or morals of a particular community. The reality is that many people in these minority neighborhoods have upstanding moral character and while they lack material resources, their faith and love is something to be learned from. Unfortunately, many assume that people in poor and minority communities “need Jesus” simply because of their conditions and circumstances that are often a result of institutional oppression. Furthermore, many Christians go into neighborhoods with their own agenda for what needs to be done without building relationships and getting to know the community they want to serve. This reinforces white supremacy because it assumes that you know best on how to solve their problems.
2. The White Savior Complex reminds people how powerless they are: In Steve Corbett’s When Helping Hurts, he talks about how much of poverty is not merely lacking material resources, it is lacking power or influence. There are two examples of how many churches in poor and minority urban communities reinforce the power dynamics:
a. Food Pantries: Many churches have food pantries that provide food for people in need. While I am not opposed to food pantries entirely, the way many churches operate them is dangerous. They give food to people in need without giving them an option to pick their own food or make any decisions on what they can have. This teaches people that they are poor and incapable of making decisions for themselves. There are many churches that run food pantries that offer “client choice” in the sense that the person needing food can choose what they want to eat in the pantry rather than having the food given to them. This makes a person feel as if he/she is shopping for their families and able to make their own decisions.
b. Holiday Giving: Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, churches across the country invest significant time and money for holiday giving. This ranges from providing meals for people to giving toys to kids. Robert Lupton in his book Toxic Charity tells stories of parents who are unable to provide gifts for their children and accept the toys donated to them from a local church. Every year when a stranger from the church provides their children gifts, they are reminded how poor and powerless they are. The inability to provide gifts for your children is difficult, seeing a stranger year after year offer gifts to your children is humiliating. Take a father who recently immigrated the the United States from Tanzania with his family. He is coming from a country and a tribe where he was an important and influential leader. He moves to Southern California and attends a church where he and his family are welcomed with love and grace. Then a male member of the church who has a good heart decides to buy gifts and clothes for the children without really getting to know the family or their situation. As a man from Tanzania, that would be humiliating to see another man provide things for his children that he may be unable to at the moment. He feels powerless and helpless and the good intentions of the American man reinforced those feelings.
3. The White Savior Complex teaches people that success and greatness are attributed to whiteness: This is reinforced in schools, the media, and movies. History is often taught from a Eurocentric perspective in schools that makes students believe that the great achievements and contributions to civilization were done by white men. The successes of people of color are often limited to civil rights advancements. While the civil rights advancements are important, they are limiting. For example, Black Americans have contributed much to science, philosophy, and education in this country. Much of the great achievements to civilization come from Africa, Asia, and South America, and while this is sometimes taught, it is greatly undermined. I have heard many students both black and white say that that “black history started with slavery” or that “white people created everything.”
4. The White Savior Complex creates a culture of dependency: It makes people feel dependent on others for their liberation and “salvation”: Booker T. Washington, a prominent black civil rights leader in the late 19th and early 20th century talked about the need of black Americans (then referred to as Negro) to learn and develop technical skills so that they could become good stewards of their land and control their resources. He was speaking to a generation not far removed from slavery. He pressed the value of self-reliance so that blacks would not have to rely on whites for everything, thus being completely liberated from slavery. While I do not fully embrace or support Washington’s philosophy, I do think his focus on self-reliance is an important.
5. The White Savior Complex teaches people that they are incapable of providing solutions to systemic issues that affect them: Many organizations that advocate for social justice causes including homelessness, criminal justice, and housing do not engage the communities they are intending to serve, including minority communities who are disproportionately impacted by these disparities. If/when these organizations do engage, it is for the purpose of finding a “token” client to tell a story in a legislative committee or to be featured in a newsletter. Telling stories is important, but using a client to advance your policy agenda without fulling engaging them in the process is toxic. Social Justice organizations that do policy work should actively engage communities through organizing. The organizing should allow people who are directly affected by disparities to share their story and advise policy advocates. For example, people with criminal records know about the disparities in the prison system in ways that many attorneys do not know. It is essential for ambitious attorneys seeking changes to our system to engage and consult communities who are affected. What I appreciate about community organizing, if done well, is that it seeks and builds leaders in a community to lead efforts to real and substantive policy change. Refusing or neglecting to engage in communities affected by disparities reinforces privilege and further censors people who are marginalized. Furthermore, without engaging in communities that are impacted by oppressive public policies, you run the risk of advocating for legislation that has unintended consequences. It pays to get feedback and build alliance with people who are victims of a system you are trying to fight.
6. The White Savior Complex creates cultural superiority: Many short term church mission trips travel abroad for the purpose of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to areas with no churches. What they often do is teach people an Americanized version of Christianity that teaches people to adopt western customs. For example, many people in African countries are convinced that they have to wear suits and ties and reject much of their culture to truly come to Christ. It’s heartbreaking to know that many Christian converts from other countries feel as if their culture is less moral and “godly” than western American culture. What that tells me is that many short term mission trips are actually preaching a gospel of white American superiority instead of the gospel of Jesus.
The White Savior Complex is a subtle form of racism and classism that does much harm and little good to poor and minority communities. It is prevalent in various institutions in our society and is accepted as normal. Next week I will continue this discussion and offer practical solutions to solving this dangerous complex.