White saviourism

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White saviourism, or the white saviour complex, describes "when a white person, or more broadly a white culture, “rescues” people of colour from their own situation. We see the white savior complex in film tropes like The Help and The Blind Side, but also in volunteerism and activism work. In activism work, we commonly see this as “tokenism” – the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce." - Black Equity Resources [1]

"The white-saviour complex also imposes the notion that the white person knows what communities of colour need, rather than listening to how they can truly be of help." - Black Equity Resources [2]

Examples of white saviourism

In the popular film 'Freedom Writers' [3]

  • Based on a true story, a white teacher takes a job at an underperforming school and encourages her BIPOC students to journal about the hardships holding them back. The film focuses on the work of the teacher, and ignores the challenges faced and agency of the students themselves. The film depicts a single white woman who “saves” an entire classroom of students.

International adoption [4]

  • Some people choose international adoption because they seek to “save” children from a life of poverty, crime or in some cases their culture.
  • In reality, some children put up for adoption are stolen or purchased from families to fuel the ongoing adoption trade (i.e. see this example from Kenya).

'Voluntouring' [5]

  • This phenomena defines a trip that combines volunteering with tourism. The emphasis is often on what the volunteer gains from the experience, plus the lasting benefit to the community they aid. 
  • Volunteers often attempt to support communities without knowledge of what those communities actually want or need.
  • The quick aid and exit when working with children can have negative implications for children who’ve already experienced grief and loss.

For a listen on white saviourism on a grand scale, check out the White Saviours podcast which details the WE Charity scandal.

If you have any suggested revisions or additional resources to share related to the above content, please email them to kenzie@lehub.ca.

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