Problematic Histories of Engagement: The “White Saviour” Complex

The term ‘white saviour’ is itself a notion of altruism that follows the contemporary desire to ‘help others’ based on the idea of a universal human “compassion in us for others, sometimes despite a risk and cost to the self” (Burr, 2010, p. 1). Hughey (2014, p. 7) further described the ‘white savior’ as “characters whose innate sense of justice drives these tales of racial cooperation, nonwhite uplift, and White redemption” that ultimately reinforce “normal and natural White paternalism.”

The term is meant to draw attention to the way this approach reproduces the problematic dynamics of colonialism. It refers to when privileged, often white, individuals enter communities (both domestically or abroad) with the intention of “saving” them. It is harmful because it patronizes communities by suggesting they need outside intervention to identify and solve their problems.

While the conversation about the saviour complex often centres around privileged, white individuals going overseas, this concept also applies more broadly. The same issues can arise for outsiders with various identities going into any community that is not their own.

As Teju Cole (2012, p. 5) succinctly puts it:

“One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener, and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference’.”

Real-world Example of the White Saviour Complex: Voluntouring 

‘Voluntouring’ — is a slang word used to describe taking a short trip which combines volunteer work with tourism. However, it often focuses more on what the volunteer gains from the experience than any lasting benefit to the communities they aim to help.

Volunteers often attempt to support communities without any researched knowledge, meaningful collaboration, or consideration of what those communities need. Often, they also lack specialized experience or skills.

For example, building a house or school is an undertaking that requires specialized knowledge and skill, in order to ensure the integrity and safety of the building. Using a different example, spending just a few short weeks volunteering in an orphanage or children’s home may have more negative side effects for children who’ve already experienced plenty of grief and loss. Children who become attached to volunteers might experience further trauma and separation anxiety when those volunteers return home.

Before taking a voluntour trip, ask yourself:

  • Have community members openly expressed their need?
  • What kind of support have community members asked for? Does it align with this initiative?
  • Do I have the skills and experience needed for the job?
  • Could I use the money I’m spending more efficiently by directly donating to the organization I want to support?
  • Am I taking paid work opportunities from people in the community?

How you approach your work and knowledge of a community matters. As discussed earlier in this course, it is critical to remember that community members are the experts about their community and what may need to be done. Moreover, individuals should never do anything in another community that they would not be permitted to do back in their home community.

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Building Sustainable Communities: Creating Connections for the Future by Ryan Plummer; Amanda Smits; Samantha Witkowski; Bridget McGlynn; Derek Armitage; Ella-Kari Muhl; and Jodi Johnston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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