6 Wise Ways to Stop Being a White Savior

The White Savior Complex is an oppressive notion that the western/white world is more superior to the non-western/minority world. This is manifested in multiple arenas in our society from religion and politics to entertainment and education. Last week I laid out six reasons why the White Savior Complex is toxic and examples of how it is manifested in our society. This week I will provide solutions to solving this dangerous complex. If we are serious about doing good work and improving social conditions, we will reject the savior complex and our self-interests.
To reject the White Savior Complex, you must:
1. Recognize that it exists: In previous blogs, I have talked about the need to recognize that racism exists and embrace conversations about it. Likewise, it is important to recognize the presence and power of the White Savior Complex. It is important to recognize that many of the views that you harbor about ministry, social justice work, and education are based on a notion of “saving” people in need. While you may recognize and reject systems of racism, you are benefitting from and working as an agent of a racist system when you adopt the white savior complex. To reject this, you have to be honest about your work in enforcing the savior complex. This does not mean that you are a bad person or that you have ill-intent, it does mean that you have been influenced by a culture that seeks to promote and preserve white supremacy.
2. Stop using your privilege to dominate the conversations and the work: It is easy for people who are white and/or educated to take control of community work both domestically and internationally. Part of this is due to the comfort one has with being educated and of a more privileged group. Unfortunately, this often results in the self-interests and voices of the community being unheard and silenced. What usually happens is that privileged people come into a community with educated and ambitious ideas of how to solve a social problem. They passionately promote their ideas and while they may ask the members of the community for feedback, they often use them as tokens rather than partners. It is essential to let go of your privilege and take the role of a learner and follower when seeking to make social change. Learn from and listen to those in the community who are directly experiencing the social ill that you seek to remedy. Let them be the guides and leaders. The voices of poor and minority people are censored and rejected by our society and if you want to help them, you need to hear them.
3. Build Community: Building community means letting go of your own self-interests for the purpose of others. When you take the time to build relationships in the community or village that you are working in, you will become a more effective and trusted ally. This means getting to know the neighborhood, the politics, the power, and the leaders. This means listening, talking less and asking more and seeking first to understand before being understood. This should be common sense but we are so saturated with a savior complex that we forget the basic and fundamental ethic of listening.
4. Let go of your own self-interests: A lot of your ideas and interests won’t work. Plain and simple. Thinking that simply building wells in Africa will increase access to clean water is foolish, especially when you have not researched or understood the real disparity. Your self-interests and ideas will likely receive push backs and challenges from people who will be directly impacted. Listen to them and let go of your own agenda. It will be difficult, but if you are truly wanting change, you have to listen to the people directly impacted by the issues you are seeking to address.
5. Don’t do things for people that are capable of doing things themselves: Robert Lupton talks about this in his book Toxic Charity. When you do things for people that they can do for themselves, you not only disempower them, you devalue them. When you keep giving parents toys and clothes every holiday season, you remind them of their plight and make them feel powerless. It is important to think about the “charity” work that you are doing and reflect on the messages it is sending to people. For example rather than focusing on giving people gifts and food, think about working with people in the community to invest in thrift stores and markets that are affordable.
6. Focus more on supporting and less on leading: Rejecting your privilege means stepping back and supporting the work of people in your community. If you want to “empower” people and effect change, you have to step back and let them lead. One example is effective community organizing. Good community organizing, specifically organizing focusing on criminal justice issues includes people who have been incarcerated leading the movement against mass incarceration rather than ambitious lawyers and lobbyists.

The subtle racism that engineers the White Savior Complex is easy to dismiss. It is easy to suggest that the Savior Complex has nothing to do with racism and believe that it is merely a human problem. However, without naming the system that creates this complex, we cannot completely reject it. If we deny the fact that institutions in our society promote a white western superiority over all, we will continue to believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting to save other cultures. Many people do believe that there is nothing wrong with wanting to “save” other people and find critiques of their methods as challenges to their faith and humanity. Others want to be more effective at their mission and social justice work and recognize the need to reject their privileges and self-interests. Regardless of your methods of charity mission work, I encourage you to challenge and think about how your work is empowering or disempowering the people you are intending to serve. Think about how your purpose, position, and presence can have unintended consequences. If you have adopted best practices and methods that have rejected the white savior complex, I would love your feedback and ideas.

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