Last Updated on September 16, 2022 by Editorial Staff
By Alisoun Mackenzie, Visionary leader and author
When I first volunteered to help young genocide survivors in Rwanda in 2010 I was totally unaware of the concept of white savior complex or the need to avoid it. It was a shock to hear many well-intentioned people of white privilege do more harm than good when visiting Africa, Asia & Latin America, and other former ‘western’ colonies.
Our desire to go abroad and do something meaningful with our lives may come from a place of good intentions. But there are several important issues to be aware of and avoid when overseas.
The purpose of this blog is to explain what white savior complex is, how it shows up, and how to avoid stepping into this destructive role.
Over the last ten years, I’ve educated myself and listened to people who have suffered at the hands of white saviors. I realise now I’m a recovering white savior. Yes, I’ve still got work to work to do and I may make mistakes in the future. But I also feel it would be more harmful not to share what I’ve learned so far.
“We never said ‘no white people’ we just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story.” No White Saviors
What is white savior complex?
Consider this: how would you feel if random rich people from another race and country were given a free rein (without the usual stringent vetting or suitable qualifications) to volunteer in schools, orphanages, hospitals or community projects, build schools, be around your children (interrupting their education) or taking photos of children in vulnerable positions, for the purpose of sharing them on social media. All without your permission.
To make matters worse, imagine if these people also came from a country that invaded your country and slaughtered your people in the past. That they come with no knowledge of your country. Or perceive your country as needing to be ‘rescued’ or used as an unregulated playground or testing environment for personal growth.
Author, critic and Harvard professor Teju Cole coined the phrase White Saviour Industrial Complex.
“The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” Teju Cole.
In her book Me and White Supremacy, Layla F Saad refers to “Well-intentioned white missionaries and volunteers traveling to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to help ‘rescue’ BIPOC from their country’s poverty and lack of development.” (BIPOC: black, indigenous, and people of colour)
“The savior mentality means that you want to help others but are not open to guidance from those you want to help. Saviors fundamentally believe they are better than the people they are rescuing. Saviors want to support the struggle of communities that are not their own, but they believe they must remain in charge.” Jordan Flaherty, author of No More Heros: Grassroots Challenges, to the Savior Mentality.
I really value the advice the Ugandan organisation No White Saviours gives through their blog, podcast, and Instagram feed. In their blog, How to be an Advocate Without Perpetuating the White Savior Complex they state:
“One thing we need to make clear is that it is not a bad thing to care about issues like access to water or education, human trafficking, malnutrition, child protection, maternal health, poverty, HIV/AIDS. It’s certainly not wrong to see needs that exist within our own communities or internationally and to want to do something to address these needs. The problem arises when you need to be centered as the one solving these problems and when the recipients of your aid/charity are always black and brown people. The problem arises when you need to be photographed for every charitable act and when you receive praise for simply being pictured in close proximity to black bodies.”
The roots of white savor complex come from the many injustices of colonialism, the way white people justified the slave trade, and systemic racism that’s evolved since then. It’s not just your actions you need to consider. You also need to be aware of the historical context, culture, and power dynamic you represent.
It’s impossible to separate white saviorism from white supremacy. They are interlinked. If you benefit from white privilege and haven’t yet done the work to unpack your unconscious bias, I thoroughly recommend this book: Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism, and Change the World by Layla F Saad.
Ways white saviorism shows up
- You feel you want to help people in ‘developing’ countries – this implies you think people from these countries need to be rescued, want your help, need your help, and that you and your country are best placed to provide this.
- Volunteering overseas other than where there is a critical need – firefighters, medical professionals, development specialists, and trauma healers are some of the professions that are genuinely needed short-term to help a country recover from a natural disaster or war. However, other than in critical situations, volunteering abroad takes jobs away from locals and encourages local governments to rely on free labor. Plus the use of unskilled volunteers often causes more long-term damage than good (many buildings built by volunteers are not fit for purpose). Unless you have skills that are critically needed overseas, you’re part of a communal community or environmental project there are better ways to support people in other countries.
- Volunteering in schools or orphanages – schools are educational establishments. A constant stream of short-term volunteers making one-off trips interrupts the education of children, exposes them to risks, and can contribute to attachment disorders. Orphanages are never a good long-term solution but westerners visiting them fosters a long-term reliance on them. Sadly in some countries, many ‘fake’ orphanages abuse and exploit children for sole the profit of unscrupulous criminals running them.
- Lack of knowledge and preparation – visiting countries with little understanding of historical or cultural contexts (including the role of colonialism, what the country excels at, their leaders, and areas of expertise). Plus how you could partner with local agencies rather than taking the lead.
- Assuming western ideas will work and are the best way to solve perceived problems – with little regard or inquiry of what’s needed, wanted, and is already available locally.
- White centering – the centering of those with white privilege, physically or in the context thinking of our values and cultures as normal or better than others. This includes making yourself or others of white privilege the hero of the story (photos, films, or words). Doing this without sharing the stories of those in the photos or a full representing a broader narrative of reality. In feature films, white actors often play the role of people who wouldn’t have been white or are depicted as the hero of the story. Consider the way charities that use white celebrities to tell their story. This is explained more in this article When the Savior Becomes the Story.
- Taking photos of yourself with young children, without the permission of their parents – consider how you’d feel about someone doing this with children you know. I admire Stacey Dooley for having had the courage and desire to share untold stories of women and injustices around the world, as she’s done consistently for years. I have found her book and documentary series very educational. But even a well-seasoned journalist can get it wrong. A couple of years ago she took and shared an inappropriate photo of herself and a young Ugandan child on Instagram. Yes, we’re all likely to make mistakes, however, when we do it’s important to acknowledge them, apologise, and learn from them. Find out more about what not to do in this No White Saviours blog: What We Can All Learn From Stacey Dooley’s ‘White Savior Row’ & Her Refusal to Do Better/.
- Tokenism – adapting what you say or do to look good without doing the work to unpack your unconscious bias, and embracing a consistent and authentic approach to being an antiracist ally.
- Taking goods to give out to people in other countries – unless you’ve established there is a lack of local supply this implies people need your charity and what you’ve got is better than what they have in their country. It’s better to first establish needs and then spend your money in the country you’re visiting. This helps support the local economy and jobs.
- Offering to run workshops or providing solutions – likewise, unless you’ve first established what you offer isn’t available locally, you’re making an arrogant assumption that what you’re offering is the best most culturally appropriate solution.
How to avoid being a white savior
If you’re visiting other countries and/or seeking to volunteer overseas, it’s really important to consider how best to do this in ways that are respectful, compassionate, and effective. Particularly if you’re a person of white privilege.
Like everything else in life, I’ve found people have very different opinions on what’s right and wrong when it comes to white saviors. Even amongst people of colour.
For example, ahead of leading a team out to Cambodia, we spoke to a couple of local organisations for advice on what to be aware of while traveling there. We were advised not to give money to begging children and to instead make donations to local charities/projects who helped children and local families step out of poverty. We were also warned that tourists giving money to begging children on the street was causing children to be kept out of school, abused, and used as child labor.
However, while on a trip, one of our local guides told us it was best to give money to begging children to stop them from being beaten up at home by their parents. Two very different perspectives from the local community. One focusing on the short-term need. The other trying to tackle more systemic issues.
It’s worth being mindful that many people in other countries have also been conditioned and so expect us to step into the role of white saviors.
You need to decide what feels right for you ethically. The following tips will hopefully help you do this:
- Unpack your conscious bias – if you benefit from white privilege, start by taking the time to educate yourself on being an antiracist ally e.g. by reading and doing the work suggested in the book Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism, and Change the World by Layla F Saad.
- Consistency – avoid tokenism by embracing being a better antiracist ally consistently in all you say and do across all areas of your life–not just while overseas.
- Question your motives – before deciding to get involved in any charitable activities, and while overseas, question and reflect on your motives. Witness thoughts that come up and explore what they mean rather than dismissing them because they feel uncomfortable. Good questions to ask yourself include: Would I do this at home? Would I feel comfortable if others did this in my country?
- Educate yourself – on the country you’re visiting and particularly from natives so you have a broader perspective of the country rather than that presented solely by those from those of white privilege. Acknowledge the role of colonialism, slavery, conflicts, and any power dynamic that exists between your country and the country you are visiting.
- Do your research – if you’re considering getting involved in a charitable project, check them out thoroughly and establish to what extent they are working with and listening to the needs of those they seek to serve. Check out my blog: How to Choose a Charity to Support Through Your Business (practical tips for anyone, not just business owners).
- Support long-term projects with a good track record – those that partner with local people/agencies and can evidence their long-term positive impact rather than those who embrace white savior complex.
- Don’t assume what you have to offer is needed, wanted, or is the best solution – first build a relationship up with those you’re seeking help and find out what they want and need. Listen. Discuss ways to partner rather than assuming the lead.
- Limit volunteering to your area of expertise only if it’s critically needed – e.g. after a natural disaster, humanitarian crisis, war or there is a known lack of resources/skills to deliver solutions locally. If you really want to volunteer consider why you feel the need to do this overseas rather than in your local community. Where you do have skills that are needed, commit to volunteering on a long-term basis (e.g. as a one-off trip for several months or regular shorter trips).
- Donate funds rather than volunteering – if you really want to support overseas projects donating funds is often the best way to help ensure critical needs are met and provide local jobs. You can always also go on a holiday to visit the country, learn about the culture, and support the local economy.
- Stop being the hero of the story – of course, people who have supported your fundraising are likely to want to see what you’ve done with their money. But, rather than making the story about you, how about sharing the perspectives and stories of those you’re working with. What would they like the world to know or see? Being mindful that people from some cultures, especially those run by dictators with strict censorship laws, may not feel safe being photographed, filmed, or want to speak up. As Duncan Ward, founder of my partner charity Classroom of Hope says, “make the locals the heroes because it is them who are changing their countries.”
- Get explicit permission for any photos or films you take – take pictures and share the thoughts of leaders or organisations you’re working with rather than exploiting vulnerable children. Where it is appropriate to take pictures of children (and you have parental consent) do this respectfully and don’t put yourself in the centre of the image. Remember to ask yourself, would this be acceptable at home?
- Shop local – rather than taking goods over with you (unless you’ve established a critical need and lack of local supply) buy what’s needed in the country so you support the local economy.
Listen to Alisoun Mackenzie on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast
White savior complex implies that those with white privilege are best placed to sort out other’s problems, without first establishing what’s needed and exploring whether perceived problems are real or can be sorted without white intervention.
People with white privilege have been conditioned to be white saviors. However, continuing to adopt this mentality and stepping into this role is racist, disrespectful, and harmful to those you often want to help.
It’s time for us all to help create a fairer and more equitable world both at home and when overseas.
For most of us, exploring what this means and acknowledging the part we’ve played is an uncomfortable journey.
I’m not proud to realise I was a white savior but I am proud of the positive impact of our work. There’s definitely a fine line between seeking to rescue versus respectfully helping or supporting others, especially if you benefit from white privilege. I now think very carefully about many aspects before getting involved in overseas projects, as I discuss in this blog: Lombok School Project: Steps we’re taking to avoid being white saviors
This blog first appeared on Alisoun’s website.
You may also like Childless Not By Choice – Through Grief To Acceptance also by Alisoun
Alisoun Mackenzie is an inspiring coach, mentor, speaker, visionary leader, author, yoga teacher and retreat leader. She empowers women over forty to thrive, enjoy a meaningful life, and have more impact in the world. Alisoun runs a community called Women Over 40 Rocking the World. She is the author of Amazon best sellers Heartatude, the 9 Principles of Heart-Centered Success, and Give to Profit, How to Grow Your Business by Supporting Charities and Social Causes.