The white saviour complex is a difficult topic to cover, yet I knew this was one of the first issues I needed to address. To help explain this, I thought to include the three Hollywood movies pictured above. Green book, The Help and Hidden Figures are films based on real-life events, however, Hollywood has often used white characters as a focal point when retelling these stories.
For example, Green book is about a prestigious African – American pianist called Dr Don Shirley and although the film is based around his musical tour of the Deep South, the story is told from the perspective of his white driver. In real life, Dr Don Shirley’s relatives exclaimed that “the thing that bothers our family is the focus of the film is all about a white man who was an extreme racist who was still a racist at the end.” Whereas the film depicts him as a ‘changed’ man by the time the tour is over. The problem with this is that it seemed that a white man was teaching a black man about “black culture,” although everything he knew was based off stereotypes and perceptions of what black people should be interested in. Which in itself is racist.
Another example is Hidden Figures. The character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) didn’t even exist, Hollywood chose to create Harrison’s character for the movie. But why? In the film, Harrison plays a significant role, where he knocks down the ‘coloured ladies room’ sign and gives Kathryn Johnson access to watch the rocket launch from NASA’s control room. However, in reality, Kathryn Johnson stated that she watched the launch from her desk.
I chose these movies as examples of the ‘white saviour complex’ because these images are so normalised. Often white people believe such depictions are ‘anti-racist’ because people of colour are being ‘helped’. It is seen as an inherently good thing. This is the problem. This complex is intended to make one feel better about themselves and to look good in front of others, with possibly a feeling of superiority.
Take another example, Stacey Dooley (pictured below) is mostly known through her BBC investigative documentaries. This year, she travelled to Uganda to film for Comic Relief, and during her trip, she posted numerous photos of herself with Ugandan children. The backlash this received sparked controversy between those who thought she was acting as a white saviour and those who thought she was just trying to help a country less fortunate than her own. However, to assume Stacey Dooley knows more than the locals about their own country and therefore can solve all their problems, is ridiculous. If you travel to a developing country to ‘help,’ but instead, post pictures online with children, that isn’t volunteering. That is voluntourism. (See link to learn more)
Although many charities set up in developing countries are beneficial to the local schools and hospitals, tourists who pitstop at an orphanage or a school for a couple of weeks during their own travels seems a bit off. Post Magazine expressed that “the experience is more beneficial for the visitor, who returns from their overseas immersion in hardship and suffering feeling like a better and more altruistic person.”
When I went travelling for a few months, volunteering at a school in Cambodia was something I wanted to do. I was just as naive as the next white western traveller. I genuinely wanted to help out and I thought my intentions were good – until I came across a Twitter thread about voluntourism.
After doing more research on the term I had never heard of before, I came across an article about fake orphanages in Cambodia. These are orphanages for kids who still have parents. These orphanages are designed for voluntourists. Kids are sent off by their parents to pretend that they are orphans to attracts tourists and their money. These children are pulled out of school to make some extra money for their families. As much as money might be needed, education is just as important and voluntourism is affecting that. To read up more on this system, click here.
“The noble traveller who pays for the privilege of assisting at such institutions is rarely qualified to do so.”Post Magazine
Let’s all examine our privileges and expertise levels next time and ask ourselves if it might just be the white guilt creeping in on us? Because if so, then maybe just donate to a well-trusted organisation before jetpacking across the globe to disrupt a community who aren’t in dire need of your lack of skills and knowledge. And of course, there are organisations out there that are beneficial to communities but if you have to scream about it on social media – you might want to think about who is benefitting the most.
The white saviour complex is often a mixture of a white person genuinely wanting to do some good but only because they feel guilty. Guilt comes from the feeling of doing something wrong; and yes white privilege isn’t a good thing. But there are certain ways to go about dismantling this kind of privilege. Volunteering for two weeks or even a month at an orphanage isn’t going to fix much – except maybe your guilt. This, once again is a form of elevating your white privilege. Doing research, speaking up and taking action is what will truly help to dismantle the system of white supremacy. I can’t help where I was born, raised and the colour of my skin. These are things that are all out of my control, and I shouldn’t feel guilty for that. But I can do something about the stigma behind where one is born, raised and the colour of their skin. And this is done by educating myself, having difficult conversations and questioning my intentions.
This blog has already caused some upset and controversy amongst some readers – when I write my articles, my hands are clammy and my chest is tight. I get anxious over what my friends and family might think. But I still continue to write and express my thoughts because I know that someone is out there and is learning from what I have learnt myself. Even if it is just one person, that is one more person to helping to dismantle the system. And of course, I can be just as naive as the next white person, but I am still learning to challenge my thoughts and reasonings and there is no reason for others to not do the same.
“Privilege is something society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and equalitarian my intentions.”Harry Brod,
“Work Clothes and Leisure Suits: The Class Basis and Bias of the Men’s Movement,”