Impact Over Intent: Issues with the ‘White Saviour’ Complex

While the ‘white saviour’ complex is a relatively new term, the behaviour has been around for decades. A ‘white saviour’ complex: when a white person attempts to help a non-white person in an attempt to fulfill their own needs. While the act of helping others alone is in no way harmful and rarely selfish, the belief that only we, as white people, can save others from their disastrous situations (and that they need saving in the first place) is extremely twisted. This complex is often seen in voluntourism, and is also common in the film industry, as it sneaks its way into popular movies like The Blind Side. It affects Indigenous lives in Canada as well, like when government officials go into Indigenous communities in an attempt to quickly fix problems without first understanding the issues. The white saviour complex has harmful effects and is rarely helpful for anyone, which is exactly why it’s important to talk about.

One of the biggest problems with this behaviour is that it expects people to be unable to help themselves. By saying things like we’re ‘the voices for the voiceless’, we degrade BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of colour) into powerless beings without autonomy. This also claims that white people are better than people of colour since it claims that white voices are so much more important and knowledgeable than BIPOC opinions. Not only does this way of thinking assume that very real human beings are incapable of helping themselves and that white people are so powerful that only they can save others, it also neglects to address the fact that white people have caused most of these issues for BIPOC in the first place. 

There’s no doubt that helping others is not in and of itself bad. But causing something bad to happen to others, neglecting to take responsibility for it (or at the very least address it), and then asserting that you alone can fix what you’ve done and that those you’ve done these things to are weak is undeniably wrong. This is why the saying ‘impact over intent’ is so relevant to the idea of the white saviour – while someone’s intentions may be good, the impacts can still be detrimental, and that’s what truly matters. Twitter user Teju Cole wrote, “I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly”. Studies have shown that racism by white people has consistently disadvantaged other races in a lot of areas, often leading to poverty, battles with mental health, unequal opportunities, and more. In this way, the racism that we, as white people, have caused, is directly correlated to the ‘saving’ that apparently only we can do, further discounting the abilities of those who were both disadvantaged and hurt by us in the first place. Without solving the deep-rooted racism that exists within our societies, our attempts to save those that we believe are in need will never be helpful, and will most definitely not ever be enough. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve seen aspects of the white saviour complex in my own life, and that I’ve at times subconsciously believed that my own power and privilege as a white person was what other BIPOC needed. I’ve seen people around me participate in poverty porn, the act of objectifying people in media in order to incentivize donations, insinuating that those people are victims unable of helping themselves. I have friends who’ve publicly exhibited their white saviour complex, posting pictures with non-white children in third-world countries in self-fulfilling attempts to seem benevolent and admirable. But while all of these people (myself included) were most likely well-intended, our actions fell short of being productive or useful in addressing the real issue. Systemic racism has led to inequality for centuries, and without first understanding that idea and admitting that we’ve contributed to the problem, the white saviour complex will always be present. But this demeaning way of thinking of white people as all-powerful is extremely problematic.

So how can helping people who are less well-off than us who also happen to be BIPOC ever be truly helpful? Well, first of all, I think that openly admitting our own privilege and addressing the fact that it doesn’t make us in any way better than others, as well as working to fight against the systemic racism that white people have helped cause are both important steps as a basis for helping BIPOC. Recognizing, too, that they’re in many ways smarter, more capable, more skilled than us, and therefore not in need of our saving, is also important. Lately, more and more people have been travelling to third-world countries to help teach local leaders, help develop their pre-existing skills and learn new ideas in order to help their own communities. By looking at the history of communities and supporting them in their pre-existing skills, we can amplify their voices as we stand-in as secondary voices. In this way, white people are not attempting to fix anything, rather, they simply support others in their journeys to improving their own talents and careers, an act that has a ripple-effect on entire communities and towns. This is just one of the ways white people can stand behind BIPOC without attempting to speak or act for them.

It can sometimes feel like there is no ‘right answer’ when it comes to helping BIPOC. But if the idea of walking into a random white person’s home, picking up their kids and taking pictures with them, reconstructing their house, and then leaving makes you uncomfortable, then it might be time to take a look into how you see yourself as a white person. Much of the work that white people do is good work. And this is not to say that white people can’t help BIPOC and make a difference in their lives. But if your intentions are good and the impact you’re having on the lives of people of colour is not, it’s never worth it. 

Note: This article is part of our Winter 2021 Print Edition that focuses on both issues and the good in the current state of the world. Look across campus for a paper copy of this edition!

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Author: Kate Robart

Kate Robart is a third-year double major in English and Business at Acadia University.