Learn about the origins of White Savior Complex and how to tackle the behavior in your workplace.
Recently, I was part of a racial equity workshop within my department. We used a word cloud generator to learn more about our commonalities as a diverse group of people. Topics ranged from the benign, like music and food, to provocative ones like justice. Overall, it provoked great conversation and met our goals. But that wasn’t the end of the discussion.
During one of the prompts, “Our Clients,” we had predictable words used to describe the clients. I work in a non-profit workforce development organization, with clients who face a number of barriers to employment. Our clients range from refugees and English-language learners to single parents living in government-subsidized housing and all types of clients with similar challenges to employment. Words like engaged, resilient, diverse, brave, kind, optimistic all showed up in the word cloud.
The Word Cloud about our clients from the exercise with my colleagues. Image provided by the author.
These words are truthful, from the perspective of the people who shared them. And that is what we ended up talking about: our perspective.
I was prepared for this conversation. As I was preparing this exercise with the committee, I made sure to add a specific question.
Are these the words that our clients would use to describe themselves?
This question definitely caused a pause in the discussion. One of my colleagues shared, “I think they would describe themselves in different terms. Like feeling scared. Or skeptical. I want them to be hopeful, but I don’t think they would describe themselves as hopeful.”
In the small group conversation that I led, one of my colleagues said she need to “sit in” the experience. That she wanted to reflect on this disconnect between what she thought about our clients and what they were expecting and experiencing.
I wanted to tackle White Savior Complex in our department. And I believe this exercise was a start.
White Savior Complex: What Is This?
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, “The white savior complex is an ideology that is acted upon when a white person, from a position of superiority, attempts to help or rescue a BIPOC person or community. Whether this is done consciously or unconsciously, people with this complex have the underlying belief that they know best or that they have skills that BIPOC people don’t have,” according to Savala Nolan, author of Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body and the director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law.
For those of us who work in the nonprofit world, often in organizations created by White people, we may be contributing unconsciously to this ideology. This impact reveals itself if the mission and purpose remain rooted in sharing knowledge already known by the populations we are helping.
Colleen Murphy, in Health.com, shares, “In fact, white saviorism is a centuries-old concept. It can be traced back to the days when many white Westerners believed that they inherently had the knowledge, skills, and ingenuity to solve the problems of other people all around the world, especially people in the developing world, and especially Africans.”
That over 80% of our clients identify as BIPOC, many self-identifying as African American or Africans, we need to confront our perpetuation of white saviorism.
What Does It Look or Sound Like?
White savior complex can look and sound different depending on the organization and its staffing. But its impact can be negative, regardless of intent. “I sort of liken someone who’s engaged in white saviorism to a person who rushes into the emergency room wanting to help, but if they don’t have training as a nurse or a doctor, they may actually end up doing more harm than good,” Nolan says.
From the example of the Word Cloud exercise, staff believed that our clients are hopeful. However, the clients’ lived experiences could remain grounded in fear or skepticism. What happens when a career coach believes the client disconnected or disengaged, rather than hopeful or brave? Does the coach put such a description in the client notes or share it with their supervisor about the disengaged client?
Or worse, points out to the client that their attitude isn’t as gracious as it should be?
Nathan Greene, PsyD, with Healthline, believes that “many white saviors believe their actions challenge the white supremacy and racism so deeply threaded into American society. In reality, though, white saviorism tends to emphasize inequality, because it continues to center the actions of white people while ignoring (or even invalidating) the experiences of those they’re claiming to help.”
As we unpacked our Word Cloud exercise, some of my White colleagues spoke on this topic. About how the term hope is related to their work. About how they wanted to inspire and motivate. Or how good it felt when a client followed through on their directions.
In many ways, the work they delivered centered on their goals and outcomes. Not on the clients they were serving.
Listening to Those We Serve
When we listen to the communities we serve, our actions become re-centered. The Ugandan organization No White Saviours, in their publication How to be an Advocate Without Perpetuating the White Savior Complex 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.”
Suggestions to Consider
Our intention to help marginalized or oppressed people needs revisiting. Important to point out that White savior complex does not solely talk about white people, but is a complex based on whiteness. Sojourner White, in How to Avoid a White Savior Complex, believes that “Due to colonialism and racism, we are all individuals collectively attempting to survive in systems upheld by white supremacy. Yes, white saviorism is about white people causing harm. However, it is more about a system of whiteness and how its toxic standards socialize us to believe it is always right. Therefore, it is unavoidable to be impacted and influenced…by white saviorism.” Our work remains centered on whiteness, rather than native, indigenous or collectivist principles, even philanthropic or nonprofit work because of its affiliation with capitalism.
Alisoun Mackenzie, author of How To Avoid White Savior Complex And Why That’s Important, shares a number of tips for people who wish to confront their perpetuation of White savior complex behavior. While focused on overseas visiting, the concepts can apply to local work, as well.
How to Avoid Being a White Savior
- 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.
- Question your motives. Before deciding to get involved in any charitable activities…question and reflect on your motives. Witness thoughts that come up and explore what they mean rather than dismiss 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.
- Don’t assume what you have to offer is needed, wanted, or the best solution. First, build a relationship with those you’re seeking help and find out what they want and need. Listen. Discuss ways to partner rather than assuming the lead.
- 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?
Reflecting and Reflections
I understand how my connection to Whiteness influences my perception as an insider and outsider. Regardless of my connection to the communities I serve, my ego pops up to assert its Whiteness. Therefore, I remain vigilant in keeping my ego in check because the work is too important. I have learned one way to do this, that anyone can do.
During conversations with my clients, I act as a mirror. My training in active listening helps me parrot back to my clients what they have shared. But I make sure that I frame all my conversations as a mirror on what they shared with me. That all the good things I share came from them, I just filtered through the negative to get to it.
By keeping my own ego in check, I avoid sharing solutions that may fit my world, expertise, or access to solutions. Rather, I present a solution that fits them. Usually in their own words.
As we continue to look at how white savior culture impacts our work, I invite you to share how you plan to check your ego and do the work to dismantle white savior complex in your work.