Updated: Apr 30
There was a meme shared in our group recently that got me thinking about a certain brand of white saviorism and white people who wear their “wokeness” like a badge of honor on social media. In our Future First Education “Advocacy in Education Toolbox,” I define white saviorism as follows:
This term refers to people who operate under the assumption that they know best, even when it comes to knowing what is best for people with experiences and perspectives different from their own (HipLatina). Most commonly, white people are the perpetrators of white saviorism. A white savior may initially seem benign or even progressive, but white saviorism is actually “an extension of privilege and white supremacy” (HipLatina). White saviors often perceive themselves as doing favors for people who they consider broken, deficient, or even misguided (HipLatina). Because of such self-perceptions, white saviors rarely invest the time and energy necessary to truly respect, understand, and work collaboratively with people with whom they could advocate.
White saviorism prevents dialogue, inclusion, and participation, robbing BIPOC of agency and input (Kuja). Acting as a “white savior” tends to be patronizing and paternalistic, “doing things to or for others rather than seeking to empower” (Kuja, emphasis in original).
Avoiding white saviorism requires self-awareness, and interrogation of your own motivations for engaging in activism. In some cases, even people of color can exhibit aspects of saviorism, particularly if socio-economic disparities exist between advocates and the people they claim to want to help. In a nutshell, white saviorism occurs when people confuse pity with compassion, and it is often more harmful than helpful. White saviorism can also lead to tokenism.
But here’s the thing: for the sake of clarity, this definition describes something that might sound obvious even though white saviorism can be subtle, and can present itself in different ways, including performative wokeness. Not all “white saviors”fit the stereotypical image many of us imagine. So, here, I would like to delve into some of the phenomenon that can lead to both white saviorism and performative wokeness. However, I am not dissecting this issue because I want or expect BIPOC or other marginalized people to understand white people. Rather, I want to equip other white people with some insights that might help them avoid committing the sin(s) of white saviorism. I do not aim to excuse the transgressions of white saviorism or performative wokeness. Rather, I seek to raise white awareness about how this keeps happening, so we can cut it out. It’s a distraction from the movement, and it needs to stop.
Sometimes when white people start reading about antiracism, a few things can happen simultaneously: 1. Some become arrogant, thinking their knowledge of the situation is sufficient to take the lead in fixing it, 2. They what acceptance. Breaking from the culture we’ve grown up in is scary, even when we see its flaws. But it feels less scary if we have a different culture to receive us, so we want to be welcomed and embraced quickly within “woke” culture. 3. Some feel like they're working hard and deserve recognition for it.
These 3 things are all vestiges of growing up in a white supremacist society and internalizing its ills. I’ll address each of them one at a time.
1. Arrogance: It is essential that white people “do the work” of dismantling and uprooting racism, but we cannot do so without humbling ourselves, giving up privileges from which we automatically benefit by being white in a white supremacist society (yes, even if we are marginalized in other ways), and listening to people who have been surviving and resisting racism for centuries. White people (myself included), especially those in certain socio-economic categories, are often taught that we are the leaders/decision-makers/masterminds of society. It's ingrained in many of us to take initiative, even if we have to "fake it 'til we make it." But empathizing with and respecting other worldviews and lived experiences isn't something we can fake. No matter how much we read, our understanding of racism will always pale in comparison to the lived experiences of black generations who have been dealing with, thinking about, and resisting racism for 400+ years.
Compounding this inclination, in many cases being a “follower” instead of a “leader” in predominantly white culture is discouraged, and what it means to “be a leader!” and what our “leadership style” is are a major focus. There also seems to be little room for nuance; the narrative goes that you’re either one or the other: a leader or a follower. The leader-follower binary falls into a paradigm in which following is looked down upon. Leaders are thought of as masters, and followers are thought of as slaves. Leaders have power, while followers don’t. And what do you need to lead? You need followers. How do you get them? Some think you build a following by demonstrating that you understand the world better than everyone else, and that you can show everyone the way forward. You might also virtue signal that you don’t just share the values of the group you want to lead—you epitomize them.
But none of that is necessary if we recognize that the leader-follower binary is a construct, as is the resulting paradigm that classifies following as a negative. In other words, the notion that “you are one or the other: a strong leader or a weak follower” is made-up. It isn’t accurate, and it isn’t particularly useful. This false binary fails to account for the fact that as a white person, you can lead by following black people. It also fails to recognize that your most productive role might be somewhere in between leader or follower. Maybe you would excel as a facilitator for example! Or, perhaps you will be most helpful if you vacillate between the two, depending on context. Finally, there is absolutely nothing wrong or weak about being a follower. We can all contribute in different ways, understanding that each contribution has value and is vital to the movement.
2. Acceptance: The desire for acceptance and a sense of “home” is real. While losing people who you thought were friends and upsetting family, that desire can turn into desperation, especially if one isn’t mentally and emotionally prepared for the fallout from practicing antiracism. But we can’t expect or assume that those who we seek as our new “fam” will automatically trust us. It’s imperative that we understand that we have to earn trust by “doing the work,” and that this process will take TIME. We aren’t being persecuted or rejected just because people are still trying to suss out whether we are generally safe to bond with and/or whether we have the maturity to work through problems when we inevitably make mistakes.
3. Achievement: The self-work of confronting one’s biases, one’s upbringing, and even defining aspects of the socio-economic framework that our national identity is wrapped up in (capitalism!) is tough. But it isn’t as tough as surviving and resisting racism every. damn. day. And while we can certainly empathize, and should not stop trying to do so, I think sometimes white people forget that the hard work of practicing antiracism, is a lot easier and less stressful to deal with than generations of trauma. When white people forget that fact, they tend to want the sort of recognition they get in other contexts: the gold star, the A+, the promotion, the raise, the key to the city, etc.
Now, of course, other aspects of identity might limit, erase, or prevent such recognition. As a white woman I’m less likely to get the promotion over a white man. If I were transgender, I might not be hired at all, or if I were homosexual a landlord might legally deny me a place to live. In short, I’m aware that I’m generalizing, and that what I’m describing may not align exactly with every individual white experience. The point is that, in many cases, white people—especially cis-gender, heterosexual, white men—are accustomed to being recognized for their efforts, while black people’s accomplishments are routinely overlooked, ignored, and erased from history. All of us have not necessarily gotten the memo that we shouldn’t be seeking kudos for catching up when it comes to learning about racism and antiracism. Consider this your memo. This phenomenon kind of reminds me of when someone witnesses a father change a diaper and then fawns over him for being “SUCH a GREAT dad!” I’m sure many momscan relate to the sensation of our eyes glazing over in response. He may very well be a great dad, but suggesting that changing a diaper is all it takes is goofy and offensive.
To some extent, I have done some of these things myself, especially earlier in my antiracism journey. And I still check in with myself regularly to ensure I don’t still do them. If I realize I’ve screwed this up again, I work to repair the damage I’ve done. Above all, I’ve found that a major part of being a better ally, becoming and advocate, and stepping up to be a co-conspirator entails having the respect to stop and listen to black leaders. I can still help “lead” by demonstrating to other white people how to follow—how to put aside my own agenda, and “do the work” that my black colleagues and friends tell me is most important to them. And, yes, sometimes that might include stepping into a leadership role… because this is a heavy burden that no one group of people should have to shoulder alone. But leadership in antiracism is a role that white people must willingly adopt, not one we can take.
“5 Ways to Tell if You Have White Savior Complex.” HipLatina. 25 June 2020, https://hiplatina.com/white-savior-complex-is-real/. Accessed 20 Sept 2020.
Kuja, Ryan. “6 Harmful Consequences of the White Savior Complex.” Sojourners, 24 July 2019, https://sojo.net/articles/6-harmful-consequences-white-savior-complex. Accessed 18 Sept 2020.