The Problem of White Saviorism
Updated: Apr 21
Do you like to help people? Because I do. It feels good. When I get the opportunity to serve someone in need—whether volunteering at a nonprofit, giving food to the houseless, or offering money to a stranger—my brain releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical to reward my behavior.
That pleasure sense isn’t evil; in fact, it’s part of why spreading goodness makes the world a better place. The more people who experience the benefits of loving others with various acts of kindness, the more we begin to experience community in its purest form: a homogenous, compassionate collective that doesn’t “otherize” seemingly different people groups.
But the problem of “white saviorism” is that despite our best intentions and good feels, sometimes helping others is focused more on our self-ascribed heroic efforts rather than being centered on disenfranchised people themselves. Essentially, white saviorism is when a white person or white culture tries to “rescue” people of color (and/or a disenfranchised group) from social issues with unilateral approaches.
Their viewpoint largely states: “I know what’s best for you, oh ye suffering people, and you’ll like what I have to give you.”
For example, when you look at recent efforts in Kansas City, Missouri regarding a group called Free Hot Soup (FHS), you will find a collective (not a 501c3) of friends and families who seemingly mean well with serving food in community parks on Sunday afternoons to those experiencing homelessness. But what you’ll actually find is a group of folks who care more about the idea of caring for the houseless rather than caring for the actual people themselves.
Setting the whole Kansas City, Missouri Health Department bleach issue aside, when you watch FHS’s responses to the national attention they received, you see mostly white people leveraging the suffering of others with Facebook Live videos and selfies to shout to the world, “Hey! Look at us! Look at the good work we are doing!” Don't believe me? Just take a look at FHS's social media activity.
Rather than come alongside the houseless with wraparound services that can help address intersecting issues (e.g. mental illness, substance abuse, health issues, etc.), most members of FHS would rather get their feel-good moment on Sundays at the park, post their efforts on social media, and then disregard how their actions might be exploiting and compromising the community of folks they’re serving.
I can say these things because I am cut from the same cloth. As a white, lower-middle class male, I can’t point the finger at FHS members and condemn their white saviorism without acknowledging that I have and possibly continue to perpetuate white supremacy with my own actions.
I am guilty of traveling to developing countries and taking selfies with the locals to gain people’s approval; I am guilty of researching social justice issues so I can be the “know it all” to my friends and family; and yes, I am guilty of performative allyship when I have served disenfranchised groups for personal/group validation.
This is why white saviorism might kill a social movement before other oppositional forces get a chance to, because we can still unwittingly perpetuate white supremacy even when we genuinely want to help disenfranchised groups of people.
In order to disrupt these white saviorism tendencies, we need to take stock of our personal intentions and ask ourselves some necessary questions, like:
Who is being centered with my actions? The people being served or the folks serving the people?
(For white people) Am I aware of the race/power dynamics in ________ situation? Or am I assuming control of the situation without keeping my privileges in check?
Are my strategies community-driven and do they account for long-term consequences/outcomes? Or are they self-made and focus on short-term fixes?
Am I utilizing and directing resources in an equitable way that empowers disenfranchised groups? Or am I frivolously dispersing resources without accountability and follow-up?
While I am sure we could brainstorm more questions to ask ourselves, the point is well-meaning people typically don’t stop to question their charitable actions. They just serve, but on their own terms and conditions.
If we want to transform our community—and possibly the world—we have to ditch our white savior complexes and become servant leaders, with people of color and disenfranchised groups leading the way.