Casting off the White Savior Complex

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck

A lesson in humility

I arrived in Lima, Peru without a concrete plan. I just had two suitcases, a list of people to talk to, a TEFL certification, and the hope that everything would work out just fine. After all, I was a white, college-educated American with a political science degree. Who wouldn’t want me?

Fast forward four weeks to my first day at a volunteer internship at a local NGO. “This is it. This is my chance to start saving the world,” I thought. OK, maybe not those words exactly, but I’m pretty sure something similar ran through my head. I thought that I was going to easily make an impact, get visa sponsorship without a problem, etc. Because America.

The realities turned out to be different from my fantasy. I discovered that it was going to be quite difficult to stay (legally). And except for the requests for translations that came my way, I felt useless.

And that’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me.

I entered Peru with arrogant attitudes about what I could bring to the table as an outsider without any special skill set. Over several months, I learned that Peruvians are some of the hardest working people I know. I realized that I will never understand the intricacies of a country and a culture as well as someone who grew up there. I learned how hard it is for NGOs in developing countries to do good work when they remain subject to the whims of donor politics. I learned that I can’t save anyone, but that I can humble myself, listen, roll up my sleeves, and get to work alongside these leaders. In other words, I learned to cast off the white savior complex I didn’t even know I was wearing.

Media, Aid, and white “saviors”

I’m sure that many of you are nodding your heads because you can relate to this kind of learning process. It’s humbling, and it’s necessary. Yet, it seems that the white savior complex lives on, even in reputable news sources like the New York Times. See Exhibit A.

This story about a boy surviving the genocide in Rwanda to make it into the halls of Harvard University is what many in the American public want to hear. It gives us that warm fuzzy feeling, just as movies like the Blindside do. However, the story of the boy’s own resilience and hard work is covered up by the white savior lens. Justus Uwayesu is described as a victim in need of saving, rather than a survivor who beat the odds and kept striving to reach his dream. Yes, the charity organization provided the opportunity, but he rose to the challenge.

Unfortunately, these types of narratives remain all too common in many media outlets. Stories from international development organizations don’t always fare much better. And voluntourism, charity singles, and fundraising via images of starving children (poverty porn) only perpetuate the white savior myth. This method of storytelling spreads unhelpful generalizations, distorts the facts, and even undermines local efforts to address challenges.

So how do we change this?

We can choose not to bury the stories of resilience. We can tell people’s stories as the protagonists they are, not as passive receivers. Or, better yet, we can let them tell their own stories. We can bring context and help people connect as humans. We can cut out the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. We can eradicate the message that blindly tells others to be like us. We can replace it one that says, ‘let’s work together to become the best versions of ourselves,’  even (especially) if these versions are different.

The White Savior Complex perpetuates harmful stereotypes and paradigms. I had to learn the hard way. Many of us do.

It might take a while until things change, but we need to keep working to see that they do.

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck
A vendor selling Zapallo in Pisac, Peru. She wasn’t begging me to come save her, either.  Photo by Stephanie E. Buck



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