At Northwest, we celebrated MLK day by breaking up into affinity spaces and discussing various topics depending on the affinity space. I attended our school’s Black Student Union (BSU), because attending the Mixed-Race affinity would make me uncomfortable considering I’m one of very few non-white biracial people at NWS. At the end of the day, every room went around and shared what they did or discussed in their space in a zoom call. I sat through 4 out of the 8 rooms of white students/faculty and was uncomfortable the entire time. The amount of unrecognized white saviorism and problematic speech from white students left me laughing to cover my shock and disappointment.
If you can’t explain what white saviorism is, don’t know what it is, are white, or you got offended by this title, let me give you some insight on how to identify this commonly unintended, harmful behavior. In reading this article, I want to teach you to recognize, understand, and change white saviorism.
The first thing to do is to learn what it means to be a “white savior,” because it’s not what white people tend to think it is. Yes, white saviorism exists. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it does real harm to non-white people. A white savior is a white person who believes it’s their job or duty to “save” or uplift a non-white person, and the white savior finds their actions self-liberating and deserving of praise. People do this to benefit their own self-confidence, social power, and self-gratification. White saviors treat non-white people as objects, things that may be flaunted in order to receive positive reactions from others.
Whether they realize it or not, white saviors hold themselves to a superior level to non-whites or use non-white people as poster people for diversity. It doesn’t mean they can’t support BIPOC, call out racism, or repost racial injustices. It doesn’t mean they can’t ask questions or talk about race. It means they take credit and receive praise for doing something they should have always been doing. White people shouldn’t get praise or a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum.
The second thing white people must do when learning to stop their white savior actions is to acknowledge and hold themselves accountable. This means they shouldn’t get defensive in learning their tendencies, they should accept, learn, and grow from them. It’s okay to be frustrated, and it’s normal to be in denial, but it’s not okay to refuse to listen and accept that white saviorism actively harms people.
Cases of white saviorism are often issues of intent vs impact; cause and effect. Most white saviors don’t realize they are marginalizing non-white people and truly have good intentions. But it doesn’t matter how great the intent was; what matters was the impact and the effect their actions had on those around them. If the impact causes harm, the intent is not realized, therefore, they must accept and address that their impact outweighs their intent. By not accepting or acknowledging their impact, they are willfully ignorant. This means they refuse to know and take responsibility for the full effect of their impact and are therefore choosing to remain ignorant.
Some common examples of intent vs. impact are various forms of voluntourism, (the combination of volunteering and tourism; common among wealthy white teens) “helping” poor African communities, purposefully only picking Black-American issues to speak about and ignoring other minority issues, and the consistent mocking of AAVE, West Asian, and East Asian Accents.
Another example of intent vs. impact and white saviorism is the amount of performative activism for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Stop Asian Hate (SAH) movements. Performative activism may be seen when people only talk about these issues when they are around people of the Black or Asian race or when they think it benefits them as a social gain a.k.a to seem “woke.” Many white saviors’ intent may be to genuinely show that they care and want to support the movement in as many ways possible and acknowledge their whiteness, and this may involve talking to people of those races to make sure what they say is correct and not offensive. But unfortunately, the impact of this activism often comes off as disingenuous. Performative activism may be suspected when a white person is overly passionate about BLM and SAH or only talks about discrimination these communities face when people around them talk about it. Many BIPOC, including myself, find these behaviors to be harmful as it feels as if they truly don’t care about these issues and only talk about it to fit in. Know your positionality, how the world sees you, and hold yourself accountable if this is something you or someone else does. Accept, learn and grow from it.
Attending a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) is not easy for BIPOC, especially if they are part of the larger minority (Black, Indigenous, Latinx). We don’t need a white person to “save, protect, and advocate” for us. White people don’t speak for us, white people don’t represent us, they should simply support us. Many white people (and white saviors) insert themselves into BIPOC conversations and issues and end up taking up space. This pushes our voices down instead of highlighting them, which minimizes our personal and primary experiences. Some ways white people can support BIPOC is donating to BIPOC business and organizations, sharing facts with research to back them up, and acknowledging how you (white people) take up space.
We are all learning and growing as people, and there is always room for improvement no matter our age. It’s okay to be ignorant, and it’s okay to want to learn. Take the steps to know and accept your positionality, learn from the feedback and the knowledge you receive, and take the opportunities to grow from your experiences.