White Savior

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Saviorism on a seal: The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony features a half-naked Native American beckoning the English to "Come over and help us".
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White Savior or White Saviorism is both a trope in media and real world phenomena which describes when a white person (or group of white people) view themselves or insert themselves into the role of needing to "rescue" non-white people from their social struggles (real or imagined). This is exemplified most especially in missionary work, where White Christians take on the duty of "saving the souls" of non-White people within other cultures by imposing their religious views on them and demanding they renounce the spiritual beliefs of their native culture.[1] The concept is historically exemplified throughout the colonial era with the Catholic Church believing it was the church's responsibility to save the souls of people they viewed as savages. This has lead to the pretext of cultural genocide in certain regions of the world.

Entire industries have spawned in the effort to "save" the lives of children in African nations often with deeply condescending and dehumanizing pretexts that often oversimplify complex issues if not outright misrepresent them. This was most apparent back in 2012 when the film Invisible Children sparked the Kony 2012 campaign to fight against a warlord in Uganda who turned out to not even be in the country of Uganda at the time (all at the annoyance of actual Ugandans who felt the social issues they were actually facing at the time were being ignored).[2] This campaign was advertised through the lens of a White man and his blonde son -- which needless to say spoke to the priorities of the project at hand.

Industries like this and the tendency of White people who do volunteer work in African nations to post all over social media about it has lead to the term "voluntourism". More innocuously the term is used to describe people who travel to other countries specially for the purpose of volunteering. Though sometimes helpful there a few major incidences where such voluntourism has actually enabled exploitation and child abuse within these regions.[3]

The White Man’s “Burden”[edit]

The idea of the White man having a moral duty to save and civilize non-White people was most exemplified in imperialist poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) by Rudyard Kipling, which served as an artistic expression in defence of colonialism.[4] The poem was written in response to American-Philippine war.

The poem itself depicts Filipinos as barbarous savages, and laments the White man as having a duty to civilize them. The premise of the poem implicitly assumes White superiority and exemplifies a deep and condescending form of racism. Still the poem is couched in a kind of savior complex that serves as an early and insidious example of the White savior trope in media.

As a trope in media[edit]

The trope exists as a film narrative that often attempts to prop up the virtue of a White main character. Often, despite ostensibly being a film about the struggle of minority, the film is shown from the perspective of a White protagonist. They often offer their privilege in assistance to a Black character or stand up on behalf of minorities.

What makes the trope problematic is the way in which it depicts people of color as helpless, unable to stand up for themselves, and in need of a White hero to save the day.

This erases the independence of important Black figures and credits at least part of their accomplishments to the good will of White people, especially in historical biopics.


  • The Help: Emma Stone saves her Black maids from her childhood by writing about them.[5][6]
  • The Blind Side: Film seemingly implies that football star Michael Oher would have never succeeded if it wasn’t for the good will of some middle aged White lady.[6][7] The real Oher was never formally adopted and was prevented by the white couple from profiting from the film.[8]
  • Blood Diamond: White guy saves Black guy from the other Black men who are bad.[9][10]
  • Avatar: White marine in blue-face saves the day for the blue alien metaphors for indigenous people.[11]
  • Freedom Writers: A White teacher transforms the lives of Black students[6][12]
  • Green Book: Misrepresented the life of Black musician Dr. Donald ShirleyWikipedia and of the danger to Black people traveling in the South during the Jim Crow era[6][13][14]
  • La La Land: The role of White men in Black jazz[6][15]

As a means for clout[edit]

The act of a White person sharing pictures of themselves surrounded by Black children while volunteering is also seen as an example of White saviorism. The all too common tendency for these posts to come primarily from White women have led to the satirical dub of “barbie savior”.[16] More serious academic criticism tends to focus on how such activity tends to glamorize neo-colonialism. Another criticism is in how it treats such children as props to signal the moral virtue of the White women who pose with them.

Keep in mind the aforementioned fact of voluntourism sometimes actually leading to child exploitation and abuse — or in some instances being entirely ineffective given the poor training of the volunteers; one would have to wonder if such a presence of volunteers in such communities is even necessarily a good thing.

That being said this isn’t knock on all foreign aid work or volunteering, but the motivations of such do become suspect when people use such volunteering in attempt to better their image.

What it is not[edit]

A White savior is not any and all instances of a White person helping or saving the life of a non-White person. You will not get brownie-points as the local lifeguard as a White person if you refuse to the save the non-White kids from drowning.

A White savior is present when the heroics of the White person is centered and elevated above the autonomy and dignity of people of color. When people of color are treated as props or in service to the image of White people. So, you know, don’t use the concept of White saviorism as an excuse to be an apathetic and negligent dick.


  1. A Savior No One Needs: Unpacking and Overcoming the White Savior Complex. Archived from healthline.com, 13 July 2021.
  2. Teju Cole, The White-Savior Industrial Complex. The Atlantic, 21 March 2012.
  3. Voluntourism: the good and the bad. worldvision.ca, 26 July 2023.
  4. The Oxford Companion to English Literature 6th Edition (2006) p. 808.
  5. The Help (2011) IMDb.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Jenny Singer, Don’t Watch The Help… Or These Other White-Savior Movies. Archived from Glamour, 11 June 2020.
  7. The Blind Side (2009) IMDb.
  8. 'Blind Side' subject Oher alleges Tuohys made millions off lie by Michael A. Fletcher (Aug 14, 2023, 12:00 PM ET) ESPN.
  9. Blood Diamond (2006) IMDb.
  10. Hollywood, Be Better… Appropriation of Africa in Hollywood Films: Avatar and Blood Diamond by deanlin2531 (December 15, 2018) African Cinema.
  11. Avatar (2009) IMDb.
  12. Freedom Writers (2007) IMDb.
  13. Green Book (2018) IMDb.
  14. What to Know About the Controversy Surrounding the Movie Green Book by Andrew R. Chow (Updated: February 24, 2019 11:51 PM ET | Originally published: February 13, 2019 2:43 PM EST) Time.
  15. La La Land (2016) IMDb.
  16. Stephen Wearing, Mary Mostafanezhad, Nha Nguyen, Truc Ha Thanh Nguyen and Matthew McDonald, ‘Poor children on Tinder’ and their Barbie Saviours: towards a feminist political economy of volunteer tourism. Leisure Studies, Volume 37, Issue 5, 2018.