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Tracing back to Christian colonialism, which was supposed to somehow "civilize" and save the souls of native people, White Savior Syndrome lives on in modern times: from Mother Teresa to Princess Diana and the current First Lady of Colombia, Verónica Alcocer.
Ton Koene / Vwpics/ZUMA
September 25, 2023
CARTAGENA — The White Savior Syndrome is a social practice that exploits or economically, politically, symbolically takes advantage of individuals or communities they've racialized, perceiving them as in need of being saved and thus forever indebted and grateful to the white savior.
Although this racist phenomenon has gained more visibility and sparked public debate with the rise of social media, it is actually as old as European colonization itself. It's important to remember that one of Europe's main justifications for subjugating, pillaging and enslaving African and American territories was to bring "civilization and save their souls" through "missions."
Even today, many white supremacists hold onto these ideas. In other words, they believe that we still owe them something.
This white savior phenomenon is a legacy of Christian colonialism, and among its notable figures, we can highlight Saint Peter Claver, known as "the slave of the slaves," Bartolomé de Las Casas, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Princess Diana herself, and even the First Lady of Colombia, Verónica Alcocer.
It is a supremacist social practice that, as Colombian anthropologist Mara Vivero would say, falls within the manifestations of soft racism, which is characterized by euphemisms, pity, underestimation and "good intentions."
A reaffirmation of whiteness
Unlike overt racism, which defends white superiority through enslavement and annihilation, soft racism believes in the inferiority of racialized people but reaffirms white superiority through acts of benevolence and charity, adopting superhero attitudes.
In essence, the white savior syndrome is a reaffirmation of whiteness that tends to benefit whiteness itself, as it assuages the conscience of white individuals, making them feel like better people than they actually are. They feel fortunate and grateful for their privileges, which they had never truly appreciated until they embarked on poverty tourism trips.
The white Salvadoran does not intend to change the structure of the system because that would endanger their privileges, and that is why they find it more enjoyable to play superheroes during their volunteer vacations.
They return from these vacations claiming that it was an experience that changed their lives forever, or romanticize poverty by saying things like "I learned from those children that one can be happy with very little." They share hundreds of photos and videos with melodramatic music, portraying themselves as virtuous beings alongside impoverished black and indigenous children, whose names they never even knew.
For these people, it is convenient to spend a few weeks volunteering in a black or indigenous village instead of confronting the multinational corporation where their parents work, addressing the racism within their family, or fighting against gentrification. Because if we think about it carefully, what would be their place in the world if inequalities were resolved?
In June, Verónica Alcocer, wife of Colombian President Gustavo Petro, meets supporters
Antonio Cascio/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Money, likes and validation
This phenomenon has also been analyzed by American psychologist Ramani Durvasula, who characterizes white saviors as community narcissists. She describes these individuals as enthusiastic leaders who always get what they want by manipulating and even exploiting other people who also want to save the world.
How could anyone refuse to contribute even a small effort to save the world when they have everything?
In public, white saviors always appear kind and deeply concerned about documenting their good deeds. However, in private, they tend to be moody and unpleasant towards their collaborators or those they “have saved” if they feel that their efforts have not been duly acknowledged, applauded, or appreciated.
Their primary motivation for saving a racialized community lies in public validation, be it through likes and comments on social media or through praise from their family, partners, friends, or religious communities.
Since white saviors fail to listen to the communities they claim to save, they often remain unaware of or fail to understand the needs and desires of these communities, or worse, simply do not care.
A simple example of this lack of understanding is when individuals bring toys to marginalized communities and criticize the children as "rude and ungrateful" because a girl refuses to accept a white doll, preferring a blue car or a ball instead. Or when they express their dislike for the food provided by the volunteers.
White saviors take pleasure in showcasing the people they "save" since it generates money, likes and validation. They frequently exert significant pressure on the "saved individuals" and publicly discredit or invalidate them if they express views that do not align with the savior's beliefs or if they fail to consult them beforehand or meet their expectations.
Do not expect applause.
Common phrases include "Don't you remember that I already taught you that?" and "We practiced it so much, and now you're making me look bad." White saviors often refuse to let their subordinates speak or speak on their behalf.
The trope of the white savior has been reinforced by movies and television, perpetuating narratives where white characters save racialized or impoverished communities, resulting in a better life or a happy ending for these communities, thanks to the intervention of a kind-hearted white person. This further reinforces negative stereotypes in oppressed communities or reaffirms the symbolic superiority of white individuals who become the main characters and role models.
Mother Teresa and Princess Diana in New York
Do not romanticize poverty
The white savior syndrome is not limited to individuals. NGOs, foundations, and companies can also engage in these racist behaviors, reaffirming white supremacy through their communication and social projects. Often, these entities pursue economic benefits such as tax exemptions, increased sales, and donations.
You may have encountered products that promise salvation, like a shirt that claims to save malnourished children in indigenous communities, accompanied by images depicting poverty porn.
So, does this mean that even if racialized people are suffering, we can't help due to the racist nature of the white savior syndrome?
Of course not. Helping others is good and necessary. However, helping does not require adopting the role of a white savior or seeking validation as one.
- Do not make yourself the center of attention in photographs, and in fact, refrain from taking photos altogether. If you have a company and need to demonstrate support, figures, and results, there are dignified ways to illustrate and narrate processes without focusing on whiteness. Multiple alternatives to poverty porn exist.
- If you genuinely want to help a community, examine your own racism, listen to and value the processes that are likely already being led by people from that community.
- Hire and pay individuals from the same community fair wages for their work.
- Avoid pretending to enjoy tasks like touching, wiping snot or carrying kids. Mothers may find their children's bodily fluids repulsive, and this does not make them bad people. Why would you assume they do not notice your hypocrisy?
- Do not treat them as objects of your civilizing projects, nor speak on their behalf.
- Respect their processes; they are not there to fulfill your expectations of progress.
- Do not infantilize them or undermine their decisions. Establish genuine long-term connections, as many children are forced to form attachments during volunteer work, and when white saviors leave, these children suffer psychological consequences when contact is severed.
In summary, do not romanticize poverty. Do not expect applause. No one cares that you traveled for three hours on a motorcycle along a rough road, missed a meal, got wet in the rain, canceled your plans, found no water to flush the toilet or cried due to the suffering you witnessed.
Ultimately, these communities experience such hardships every day without choice, while you can decide to return to your privileged life at any moment. These behaviors are all red flags of the white savior syndrome. Stop behaving in ways that make others cringe.
*Sher Herrera, an Afro-Colombian woman, is a social communicator and journalist. She is pursuing a master's degree in Afro-Colombian Studies and is a presenter and co-creator of the audiovisual project "Cimarronas," which addresses topics related to intersectional Afrofeminism.
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