The Musings of Two Long-Time Friends

White Saviorism… and How to Avoid it

White Saviorism… and How to Avoid it

I’ve had glitter bottles in my classroom as long as I’ve had a classroom, but this year – after much expertise gleaned from years of practice – my bottles were so particularly beautiful that my students talked me into selling them. (Here’s a shameless plug for my Etsy store while we’re at it!) In promoting my new little business, I caught the attention of one of the administrators of our residential dorm program. She reached out to me to ask if I would lead an event where the students who live on campus could make glitter bottles to donate to charity, to fulfill the requirement to complete a certain number of service hours for graduation. 

How fun! I wrote back, “​​One. Million. Bajillion. Percent!” And then immediately added, “Extra credit if we can find an organization to donate to run by a woman of color!” 

Which we did, an awesome organization that works with kids with chronic pain, and the event was impossibly fun, and it led me to a lot of reflections: Why was it my instinct to pull race into an event that did not have anything racial on its face? What were the underlying assumptions I hold about women of color that led me to this reaction? 

Was I being the dreaded “white savior”? How would I know if I was or wasn’t? 

And most importantly: how could I be mindful about this interaction between races so that I would not unintentionally cause harm, as white people so often do?

These are massively important questions because we are actually at an important crossroads. On the one hand, white people disproportionately have the privilege, power, capital, and – most importantly – responsibility to dismantle white supremacy and repair the racial disparities that have resulted from it. On the other hand, racism was invented in the mid-1400s by a Portuguese asshole who invented a story that Black Africans were inferior and needed to be saved and Christianized, and the way to do this was by enslaving them (according to the leading scholar on racist ideas, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in his book Stamped from the Beginning). And in one fell swoop, the very concept of whiteness and white saviorism were born, together, like deformed Siamese twins straight out of a horror movie. 

This is not to say that there had been no previous conflict between people. Certainly, tribes or kingdoms had wars. But this was the first time where a person’s skin color, hair texture, and nostril size was weaponized to make them less than human. 

First of all, let’s define white saviorism: “this term refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner” or “when a white person tries to fix BIPOC issues without taking the time to understand their history, culture, political affairs” (great reference resource here). These definitions already provide us a good guide, so let’s start at the beginning:

Is your work self-serving? 

If you want to make a contribution of time, money, energy, or a skill to help people of color, really reflect: Would you do it if no one knew it was you? Ask that question, and then sit with your gut response with non-judgment. It’s okay if the answer is no! It’s okay if your mind went on a little loop: “I know I’m supposed to say that praise doesn’t matter, but, like, it totally does… but I can lie to myself and say I totally don’t care about the praise because I know I’m going to get it anyway… so, the praise doesn’t motivate me at all!” 

The truth is that we all help each other because the serotonin (the “helper’s high”) we experience when we do so feels good. We evolved successfully as a social species because our brain chemistry motivates us to work together and support each other (or, was it the other way around?). But when we do this across racial lines, we also need to be really aware of the history of racism. It’s sometimes easy to forget how relatively young racism is – because of racist ideas like “Black people descended from a different Adam” or Noah-of-Ark-Fame’s worst son give us the impression that it’s as old as humankind, but it’s not. So be mindful: you may feel some desire for inclusion and recognition, but you should be very sure that you value the work and the impact you will have, and not the adulation you expect to receive. 

Remember that you’re not doing favors, here, you’re just doing your part to level the playing field that you’ve been unfairly benefitting from. 

Is your work welcome?

As you reach out to organizations, do not be surprised or offended if the Black people you want to help don’t want your help. They have probably been on the receiving end of white saviorism hundreds of times, and have either quietly grit their teeth and put on a tight smile or called it out and were inevitably subjected to the wrong end of white fragility – not to mention all the stories of white saviorism they’ve heard from friends and family, as well as their ancestors. So if Black people reject your help or don’t seem grateful, that is a completely rational way for them to feel. It likely has nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally. 

In these cases, if you can still make your contribution without imposing on their bandwidth, I would suggest you do so. They might be the only organization doing the work; maybe they are supporting Black kids with the same health condition your son has. If you were going to donate money, do it, anonymously, no strings attached. (But as above, like really no strings attached. If you even suspect you might expect something in return, don’t go there. Using anonymity in a passive aggressive way would be the whitest possible thing you could do!) 

If you had intended to volunteer your time, and the Black-led organization you inquired with doesn’t want or need a white face in their space, that’s okay! Keep looking for somewhere you can add value to communities of color, or seek out white-led spaces doing anti-racism work instead. 

Next up: are you offering whiteness as a solution? 

This is a tricky area, but an important one: Because we live in a society shaped by white supremacy and controlled overwhelmingly by white people and white culture, sometimes white solutions to Black problems make sense. If you want to help Black women with job interviews, hair relaxing products or services might help in the short term… but is reinforcing the racist idea that Black hair is dirty or unprofessional really a step in the right direction?
White culture, values, and norms are hard for white people to distinguish because our entire society is built around them. It’s the classic “a fish doesn’t notice the water” situation. I would be happy to write a blog post about it; if you’re interested, leave a comment! You can also read Waking Up White by Debbie Irving or White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Here are some important tenets of whiteness: Source here!

Rugged Individualism
Self-reliance
Individual is primary unit
Independence and autonomy highly valued and rewarded
Individuals assumed to be in control of their environment
“You get what you deserve”
Competition
Be #1
Win at all costs
Winner-loser dichotomy
Action Orientation
Master and control nature
Must always “do something” about a situation
Aggressiveness and Extroversion
Decision-Making
Majority rules (when Whites have power)
Justice
Based on English common law
Protect property and entitlements
Intent counts
Communication
“The King’s English” rules
Written tradition
Avoid conflict, intimacy
Don’t show emotion
Don’t discuss personal life
Be polite
Holidays
Based on Christian religions
Based on white history and male leaders
History
Based on Northern European immigrants’
experience in the United States
Heavy focus on the British Empire
Primacy of Western (Greek, Roman) and
Judeo – Christian tradition
Protestant Work Ethic
Hard work is the key to success
Work before play
“If you didn’t meet your goals, you didn’t
work hard enough”
Emphasis on Scientific Method
Objective, rational linear thinking
Cause and effect relationships
Quantitative emphasis
Status, Power and Authority
Wealth = worth
Heavy value on ownership of goods, space,
property
Your job is how you are
Respect authority
Time
Adherence to rigid time schedules
Time viewed as a commodity
Future Orientation
Plan for future
Delayed gratification
Progress is always best
“Tomorrow will be better”
Family Structure
Nuclear family (father, mother, 2.3 children is the ideal
social unit
Husband is breadwinner and head of household
Wife is homemaker and subordinate to husband
Children should have own rooms, be independent
Aesthetics
Based on European culture
Woman’s beauty based on blonde, thin – “Barbie”
Man’s attractiveness based on economic status, power,
intellect
Steak and potatoes; “bland is best”
Religion
Christianity is the norm
Anything other than Judeo – Christian tradition is foreign
No tolerance for deviation from single god concept

With the lense of doing anti-racist work, I would add two important points. First, “objectivity,” or the very white notion that easily measurable things are more important than experiences or emotions. This might also sound like “the ends justify the means,” or over-focusing on outcomes (…unless white people get called out for doing something racist, then the script flips and suddenly it’s “I didn’t mean it like that!”) Second, binary thinking: “You’re either early or you’re late” or “he either did the crime or he didn’t.”

So as you look at doing work for communities of color, really stop first and ask yourself: am I offering whiteness as a solution here? This is especially important if white people or systems might benefit from it (as in, the company that produces the hair relaxers you would purchase for Black interviewees is owned by white people; white people will see Black women’s conformity to white beauty standards and feel validated or superior; the system of capitalism is reinforced through your purchases, etc). 

This can be tricky! But let’s be honest: Black women have been doing the best work to uplift their people with the most love and the fewest resources for the longest, which is why they were my first thought. Not to mention, Black women are one of the most well educated demographics, so statistically, Black women are more likely to know how to use resources than I do! Of course, given what kind of contribution you are hoping to make, primarily look for people of color already doing that work. But if you’re not sure, look for Black women – you won’t go wrong.

Actively cultivate a mindset that stands in direct opposition to white saviorism. White saviors believe, deep down, that the poor, poor Black people need us to help them, and that we are doing them and the entire world a giant favor when we throw our solutions at the problem we created. Instead, anti-racists believe Black people know what their community needs, and we need to 1) get out of their way and 2) give them the support that we are able, on their terms. 

Conclusions: 

So, here are the questions to ask yourself as you undertake anti-racist work to avoid being a “white savior”: 

  1. How much is the praise you expect to receive motivating your work? 
  2. How can you de-center yourself in your work? Or, how can you work ahead of time to center the positive impacts of your work and the Black leaders you are supporting?
  3. Do you feel like you are doing “them” a favor? If so, how can you reframe your thinking?
  4. How can you make room for a Black person to feel safe rejecting your help?
  5. How can you prepare emotionally for that resentment or disappointment? 
    1. Especially, how can you make sure that your emotions will not impose on the person of color in particular or other people of color around you?
  6. What is your backup plan for doing the work in a different space where you are welcome? 
  7. Is the solution you’re offering situated in white culture? 
  8. To what extent will white people or culture benefit from your solution? 
  9. Are you taking direction from Black leaders who are already active in their community?

Let’s get to work!



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