As racism has spread rapidly as the 21st century has continued, the misconception that not being racist deserves attention and should be rewarded has run rampant throughout the globe. The only problem with this fallacy is that not being racist is what people should be doing. As white people become rewarded for an action that they are already morally culpable for it suffocates the African-American body. This suffocation is the result of the “White Savior Complex” that is built up by the media and white people themselves. Now this is not to say that African-American people do not want to be respected and/or helped with their struggle in oppression; it is instead to display that when we see praise and reward given for this action it is more hurtful than helpful.
The Erasure of Unique African-American Identities and the Common Sanctification of the white Identity
First, with the praise given, we see all African-Americans lives conglomerated into one image that does not truly represent all of African-Americans. As more and more white people go on mission trips in Africa and third-world countries, it builds the stigma that the people of these countries are helpless and all suffer from the inability to save themselves. Not only does this push the world’s view of people of color into a far more negative place, but it also adds on to the stereotypes that affect African-Americans and Africans on television and in life.
A writer for the Reporter, Nicole Howley, acknowledges the issues within volunteer mission trips, and how they build up the white savior complex by saying “Sadly, voluntourists are usually just looking for a good thing that they can do fairly quickly that will make them feel like they did something worthwhile. And that’s okay because for me, the point of the trip was to figure out myself and my priorities, and I learned more than I ever expected to. In the end, I think it “saved” me more than I saved anyone else.” Although Howley acknowledges feeding into the white savior complex, the majority of the whites do not, and therefore the majority of those affected by it see their lives being put on a regressive trajectory, as opposed to the promised progressive trajectory to be miraculously brought about by mission trips.
Normalizing disguised prejudice and dehumanization does not make it different from blatant prejudice and dehumanization.
This idea of the white savior complex uplifting white people and degrading African-American people is not just common to real life instances, but also insidiously intertwines itself within the entertainment industry’s portrayal of white people and African-Americans alike. Dr. Narissa M. Punayanunt Carter of the Department of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University explains that the media negatively portrays African-Americans commonly in “occupational roles, achieving and satisfied with a low status, and as the character that displays negative characteristics such as being violent, greedy, ignorant, and power-driven” as well as “menacing, untidy, rebellious, disrespectful, buffoonish, sexual, immoral, hopeless, untrained, uneducated, and noisy.” So as African-Americans are portrayed as such, white characters are introduced as saviors coming to rescue African-Americans from their suffering.
Take, for example, 2011’s The Help, which tells the story of African-American maids in the south that work for mean white women. The movie ends with a white woman, Eugenia Phelan, writing down all of the stories of the maids and creating a best-selling book. And, although the African-American women are still maids and oppressed at the end of the movie shows they are shown laughing and smiling as if their lives have somehow been transformed by a white woman making money off of their struggles. Within this one example alone, we see Dr. Punayanunt’s research come into fruition, as well as the fervent support of the white savior complex/being rewarded for not being a racist by the media, which all of society then becomes susceptible to. Normalizing disguised prejudice and dehumanization does not make it different from blatant prejudice and dehumanization.
“The only way we known which racial designation to assign each eprson is by referring to the invented rules we have been taugt since we were infants.” – Dorothy Roberts
United States Historian and Associate Professor of history at Northwestern, Kate Masur, asserts this claim about white saviors and how the movie Lincoln‘s white savior plot “helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation“ and “reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.” Therefore through the establishment of the white saviors as a common occurrence, we not only see white people becoming sanctified for doing nothing, but also African-Americans as a group that is helpless and only to be described by an array of negative stereotypes and categories whether in film portrayal or real life.