I served the poor and destitute, hungry and sick, in 15 cities and on five continents. I worked side by side with Mother Teresa’s nuns in the slums of Calcutta, sat with the homeless on the streets of Cape Town, fed starving children in the rebel-infested forests of South Sudan.
You see, though I had the best of intentions to help the least of these in far flung, exotic locations around the globe, I was driven by the idea that those I was trying to serve were in need of rescue from people who looked like me — people who were white, Western, and Christian.
Though I was never a missionary in the standard sense of the word, never proselytized or attempted to save souls, the engine driving me was the white savior complex. I thought the dark bodies living in the developing world needed us white, Western, Christians. The other Westerners I worked with believed we had it all pretty much figured out. We had the right theology. We had the right answers. We had the expertise. We were the so called “whole” condescending to help the “broken.”
I imagine that you’re familiar with the white savior complex in many of its manifestations, whether as the overdone trope in Hollywood films like The Help and The Blind Side, or maybe you’ve seen it in a missionary friend, or perhaps you are a recovering white savior like me.
Here are some of the harmful consequences of the white savior complex:
1) It leads to approaches and methodologies rooted in patronizing charity rather than biblical justice.
2) It prevents mission, aid, and development work from being dialogical and participatory; the so-called experts swoop in with their answers and expertise and fail to include the voices of local leaders, organizations, and stakeholders.
3) It leads to paternalism: doing things to or for others rather than seeking to empower and build local capacity. It makes us into heroes rather than empowering others to become the heroes of their own stories.
4) It robs agency from the economically poor and contributes to a shame-based identity and sense of helplessness.
5) It leads to doing things in other contexts that we’d never even imagine doing in the U.S. or Europe. Imagine if twelve of us got on a plane and flew to Stockholm or Dublin and when we arrived, we found all the cutest little children — other people’s children — and we began picking them up and taking selfies and posting them on Facebook. Sounds strange, right?
6) It perpetuates poverty porn, the ubiquitous images of the poor seen in many fundraising campaigns, which objectify human beings for the sake of eliciting an emotional response in order to garner a donation. It labels them as powerless victims who can’t help themselves, implicitly naming God’s image bearers as inept, incapable objects who are passively awaiting rescue.
We must stop trying to medicate the symptoms of the white savior and look at the deeper disease. It’s one thing to realize it’s not ethical to use poverty porn or post selfies with children who we have no relationship with. It’s another thing entirely to reflect on the colonial roots of white, Western, Christian supremacy. That means doing some hard, inner work if we’re white people. It means working to change the narratives that sustain injustice.
The white savior complex will crumble one person at a time, one mission agency at a time, one NGO at a time only if we commit ourselves to the task of knowing the story of colonialism and we begin interrogating it, telling the truth and leading others into this same sort of honesty. If we do this work, my promise is this: White saviors will become recovering white saviors.
And that is exactly what we need to be.