What Is White Savior Complex—And Why Is It Harmful?

The white savior complex has historically undermined BIPOC people’s autonomy.

What can I do to help? It's a question you might ask yourself after seeing people—especially people of color—in need during or after a natural disaster, an environmental disaster, a pandemic, or any other humanitarian crisis. Or maybe it's a question you ask yourself after seeing the day-to-day inequities that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face.

But is what you're doing to help making you feel good about yourself more so than actually combatting the systemic problems that affect BIPOC people? It is possible that the white savior complex may be at play.

While helping out your fellow humans is a noble idea, the white savior complex is something that can stand in the way of addressing the real work that needs to be done. But what exactly is the white savior complex, and why is it bad? Here's what you need to know about it—and how you can avoid it.

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Getty Images / Jo Imperio

What Is White Savior Complex?

The white savior complex (also known as white saviorism) is an ideology that is acted upon when a White person, from a position of superiority, attempts to help or rescue a BIPOC person or community. Whether this is done consciously or unconsciously, people with this complex have the underlying belief that they know best or that they have skills that BIPOC people don't have, according to Savala Nolan, author of Don't Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body and the director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law.

"[They think] they are somehow in the position that should enable them to have more power in terms of solving the problem than the people who are impacted [by the problem]," Nolan told Health.

This mindset isn't anything new. In fact, white saviorism is a centuries-old concept that can be traced back to the days when many White Westerners believed that they inherently had the knowledge, skills, and ingenuity to solve the problems of other people all around the world, especially people in the developing world and Africans in particular. "I think it's been a fundamental underpinning of Western imperialism, and it's been evident in the global empire-building enterprise," Danielle Taana Smith, PhD, a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University, told Health.

Although its roots may be hundreds of years old, white saviorism is still alive around the world and within the walls of the US. It tends to take the shape of a focus on providing immediate solutions, especially during humanitarian crises, to people at the individual level, Smith explained. While these immediate solutions are important because they meet urgent needs in times of crisis, the white savior approach doesn't look beyond those immediate needs—in other words, the long-term needs of individuals and communities are not addressed.

"I think that these solutions don't pay much attention to how complicated the interactions are between social and economic and political factors," Smith said. "And part of what that means is that white savior mentality encourages individual dependency rather than long-term community building or long-term community self-sufficiency."

What Does the White Savior Complex Look Like in Action—And How Is It Harmful?

The white savior complex can be played out in pop culture and in real life. In movies, a White person coming to town to help "save" a group of BIPOC people—whether they are students, athletes, or wrongly accused prisoners—is a common storyline. In real life, the white savior complex was most recently on display during the pandemic. COVID-19 disproportionately affected BIPOC people in the US. As the country saw them getting sick and dying, the response was to come up with solutions to meet the needs of individual sick people. And that immediate response was needed to save lives.

But someone with a white savior mentality might believe that they've already provided the solution and then shift their focus to the next disaster rather than think about the structural barriers in place that put BIPOC people at a disadvantage when it came to health access and outcomes during the pandemic, Smith said. And without addressing those barriers, substantial change can't happen in the long run.

"I sort of liken someone who's engaged in white saviorism to a person who rushes into the emergency room wanting to help, but if they don't have training as a nurse or a doctor, they may actually end up doing more harm than good," Nolan said.

Someone who wants to help can actually wind up doing more harm than good by only putting a Band-Aid on the problem. That Band-Aid will eventually come off, revealing the deeper barriers that still exist. "It's essentially a form of blindness," Smith said. "It's not going to allow you to perceive what is in front of you accurately. And if you can't see it accurately, then you can't be of really profound use in solving the problem."

The person who is trying to render aid may not mean any harm. But white saviorism "perpetuates white supremacy as the system by which we organize our society," Nolan believed. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), research has shown that white supremacy—whether conscious or unconscious—leads to poor health outcomes for BIPOC people.

"Physicians typically tend to see the patient as an individual person presenting a specific illness or symptom, and they don't see the larger issues like living in poverty and living in places with high crime rates," Smith said. "These social factors impact people's health and well-being, and if healthcare providers want to treat people holistically for them to be healthy over a long period of time, you cannot only treat the symptom that they are presenting. And that is what the white savior mentality does; it focuses on the individual and their specific symptoms…rather than focus on the larger systemic structural issues that cause these illnesses."

How To Avoid White Savior Complex

White individuals who want to help people and communities of color first need to take a backseat, Smith advised: "Follow the lead of the people of color in the space that [you] are entering. [You] need to be willing to not be at the center of the work of the solution and to follow the advice, expertise, and request of the people who are closest to the pain and the problem."

It's also important for the work that White people do to address structural societal issues. Instead of narrowing the focus to the individual level, think broadly and consider what systems are in place that might be influencing the health and well-being of BIPOC.

If you see other people or an organization engaging in white saviorism, call them out. But then call them back in. "If you have an understanding of what white saviorism is, then you are in a position to see it and to think about it," Nolan said. "And hopefully if you're working to avoid it, you're also in a position to articulate what the harm of it is, how it can be avoided, and how much more impactful whatever the work the [person or] organization is trying to do will be if [white saviorism wasn't at play.]"

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