No, you don’t know better
Avoiding the white savior complex.

As many of the young adults at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) will tell you, one of the most beautiful things about being a grown-up is having the opportunity to practice complete and total autonomy. We govern ourselves. At any given moment, we decide what we want to do, where we want to go, and who we want to be. 

When we are children, we do not have this right to autonomy. Instead, our parents and guardians decide where we should go, what we can say, what we should eat, and how we should dress. As stifling as this type of control can feel, children require this form of guidance to stay safe and healthy. They have not had enough experience to understand what kinds of foods nourish their bodies or why jumping into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim might be dangerous. For the first nearly two decades of our lives, our parents, guardians, teachers, and peers educate us on how to get by in this world independently. This is sort of like the tutorial level of life. Our prize for getting through these first years successfully? Freedom to finally do what we want!

Or so it would seem. 

On the global stage, it has historically been common for Western countries to involve themselves in the dealings of other nations. This is often done in the form of foreign aid. Unfortunately, the efficacy of this foreign aid is extremely limited, as power over the distribution and planning associated with that aid remains in the hands of the nation supplying the foreign aid, rather than the nation receiving it. When it comes to distributing foreign aid, people who have lived experiences in a nation in crisis will always be better equipped to distribute this aid in their communities effectively. Still, many Western nations continue to assume, even without the rich socio/economic/cultural understanding of a country that a local would have, that they know better, ultimately limiting the autonomy of the affected nation. This phenomenon is known as paternalism. The root word of “paternalism” is the Latin “pater” meaning father. When one country assumes a fatherly—or paternal—role over another country, it is directly insinuated that the paternal nation views the other nation as irresponsible, unequipped, and ultimately childlike. To further this issue, countries that assume a paternal role over another state are predominantly Western and predominantly White. This trend of white, wealthy, and privileged governments assuming power over nations home to predominantly Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) is inherently belittling and problematic. 

Despite its external appearance, the white savior complex is not about using one’s privilege to lift disenfranchised people up; in fact, it is not about disenfranchised people at all. The white savior complex exists solely as a method to mitigate white guilt. For generations, white Westerners have displayed their superiority complexes by insisting upon “saving” and “teaching” members of BIPOC communities all over the world. The reality is that “conversion” and “saving” are not the same things. “Indoctrination” and “teaching” are not the same things. Words like “saving” and “teaching” used in the context of white saviorism are deluded and misleading. These words are excuses. These words are gentler on the ears of the oppressors than a more apt description like “cultural genocide” would be. This is the narrative of white saviorism, using pretty little words in place of truth whenever the truth becomes hard to swallow. 

Luckily, there are ways to break free from the problematic narrative of white saviorism. The first, and most important step, is in realizing that allyship is not about you or your reputation. Allyship is about developing empathy and relationships with people who have different experiences with privilege than you do. Allyship is about forming meaningful connections and solving problems with disenfranchised people through a system of mutual respect and a dedication to equality. In the case of paternalism, where one party holds significant power over the other nations involved, this paternal state takes the lead, omitting teamwork, and losing the valuable perspectives of the locals of the affected nation in the process.  

Some core facets of white saviorism in the modern era are these closely connected phenomena: performative activism and virtue signaling. Performative activism is activism done with the primary interest of improving one’s own reputation, rather than genuinely contributing to a cause. Virtue signaling is similar, occurring when individuals publicly announce their position on a particular issue, not in direct efforts to contribute to the cause, but rather to appear selfless or benevolent to the people around them. Performative activism and virtue signaling are traps people can easily fall into, even if they have good intentions. If you find yourself wondering whether you have fallen into this trap, ask yourself this simple question: Who am I really doing this for? 

If you have fallen into white saviorism, virtue signaling, or performative activism before, remember that it does not make you a bad person. Perfection is not the standard. People make mistakes, the important thing is what we do to fix them. 

As Black History Month begins this week, The Medium is thrilled to have the opportunity to use our platform to spotlight Black creatives, scholars, and athletes here at UTM. We hope these stories spark connection and growth within our community. This February, I encourage you to reconsider some of your preconceived notions about what it means to be an activist. What are the most important things about being an ally? What is the most effective way to make a difference? And who are you really doing this for? 

Editor-in-Chief (Volume 50); Managing Editor (August-November, Volume 50); Copy Editor (Volume 49) — River recently completed his HBA in Political Science. He is deeply passionate about social justice and law and is always learning more by connecting with members of the UTM community. In his spare time, he can be found playing video games and jamming out on the guitar.


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