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The Importance of Addressing and Combating The White Savior Complex

Dear Future Teachers,

We are nearing the end of Black History Month, and I'm sure that many classrooms have been having productive and informative lessons that allow students to explore and reflect on the rich history and contributions of the Black community. Ideally these conversations and acknowledgement of Black History continue within the classroom year-round, and not just for the month of February. With classrooms becoming (hopefully) more diverse and inclusive, I feel that it is super important to discuss the concept of 'The White Savior'.

I feel that it is incredibly easy to want to shy away from this conversation, but, especially as educators, it is a vital conversation to be had. I ask that you enter this space with an open-mind and a willingness to be reflective. Not everyone exhibits a White Savior Complex, but there are things everyone can do to unintentionally cause harm that should be discussed so that we can all learn and grow and do better for our students.

What is the 'White Savior Complex"?

If you haven't heard of it before, The 'White Savior Complex' is "an idea in which a white person, or more broadly a white culture 'rescues' people of color from their own situation." (Source 1). In other words, it is a derogatory view of people of color, seeing them as "lesser" than white people and in need of "saving" from themselves or their situations.

Usually, a white savior centers themselves instead of those they are trying to help. They do not listen to how they can truly be of help to those they wish to serve, rather they do things because it makes them feel good, or like they are heroes. The issue is that they may actually create more harm than good.

How it is perpetuated

There are several examples of how the White Savior Complex is perpetuated in our world today. Including (Source 2):

  • Voluntourism- a trip that combines volunteer work with tourism; volunteers tend to lack experience or skills in helping with what the community needs (i.e. giving medical aid with no training); the trip is more about what the volunteer can get from it than what those in need gain (Source 3)

  • Exploiting local people/taking photos without their permission- taking and sharing pictures of people in need, especially without their permission, is another example of how one is not thinking of those they are intending to help. One example that I see quite often is when people shove their phones into the faces of houseless people, showing off the money or supplies they are donating. It is very invasive and uncomfortable for the person on the receiving end of that treatment.

  • Mission trips- While good intentions surround mission trips, lack of appropriate work qualifications could be harmful to communities in need. The work is also often short-term. A better way to facilitate these trips would be asking communities what they need and also centering the work around already-established community organizations. (Source 3).

  • International adoptions as a means of 'saving' children- Adopting children is a phenomenal task! It is a great service to provide a safe and loving home to children. However, it is important to understand one's intentions with the adoption. There is a pattern of some white families adopting children from other countries or from lower income areas within our own country as a means of "saving" them. By positing adoption as a tool to "save" another person, we are creating the narrative that their culture is "lesser" than our own cultures. (Source 3).

So how does the White Savior Complex relate to education?

The White Savior Complex is prevalent in our school systems. The majority of teachers are disproportionately white, and many students of color will have very few teachers of color throughout their school years. The White Savior Complex can manifest in schools when white teachers want to work in schools that consist of predominantly students of color, again, with that effort or intent to "save" them. It is the idea that students or communities of color need white teachers to show them the "correct" way. Not only does that negate the hard work and talent of teachers of color, it also creates the narrative that students of color absolutely need white people to socialize them and teach them how to operate both in school and in society. (Source 3).

White Saviorism in schools uses a deficit-based lens to view children, rather than seeing their cultures and identities as enriching to the classroom. This notion doesn't address all of the capabilities and strengths students of color possess in schools. The White Savior Complex creates a very narrow definition of what it means to be successful in the classroom.

Ultimately, it is a very condescending and demeaning attitude that some teachers are carrying with them into the classroom space. Not every white teacher exhibits this phenomenon, but it is very likely that you know at least one person who has expressed these ideas at one point or another.

Examples in Pop Culture

The White Savior Complex is also prominent in a lot of the media we consume. Books, movies, news stories, and more have highlighted various stories that depict the White Savior. Some popular examples are:

  • The Blind Side (2009)

  • Freedom Writers (2007)

  • Avatar (2009)

  • Hidden Figures (2016)

  • The Help (2011)

Each of these films features at least one white character that helps a person or people of color, but the films tend to center the white character rather than the achievements of the people of color. They also portray the narrative that racism and injustice are products of the past, and that all barriers have been broken down simply because the white character has saved the day.

How to combat the White Savior Complex

The White Savior trope in media, and the White Savior mindset we see in peers, is something that can be avoided. There are several things one can do in order to reflect and evaluate on their own biases and beliefs, and actively work against acting as a White Savior.

  • Ask yourself questions such as (Am I talking over the people I intend to serve? Am I listening, learning, and centering the right voices? Am I expecting recognition or gratitude for my service?) (Source 1)

  • Examine your qualifications and your motivations for helping (Source 3)

  • Let people tell their own stories (Source 3)

  • Educate yourself on the histories and contexts in which you operate within. Understand that you are not necessarily the expert in the room and continue to learn!


Now, this was a TON of information. I appreciate you all for reading, reflecting, and taking time to sit with this conversation. It can cause discomfort, and I feel that many first reactions to this topic are to believe we are not culprits of White Saviorism, or mistakenly thinking it is not a real phenomenon. We live in an increasingly diverse community, and we should always be conscious of how we interact with others, especially when working in service careers. If you have any lingering questions or thoughts, send me a message at or through the Contact Form on my Home Page!

Much Love,

Emily B.






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