The White Savior Complex

For my final think and create post, I’m going to talk about white saviourism, also known as a white saviour complex. A white saviour complex is defined as a white person who aims to help non-white people in a self-serving matter. This means that instead of working to help a group of people of colour, their intent is to feel heroic themselves. This is a common complex in society and is shown commonly in a lot of popular media. In this post, I will be talking specifically about the issues related to white led saviour films about black people that are quite popular in Hollywood. This complex is harmful to society and creates a divide as well as prejudices.

In this context, white saviourism involves undermining black voices in order to uplift white people so they feel better about themselves. For example, instead of actively combatting racism, a white person may work to prove that they themselves are not racist, and therefore believe that they should be celebrated for being a good person because of that. This focus means that instead of people of colour actually getting their stories and messages across, they are portrayed as powerless victims by white people wanting to become a hero of a situation that isn’t theirs to benefit from. White saviourism is widely spread by many types of media, especially in films. A large portion of widely recognized and celebrated movies about black history are portrayed with a white actor as the main lead. Throughout these movies, the white character is applauded for “saving” the black people whose stories are shared and setting them up as the “hopeless victims” saved by the white character.

This is harmful because it shows white people as “heroes” over “helpless” people of colour time and time again instead of highlighting their voices. For example, in many films that are praised for their “courage and diversity,” the leading white characters use a black person’s struggle and make it about themselves, acting as the victim to an issue that shouldn’t be focussed on them. The black characters are portrayed as powerless, while the white characters are praised for doing the absolute bare minimum.

This relates to our classwork in the movie Mississippi Burning. We took notes on this movie for class, and while it was based on a true story that needs to be shared, it is focussed on the dead white characters trying to be heroes without doing anything meaningful. This movie is focussed on two white FBI agents investigating the disappearance of 3 civil rights activists in Mississippi. Instead of addressing the racial injustices in the story as the main plot, the story follows the agents as they do the bare minimum of not being as racist as the other white people in the county. The movie portrays the black communities they visit as powerless victims and the agents do not seem to be strongly affected by the many hate crimes committed through this movie. While the stories in this movie are important to share in order for individuals to be educated on these historical injustices, the way this movie portrays these issues is ultimately harmful. characters of colour are shown as far less important than the white people when sharing their own stories.

Here is a great piece about the content of MIssissippi Burning!

For my artifact for this post, I compiled a list of “white saviour” films and wrote up on why they are harmful portrayals. I then included some movies that are led by black filmmakers and show important voices that are silenced or spoken over by white saviour movies. Instead of watching white saviour movies, choose movies with people of colour in leading roles as actors and filmmakers of historical stories.

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