I visited House of Hope in India where young women lived who had been renounced by their families (because they were trying to feed their children with money earned by prostitution). I was deeply moved by the beautiful spirit of these women building a life together. I could write a “true” story of the lives of these women, yes? But as long as I’m in the story, too, as one who is “liberating” them by my giving them voice, it has some dangerous effects of which I must be aware. These women are already telling their stories, already claiming their deeper, truer selves in Christ, and creating incredible hope in the world without any Western-world spotlight trying to uplift them and their plight.
Since colonial times and its philosophy of Manifest Destiny, but even more especially since the Civil Rights Era, one of our society’s dominant narratives has been this: White saviors are necessary for the marginalized to be redeemed, enculturated, or given voice.
If you take a look at movies from the 60s like Lawrence of Arabia or To Kill a Mockingbird, you will see the White Savior theme present. Every once in a while we will find a To Sir–With Love or Just Mercy, but more notably, films like Freedom Writers or The Help present us with a white protagonist, like our beloved Atticus Finch in Mockingbird, who, through showing his kindness and respect to people of color, seems to remove himself from the white privilege that white society feels it must continue to deny—
—likely because of the guilt that arises from not fully acknowledging and making sincere reparations today in the U.S. for historically oppressing people of color. (Take note of how Germany has continued to take responsibility for their complicity in the Holocaust, for example. Germany’s efforts not only help to heal the worst victims, but also today’s Germans. https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2015/summer/germany-japan-reconciliation/)
When people who identify with dominant culture view White Savior films, with their warming messages of the good-ness of people like them who help out the victimized underclass in society, there is an insidious dark side to this inspirational story, too.
I know, I know. Say what?! If everyone says that Hidden Figures is an awesome movie, what does it matter if the writers completely fictionalized the scene where Kevin Costner dramatically knocks down the black women’s restroom sign?
Maybe the better question is, Why do movie goers continue to need that kind of extra attention on the white actors in the story? Why can’t we keep the focus just on the Black experience without having to create white heroes in places they don’t exist?
Because films like Dances With Wolves and Anna and the King are such feel-good movies for many people, it’s hard to imagine they could in any way be harmful to a young person of color’s belief in their own strength and agency, right? I know. I wish it weren’t true. We can still love Atticus Finch, of course, but we can also love knowing better than continuing to make re-run after re-run of this beloved classic trope reinforcing the need for white power…(as opposed to white support—for the POC* projects and films and magnificent endeavors that are already happening). *people of color
White Savior narratives are everywhere if you start looking. Sadly, they:
++create the false illusion that “race problems” are a thing of the past primarily, and are clearly being fixed by people “like me”;
++ they reduce racism from a structural system that we are all embedded in, to simply prejudiced offenses between individuals,
++and they support the false idea that white people must have reality “translated” by someone who looks like them before they can really believe that racism is real.
I’ll close this third essay in my on-going (Hopeful Huevos) series on race in America with a quote by MLK Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [sic] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…
This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Amen. Amen. Amen.
*For a deeper dive into the White Savior Trope Explained, enjoy this compelling YouTube video created by The Take: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1vuhrFfEkE