Avoiding the White Savior Industrial Complex

26 Feb

The premise of the “White Savior Complex” is derived from the scenario in which individuals who exercise certain privileges–race, class, education, etc.–invade the spaces of certain groups or communities that are culturally different from their own with the intention of uplifting or “saving” members belonging to the groups they are invading. (“White” is really semantics to describe “saviors” from high-income/developed communities).

Those with privilege often wrongly deem the communities they approach as “oppressed”, or otherwise lacking access to certain rights or liberties , and in desperate “need” of help. From desiring to “rescue” sex workers to wanting to “liberate” oppressed women in the Middle-East, the White Savior Complex is a flawed mentality, and the intrusion of those with privilege into perceived “oppressed” or “disempowered” communities is often coupled with a desire for self-promotion that is justified with misguided altruism and harmful ally-ship.

Savior complexes, while perhaps partially fueled by a desire to do good in society, are callous displays of privilege that reinforce social hierarchies. “Saving” implies that certain communities are above others, and only groups with access to certain privileges embody the efficacy to empower those who are labeled disadvantaged or in “need” of help. Broadcasting the perceived struggles of another group in a showcase of pictures from mission trips and research projects can be both insensitive and exploitive to many communities.  “Look at these oppressed and impoverished brown/black women and children from the global south that I helped save”.

Saviorship of those who voluntarily enter the sex industry is a current topic of public spectacle that has generated a community-wide response. The hashtag #NotYourRescueProject was started by twitter activists to express discontent over sex work-related savior mentalities and reject the jarring notion that all sex workers are unhappy in their profession and do not wish to participate.

In 2012, Teju Cole,  a writer for the Atlantic, published a series of tweets on the White Savior Industrial Complex 

Yesterday, I published a series of my own tweets on “Being a Good Ally & Avoiding the White Savior Complex” . I’ve embedded the full composition of tweets into my post below:

You can absolutely have the best intentions and still hurt groups that you wish to advocate on behalf of. How CAN you be a good ally to the groups you are advocating on behalf of?

Your mentality matters. The premise of all savior complexes lie in self-promotion or seeking public approval and praise rather than true social justice advocacy.

Be mindful of the fact that if you are in a position where you feel like you have the ability to “save” or “empower” oppressed/minority/disempowered groups, you are demonstrating your position of privilege and, in fact, reinforcing social hierarchies.

One great way to know how you can help is by listening and asking groups you are allied with how they would like for you to become involved. By listening and taking into account the words of others, you demonstrate a genuine interest, and you will likely be called upon when your support is needed.

Email me: rachel.safeek@duke.edu

Twitter: @RachSafeek



6 Responses to “Avoiding the White Savior Industrial Complex”

  1. denqueerfeministiskaoasen January 5, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    Hi Rachel!

    My name is Erica and I’m part of a Swedish blog called the Queer Feminist Oasis. We mainly translate important texts on sex worker’s rights and queer issues, and sometimes write our own articles.

    I wanted to ask if it would be permissable to translate this article into Swedish and post it on our blog? With full credits to you of course! It is a brilliant piece of writing!

    Thank you so much for your amazing article and for reading this message!

    The Queer Feminist Oasis

    • Rachel Safeek January 5, 2016 at 11:32 am #

      Hello, Erica–how very exciting you are interested in translating the piece into Swedish! You are welcome to translate it and post it on your page. If you could email me at Rachel.safeek@emory.edu, I would love to see the final link!


      • denqueerfeministiskaoasen January 26, 2016 at 10:02 am #

        Hi Rachel!

        I have finally uploaded the translation! Please have a look: https://queerfemoasen.wordpress.com/

        Your text is so great and so important and I’m very grateful that you let us translate it to Swedish.

        Thank you again ever so much!

        Sincerely, Erica The Queer Feminist Oasis


  1. Effective Ally-Ship | blue devil banter - March 9, 2014

    […] the “White Savior Mentality”, in which we misjudge the groups we desire to help, incorrectly branding them as “needy” […]

  2. Interesting Reads | My Adventure Through the Mountain Kingdom - March 19, 2014

    […] Avoiding the White Savior Complex […]

  3. Att Undvika Det Vita Räddarindustrikomplexet – Den Queerfeministiska Oasen - January 26, 2016

    […] Följande är en översättning av en text skriven av Rachel Safeek från 2014, originaltexten på engelska finns här. […]

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