Let’s Unpack That is a series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities, issues, and travel privileges to understand how they impact our travel experiences. Each post focuses on a topic or social issue to dig deeper and reflect. We cover everything from cultural appreciation to ethnocentrism. Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscious travelers.
Today, we’re unpacking a highly discussed topic inside and outside the travel world: white saviors/white savior complex. We will understand how this term came to be, including the actions that led to its creation. We will also challenge the notion that all saviors are white. By definition, the white savior complex is defined as a white person helping a Black or Brown person in a self-serving manner.
Using FAQs about this topic to guide us, let’s unpack how to avoid a white savior complex!
Table of Contents
Origins of the white savior complex
What are the key terms to know when discussing the white savior complex?
Aside from the phrase “white savior complex,” it is important to unpack the definitions of Global North and Global South. The Global North-South divide is partly based on geography, then partly on socioeconomic and political alliances. It is a division of superiority. Rich, predominately white, nations having more control over predominantly Black or Brown countries. This is necessary to understand the larger systems and history at hand.
Global North countries are Australia, Canada, most Western European countries, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. Global South countries are Asia (with the exception of Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan). Other countries in the Global South also include Central America, South America, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel).
So where does the white savior complex come from?
The term “white savior industrial complex” was coined by Teju Cole in 2012. However, its roots come from the lasting effects of colonialism and white people assuming they know best. The root of white saviorism is linked to the ego. Being a white savior is about helping yourself. It is about making yourself feel better under the guise of helping others. Saviors prioritize this grand, emotional experience through volunteering with a charity or non-profit with people they deem less fortunate.
This is a paternalistic point of view. The complex assumes that by being from “the Western world” or the Global North we have all the answers. It causes countries in the Global South to become reliant on the Global North for assistance and resources. This also leads to neocolonialism. With their actions, white saviors are saying “I’m going to do this to you, and for you.” However, they should be asking “you what you need me to do?” And if someone from the Global South says “nothing,” people from the Global North need to accept that and move on.
What areas of the world have a lot of white saviorism?
Though the white savior complex is global, it is mostly associated with the *continent of Africa. But the white savior complex shows up in Latin American and Asian countries too! White saviorism plays into that Global North and Global South divide. The divide is when people in the Global North believe they are the saviors of the Global South. The white savior complex even shows up in the U.S. You will see similarities when you analyze how Black and brown people are paternalized by white people. This is linked to the larger, global issue, of the white savior complex in travel and voluntourism.
*Africa is composed of 54 countries with a variety of cultures, traditions, and tribes. Yet, it is often referred to as a country. Hence the intentional language here.
The white savior complex, voluntourism, and the travel industry
How does tourism play a role in the white savior complex?
The white savior complex runs rampant in the travel and tourism industry. Slum tours, visiting orphanages, or building a school where it is unsure if the community actually wants and needs, are all part of the white savior complex. These adventures were designed for people from the Global North to use the Global South as a source of inspiration and charity. They can be very one-sided experiences in which people in the Global North benefit the most. Charity only reinvents the wheel and only solidifies that power imbalance between Global North and Global South countries.
But, times are slowly changing. Locals in destinations around the world are starting more local-led tourism agencies. There is more emphasis on supporting local endeavors and not those led by tourists. While there is still a reliance on Global North dollars in the Global South, locals are creating more sustainable ways to show their countries. This will hopefully reduce the exploitation of their land and people!
What is the connection between white saviorism and voluntourism?
Voluntourism, also called the volunteering tourism industry, is largely impacted by the white savior complex. The industry is built on mission trips through religious organizations and international NGOs doing work in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. These trips are mostly led by and for white people in the Global North. This is concerning considering how white colonizers used religion, race, and privilege to overpower countries and communities. It has and can be argued that some voluntourism agencies are using a similar model under the guise of “helping.”
The part that is particularly frustrating is the number of money people will spend. White people will pay thousands of dollars to go to Black and brown countries outside of the U.S for these mission trips. Yet, those same white people will not go to the Black and Brown parts of their own cities because they’re too “dangerous.” Most completely ignore the systemic racism Black and Brown people face in their own countries due to white saviorism and exploitation.
How does social media play a role in the white savior complex?
When you look at Instagram, especially in travel photography, you often see a white person in a sea of Black kids in an African country. The caption is normally focused on how seeing kids in poverty with “very little” made them appreciative of what they have. In extreme cases, white savior social media users will post naked children with those captions. Many times the tourists just met these children and barely know them at all. Yet, they feel entitled to share a child’s life story for likes. Photographers of said photos can build entire careers off these photos too. This is problematic and raises questions of how tourists disregard the dignity and respect of the people they interact with on their travels.
White savior complexes are not solely white people – it is a system of whiteness
Have you unpacked your own savior complex?
Yep! For background, I am a Black American woman born and raised in the U.S. I studied International Development as part of my graduate coursework to become an International Social Worker. Right after undergrad, I was very close to doing a mission trip abroad. However, I read the fine print and it said I had to lead Bible study. That was not what I wanted to do so I declined. I also applied to the Peace Corps at one point, which has been criticized for perpetuating the white savior complex. I did not end up doing either program.
While my intentions could have been good for pursuing those international experiences, I often reckon with what my impact would have been on those communities. Do I think I would have been a white savior type of volunteer or worker? No. I saw the connection between racism and racial justice in the U.S. and the same issues abroad when I studied abroad beforehand. However, I do not believe I would have been fully-qualified to do the work I signed up to do. Many of these programs offer little to no training of volunteers.
Can Black and brown people have a white savior complex?
Even though it is a little more complicated, yes we can. Just because you are Black or brown does not mean you are necessarily absolved from your own savior complex. Due to colonialism and racism, we are all individuals collectively attempting to survive in systems upheld by white supremacy. Yes, white saviorism is about white people causing harm. However, it is more about a system of whiteness and how its toxic standards socialize us to believe it is always right. Therefore, it is unavoidable to be impacted and influenced – in some way – by white saviorism.
If Black people can have a savior complex, how does heritage tourism fit?
As a Black U.S. American woman, I am conscious of how my role in international work impacts people in the Global South. I have to be mindful of the power dynamics between the Global North and the Global South. With that said, there is a huge difference between saviorism and reconnecting with your roots. There are Black people from the U.S. who do the Peace Corps or other programs in Africa to reconnect with their lost ancestry. Though there are other ways to reconnect, I believe that is a different conversation on heritage tourism. In the end, we have to be very careful with how we move in those spaces granted our other identities of privilege (ex. Socioeconomic class, nationality, etc.)
Quote to remember: “Colonized minds do colonized things” – Hiram Rivera
How to avoid a white savior complex
It is important to think about systemic harm more than individual harm. Discussing complex topics such as colonialism & neocolonialism, the white savior complex, and voluntourism takes more than a few blog posts and videos. There is much to dismantle with this kind of education being only the beginning. However, here are a few tips on how to avoid a white savior complex:
1. Do not go to destinations because you think you can and should save anyone.
2. Always commit to learning and understanding you don’t know everything. Do not go to someone else’s country and think you have all the answers to solve their problems
3. If you are going to work abroad or pursue an international career, do not center yourself. Maintain an open mind. Collaborate and amplify the voices and people who have been doing the work long before you arrived
4. Take some time to understand the history of the place you are going to visit. What is happening politically? What are the top new stories?
5. Ask yourself if you are really hurting or helping the destination. And if you think you are helping, how do you know? What is the source? Is it based on you thinking you are helping? Or do the people think the work you are doing is helpful and sustainable?
This is like homework, but better!
You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know, learn more! Check out the following resources to learn from travelers who talk about how to avoid a white savior complex.
– Teju Cole: A Nigerian American author and writer, Teju Cole coined the term white savior industrial complex in 2012 after his tweets on the topic went viral. You can read the article Teju wrote afterward in The Atlantic here. His words sparked many of the conversations, and blog posts such as this one, today.
– No White Saviors: It’s all in the name, right? If you want to learn more about the white savior complex, NWS is one of the best resources. They’ve been doing this work for years and have a wealth of knowledge to share, including resources for further self-education. Make sure you are following their Instagram to stay updated on their podcast too.
– Zuleka: A Liberian educator on Instagram she puts a lot of heart and detail into her stories and posts. Zuleka discusses various topics that affect Liberia, but also Africa as a whole – including the white savior complex. I did a one-on-one with Zuleka here on IGTV for you to check out! Her posts will leave you with information you did not have before.
That is all for this post on how to be a white savior! Check out the video version of this topic, and others, on IGTV @thesojournies. This normally comes before the blog post if you are eager.
Want to read more on similar social issues in travel? Check out the other blog posts in the Let’s Unpack That series here!