Black History And The White Saviour Complex

Photo by Andrew Neel on

Over the summer I started listening to a podcast that I didn’t finish, partly because I knew it would upset me but mostly because I already knew the ending. It was about a young American woman, Renee Bach, who moved to Uganda as a 19 year old “missionary” to start a charitable treatment centre. 

Over a period of about six years, Bach’s treatment centre took in over 900 malnourished children of which 105 died. This young woman however, had no medical training whatsoever. She performed medical procedures and made decisions that an unqualified person should never make, especially in relation to other people’s lives. 

Renee Bach was a high school graduate who set up an unlicensed treatment facility in Uganda – something she would never get away with in the United States.

I didn’t get to the end of the podcast but I know that this young woman escaped back to the US once her crimes had been exposed. As far as I know, she never admitted fault and has never been tried for the accusations brought against her. What’s even more frightening is the fact that she is just one of many – that because of her skin colour and the colour of skin of those she exploited, her actions are excusable.

This story, like so many others, highlights the white saviour complex in a shocking but very real way. If this very story took place in the western world, it would make headlines and she would no doubt be brought to justice. As it happened on African soil, most people reading this have probably never heard of her until now.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the world sees children, specifically African children, and how they are treated as a result. This article probably applies to most children in the third world but as a child of the African continent, I’ll speak about what I know.

We’ve all heard of the white saviour complex and no doubt seen it in action. In case you haven’t, let me define it for you. According to Wikipedia, “the white saviour complex refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in the poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1899) by Rudyard Kipling.” Another definition describes the white saviour as being “out of place within his own society, until he assumes the burden of racial leadership to rescue non-white minorities and foreigners from their suffering.”

I could make a good guess what the poem “The White Man’s Burden” was about but I read it anyway. I have included a few lines below. It was written about the Philippine Islands in 1899.

“Take up the White Man’s burden— Send forth the best ye breed— Go bind your sons to exile, To serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild— Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child.”

The idea that whiteness equates to saviourism is nothing new. It has simply evolved over the centuries into what we see in our modern day. The white saviour complex is driven by the idea that non-white people are subhuman and it is the white man’s burden to civilise, even rescue them. While it may not look like it did in 1899, the root is the same. 

White saviourism manifests itself in the way we see and speak about places outside the western world. It appears in photo opportunities with black babies and children used as props. It runs all the way from celebrity to gap year student, showing up regularly when white run media struggles to portray anything about non-white continents as good.

What bothers me the most about the white saviour complex is that it is often disguised as charitable, while taking focus away from the people in need. Our focus shifts to the white saviour, selflessly leaving their comforts to go into “deep dark Africa” to make a difference.

Aid is white. Help comes from foreign lands where mostly white people reside. The narrative is that Africa needs saving and only white people can do that. This narrative has gone on for far too long and this black history month, it is something we all need to unlearn.

So I hear you ask: “Should people not help at all then?!”

I’ll respond with: “Not if the motive is wrong.” 

It’s not that what you see in the media is untrue, it’s the fact that it is a single, very harmful narrative that exploits the poor while pandering to the ego of the privileged. There are numerous success stories across the African continent that are ignored in exchange for the repetitive, bleak picture we’ve become so familiar with. If one is more interested in photo opportunities than championing real progress then yes, it is better not to help at all. 

In the long run, the white saviour complex does more harm than good. It takes away from the local heroes who have been working in those communities for decades without the spotlight.

Africa has for the longest time been portrayed through a negative lens – a single story of poverty, desperation and disease. Children all around the world have grown up hearing phrases like “eat your food, there are children starving in Africa!” Not once do we stop to think about the fact that there are children everywhere, the west included, who repeatedly don’t have enough to eat.

Let’s think for a moment about what picture this paints. What image does it create subconsciously in the minds of children who hear this statement repeatedly at dinner tables, for years? 

They are learning that misfortune is happening somewhere in the world and they should be grateful it’s not happening to them. There is a subtle “them” and “us” message that is being planted then reinforced through overplayed media stereotypes. There is an underlying message that says those kids are different from us.. they need saving.

This single narrative reinforces the idea that Africa is a country and that all 54 countries on the continent can be lumped into one massive stereotype. And while of course that may not be the intention, we are teaching children around the world to pity African children, many of whom are absolutely fine and look nothing like the ads we see on TV. 

So by the time children in the west finish college, they can’t wait to go on that 2 week trip to save those poor African children who would be otherwise lost. And what do we see most consistently from gap years, volunteer and mission trips? Pictures to reinforce the stereotypes we’ve been fed for years.

Rarely do we see more positive images emerging from these trips. Instead, pictures of overcrowded clinics, shacks and slums are the ones that are shared, perpetuating the poverty stereotype. 

There’s a word for that – exploitation. 

Instead of focusing on the people in need, a common reaction when people return from these trips is to realise “just how lucky they are..”

Us… And them.

If you’re Zambian, you may remember Louise Linton’s article a few years back: “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare.” This is white saviourism at its extreme. It was filled with cringeworthy, falsified cliches, highlighting just some of the damaging effects of the white saviour mentality. Poverty porn, as it’s sometimes known “exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers, increasing charitable donations, or support for a given cause.” It’s not right that we’ve accepted it as normal to exploit the most vulnerable in our attempts to “help” them.

And do we ever give a second thought to what this does to the vulnerable children in these situations? How does it shape their worldview and self esteem when help always seems to look different from them? What feelings does this create in their minds about their own skin? Is this just another form of mental colonisation?

If children are worth safeguarding, the rule must apply to all children and not a select few. We never walk up to strangers in the west, take pictures with their child and post it all over the internet.. it just doesn’t happen.

So why is it that in the third world it is perfectly acceptable to take pictures of vulnerable children and post them, usually without their consent? And even if we do ask for consent, is there ever a scenario in which a vulnerable person would say no to someone in a more privileged position?

I’m not knocking people who do this – this part is as much about self reflection as it is a challenge to whoever reads it. Do we protect children because they are children or because of where they come from?

The value and significance of a child doesn’t change depending where they happen to be on the planet. Children are not a token for pity or likes, whether they’re born into wealth or obscurity. They are complete with feelings, complex emotions and insecurities – we need to be so careful that in helping, we are not harming.

I think we can agree that all children should be protected regardless of race, family, social status or gender.

They are, after all, children.

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