That’s No “White Savior”

Photo credit Siarhei Plashchynski
My young nephew, who is Black**, was playing with a group of children a couple years ago when one of the white kids in the group pointed at him and said, “Your skin’s the same color as poop!” Another kid stepped in. “Hey! That’s racist!” this second white kid responded to the first. And again, “Hey! That’s racist!”

When I share stories like this, I’m increasingly noticing white people express concern that this is “white savior” behavior. “Should that second white kid have stepped in like that?” they ask. “Shouldn’t he have waited for your nephew to respond first?” “Was it his place to define what that moment meant?”

These questions belie a significant amount of white anxiety about being accused of being a white savior, combined with even more confusion about what that even means. The prevalence of these questions worries me, because it suggests lots of white folks who otherwise see ourselves as antiracist-committed are remaining silent in moments when we really must speak.

We need to talk about this.

There are always risks when white people challenge racism — risks we’ll do it poorly, cause more harm inadvertently to those already being harmed, act from self-serving motivations. And, yes, there’s the ever-present risk of falling into a white savior role. These risks are real because, frankly, we’ve been socialized as white people in white supremacist systems. That impacts us. None of us is going to get it all right any time soon (or ever) and we only start to get it more right after working at it and at it, over and over again.

But there are very important differences between white savior behaviors and those more accurately described as antiracist behaviors. For the sake of growing white antiracist cultures and practices, mapping some of these is worth the time and energy.

· White savior behaviors proceed from a disposition of charity or pity, which are extended by white people toward people color. The white savior tends to hyper-focus on people of color.

· Antiracist behaviors proceed from dispositions that are justice-seeking and justice-oriented. They usually extend toward the racist action, statement, or practice and/or the person or persons engaged in racist acts or speech. The focus is on the injustice.

· White saviors are more likely to engage people of color privately and after the fact. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” There are few-to-no stakes for the white savior; no real risks. The motivation comes from the great white hope of looking like the good white person.

· Antiracist behaviors are more likely to be public and enacted when an incident happens, or — if later — to be taken up in the same space or among the same group of people in which the initial racist transgressions transpired. They take place in full view of other white people; including the people being critiqued, and called out or in. There are stakes for the antiracist-striving white person, in the form of risking social, economic and/or political capital.

To describe white-kid-two as a white savior means he was perceiving himself, metaphorically, as standing above my “poor” nephew and reaching down to help him along somehow. Of course, it’s possible that was white-kid-two’s self-perception. We can’t know for sure what he was thinking.

But his behavior looked outwardly more like someone who perceived himself as standing alongside my nephew. No doubt he was concerned about my nephew’s well-being and aware that white-kid-one’s remark negatively impacted him. If so — good! But the form that concern took was public challenge and interruption. When white-kid-two spoke he didn’t talk about or to my nephew. He didn’t try to speak for him. He talked about the racism and he addressed the person who’d uttered it. His action risked seven-year-old social capital.

I’m not suggesting it wouldn’t also be great for white-kid-two, after this public challenge, to then check-in with my nephew. “I’m sorry that happened.” “Are you okay?” or even “I hope my response to her didn’t hurt your feelings worse.” But that kind of check-in with someone who’s just been targeted with racial hostility — if (and only if) accompanied by some skin-in-the-game risk — isn’t white savior-ism. That’s just basic human decency.

· White saviors assume people of color cannot act and speak for themselves.

· Antiracist-striving white people know people of color can and do act and speak for themselves, and that they do so constantly. They act anyway because they take it seriously that people of color have said repeatedly that white people need to speak up and intervene when racism happens. They understand people of color insist on this not because they’re incapable, but because they’re tired due to the incessancy of racist encounters, more vulnerable in such moments, and really angry about almost always being left to speak up first and, as often, ultimately to do so alone when they’re in white-dominated spaces.

· White saviors assume racism is primarily about people of color.

· Antiracist-striving people realize racism is about white people. They know people of color are those harmed directly by racism. But, they also know white people are implicated and that it’s, thus, absolutely their business to respond to racism — because it’s really about whites.

· White savior-ism assumes white people — simply because we’re white — or, white culture (if there is such a thing) have some innate traits that can add value to the experiences or identities of people of color. (That’s why white savior-ism typically looks more like charity or pity than justice; it’s patronizing, arrogant, false, and — well — racist.)

· Antiracist understanding knows people of color are not innately in need of anything white people have to offer as white people. It understands that the only thing people of color need from us is our incessant work to eradicate racism (and misogyny, queerphobia, able-ism and all these intersecting oppressive systems) from the environments, institutions, co-workers, and every other thing and one people of color encounter in day-to-day living.

My story has nothing to do with white-kid-two thinking he was making my nephew a better person or doing something for him. His behavior — not just what he did, but the speed and seeming ease with which he did it — suggests he already knew racism is about white people and him as a white person. He didn’t look for permission. He didn’t ask for a “how to” lesson. He didn’t demand any form of emotional labor or validation from my nephew. He just responded because he recognized racism when he saw it, knew that it was wrong and assumed it was his problem too.

I don’t want to simplify what can indeed be difficult. The lines here aren’t always clear and stark. There’s no check-list to guarantee we always get antiracism correct in every situation. White supremacy socializes us constantly, drawing us back in, sending white folks false messages about our own superiority. We’re always vulnerable to the temptations of acting the white savior or engaging in self-congratulatory white affirmation about our behaviors.

On top of that, nothing I’ve said here should be interpreted as suggesting that white antiracist activity shouldn’t always mobilize around people of color’s stated needs and strategies when we challenge larger and more complex supremacist structures, policies and cultures in institutions and civic spaces. We mustn’t go running willy-nilly into every racialized situation without consulting the people most impacted and having done our homework. White antiracism must always center people of color’s voices and agendas. In lots of situations, then, this does mean slowing down before we just jump in and act, so that when we respond we’re responding to what people of color have already said (and, usually, are already doing) is necessary and in collaboration with them.

Finally, even with all self-reflective caution and care in the world, it’s simply the case people of color won’t all necessarily agree white-kid-two did the right thing. Not every person of color in that particular type of situation would have wanted that particular kind of intervention. Like all human beings, people of color are diverse, have different perspectives, unique personalities and various needs and wants. Meanwhile, white supremacy and its cultures are complex and multi-faceted. There are no foolproof or one-size-fits all forms of advocacy.

But all of these caveats just make clearer how important it is we get unconfused about some of the basic touchstones that can help us discern antiracist behaviors in more nuanced ways. If we’re confused by an anecdote this simple we’re really going to struggle in the more complex situations we constantly face in this supremacist nation. And when confusion about problematic white behaviors — like white savior-ism — causes us to remain silent in moments we clearly must speak, we’ve essentially stepped through a white supremacist looking glass into an upside-down world in which our fear of acting racist causes us to step further away from, rather than further into, antiracist journey.

My nephew was harmed that day. But, as he told his mom what happened, it was clear he appreciated white-kid-two’s behavior. When she called white-kid-two’s parents to let them know about the encounter, those parents got important feedback about why their parenting choices matter. Meanwhile, my nephew’s whole family had the positive (and too rare) experience of white adults in their community having taken seriously their obligation to raise antiracist-equipped children and that mattered to them. These are all small ripples, but they were important in their own right and they are likely to lead to other and larger ones that might grow into yet other and larger ripples still.

Breaking silence matters every time. We simply can’t afford to live on the other side of the looking glass. So let’s practice, everyday, getting ourselves very, very unconfused.

(**With appreciation to Grace Kao for an important and helpful set of insights about how we name the racial identity of people about whom we are writing.)