The 2009 film The Blind Side tells the “true” story of Michael Oher, an unhoused Black foster youth who becomes a first-round NFL draft pick after being adopted by a white family. Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the “fine Christian lady” whose kindness saves Oher (The Guardian). On August 14, Oher filed a lawsuit revealing that the Tuohys didn’t actually adopt him, instead putting him in a conservatorship and allegedly withholding millions of dollars (CNN). The Tuohys crafted and monetized an apparently false narrative where they alone saved Oher. The lawsuit has ignited an important conversation about the white savior complex and its dangers.
What is a white savior?
Teju Cole popularized the term “white savior” in response to the film Kony 2012. White saviors believe they “must save, help, teach, and protect their non-white counterparts” who would otherwise be unable to save themselves (Forbes). A white savior unilaterally acts on behalf of people of color, often “think[ing] of themselves as experts and… not part of organizations that help them check their privilege” (Mashable). Unaccountable to the community they’re “saving,” the white savior lacks understanding and long-term commitment.
• Use the controversy around The Blind Side to have tough conversations with people close to you about the white savior complex and why it’s so harmful.
• Consider: Would people in an oppressed community you aren’t part of call you an accomplice based on your actions, accountability, and interpersonal relationships? Why or why not? Have you been in a tough situation where it would have been helpful for someone with privilege to act as your active accomplice?
What are some examples?
A white student might go to Uganda to build a school without understanding the social and political context or whether there are even resources or staff to sustain it. A white person might teach or adopt children of color to “save” them without understanding their relative privileges and power dynamics. An unskilled white volunteer might go to “help” an oppressed community as if that community were only one enthusiastic white person away from solving its problems (Healthline).
White saviors might engage in performative allyship like “canceling and shaming ‘those other white people over there’ on the internet [or] making a corporate statement to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, without checking in on any Black staff” (The Guardian). These actions only “make sense” if you think racism is just one performative act by a nice white savior away from crumbling.
White savior narratives abound in mass media. The Black domestic workers in The Help can’t help themselves without a white journalist, just like the Indigenous-coded Na’vi in Avatar depend on a heroic white colonizer-turned-savior to rescue them (Forbes). One woman sued the author of The Help, alleging that she was the basis for a character portrayed in a “demeaning” way (NPR). Navajo artist and activist Yuè Begay called for a boycott of Avatar: The Way of Water (CNN).
Why is the white savior complex harmful?
The white savior mentality is a “colonialist dictum” that goes back to the 19th-century idea that imperialism saved colonized people from themselves (Teen Vogue).
Michael Oher criticized The Blind Side for portraying him “as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it” (NPR).
The white savior complex centers white people and dehumanizes people of color by reducing them to helpless, incompetent victims. These “saviors” invent their own “solutions” to problems that may do more harm than good.
Does this mean white people shouldn’t fight for racial justice?
Absolutely not! None of this is to say that anybody should be ambivalent about oppression if they aren’t part of the community being oppressed—especially if they’re beneficiaries of that oppression. Privileged indifference is just white saviorism turned on its head. While the white savior objectifies or infantilizes people of color to “save” them, the apathetic oppressor objectifies the oppressed to ignore their dignity and demands.
As long as there has been oppression, people have organized across differences to fight for liberation, including white people who have made significant sacrifices (Freedom Archives, NBC New York, Independent). The difference is that they didn’t pose themselves as saviors because they acted alongside, not on behalf of, people of color. And their actions can’t erase people of color who made equally large sacrifices on behalf of their own communities.
What’s the alternative to white saviorism?
Instead of assigning oneself the role of saving helpless people of color, a white person could start by building connections with and listening to others. Instead of proclaiming oneself as an ally, consider acting as an accomplice with marginalized communities.
“Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism. As accomplices we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other, that is the nature of trust.
Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence” (Indigenous Action).
There are two things to note about the word accomplice that is useful here. First, it’s a legal term used to describe criminal collaboration. That’s because real resistance to white supremacy means taking risks and facing repression, not just parachuting in to save the day. Second, you can’t just declare yourself an accomplice to a crime. You need to collaborate with the others who carry it out. You need to listen to them and actively plan together. Activists, oppressed communities, and people with marginalized identities don’t need privileged self-proclaimed saviors to swoop in to save the day. We need accomplices in fighting oppressive institutions.
• The subject of a film about a white couple “saving” a Black foster youth through adoption filed a lawsuit claiming that they never adopted him and stole millions of dollars.
• A white savior mentality views people of color as helpless victims.
• While saviors appoint themselves as the voice of people of color, accomplices actively collaborate and share risks with others to fight oppression.