The term white savior, sometimes combined with savior complex to write white savior complex, refers to a white person who acts to help people of color, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving. The role is considered a modern-day version of what is expressed in the poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) by Rudyard Kipling.
The term has been associated with Africa, and certain characters in film and television have been critiqued as white savior figures. Writer Teju Cole combined the term and “industrial complex” (derived from military-industrial complex and similarly applied elsewhere) to coin “White Savior Industrial Complex”.
Africa has a history of slavery and of colonization. Damian Zane of BBC News said due to the history, Africans find the “white savior” attitude to help them “deeply patronising and offensive”. Zane said, “Some argue that aid can be counter-productive, as it means African countries will continue to rely on outside help.” Bhakti Shringarpure, writing for The Guardian, said, “Westerners trying to help poor, suffering countries have often been accused of having a ‘white saviour complex’: a term tied up in colonial history where Europeans descended to ‘civilise’ the African continent.” The Washington Post‘s Karen Attiah said the white savior framework in Africa “follows the venerable tradition” of the novella Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad and that the tradition included the film Machine Gun Preacher (2011), the public relations campaign related to the documentary Kony 2012 (2012), and the writings of journalist Nicholas Kristof.
Actor and producer Louise Linton wrote a memoir about her gap year in Zambia, In Congo’s Shadow, and wrote an article for The Telegraph, “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare”, to promote the book. Michael Schaub of Los Angeles Times said, “The reaction to Linton’s article was swift and negative, accusing her of using clichés and misrepresentations… Several people have described Linton’s memoir as a ‘white savior’ fantasy.” Zambians and other Africans negatively criticized the article on social media. Attiah said the popular Instagram account “BarbieSavior” was inspired by the backlash to Linton’s words. Special Broadcasting Service‘s Amal Awad said the Instagram account was parodied “a reckless trend” of voluntourism (volunteering and touring) in which “‘white saviours’ use the less fortunate like props in their social media profiles”. Awad said the interest in volunteering encouraged a business model that leverages a country’s existing social issues and charges tourists for volunteering to be a “saviour”.
Baaz, Gondola, Marijnen, and Verweijen, writing in Foreign Affairs, were critical of the “white savior complex” in the 2014 documentary Virunga, which features the Democratic Republic of the Congo‘s Virunga National Park and the conservation work of its park rangers. They said, “The movie features endless footage of a park guard hugging and playing with the gorillas, evoking the notion of the ‘noble savage’ who is close to nature, honest and naive, and dependent on the white man for his salvation. Rarely do we see the Congolese exercising political agency, even though there are numerous civil society activists in the region, often working at great personal risk.”