The White Savior Complex in Media and Activism

Throughout the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about racial justice that have been taking place since May, the white savior complex has become very prevalent. Faima Bakar, a writer for the British newspaper Metro, defines a white savior complex as “a white person who acts to help non-white people, but in a context which can be perceived as self-serving.” 

Many white people on social media have used the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as other social justice causes, as a way to make themselves look good by posting aesthetic infographics or performative black squares. This becomes evidence of white-saviorism when they have never engaged in genuine, real-life, conversations about race and their white privilege with their peers.

A classic example of the white savior complex is when people go on mission trips under the guise of helping others, but instead, exploit innocent children for social media gratification. 

         Many movies also push the white savior narrative. An example is Hidden Figures, a biographical drama film based on the experience of several Black female mathematicians working at NASA during the Space Race. When Katherine, one of the main characters, complains about her long commute to the bathroom because all the ones near her are for white people, her boss goes and tears down the “Colored bathroom” sign to make the restrooms accessible to everyone. This scene never happened in real life and was purposely created so that the audience could view the white boss, Al, as a hero. 

In the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a Black man is falsely accused of rape. Instead of focusing on the Black man’s anger and problems, the book is about the white “hero” who defends him in court.

Tiktok, a trending social media app, is another hub for white “activists” to pretend they care about racial injustice for views and likes. Instead of amplifying Black voices, they often speak over us. Although Tiktok may just be a very biased app that only places white creators on the For You page, it is no coincidence that most videos talking about the Black lives matter movement are from the same white boys and girls. The trends on TikTok have gone so far to the point where people are doing Black face or having makeup competitions:

What most people on the app don’t understand is that they cannot be self-proclaimed activists and allies. Allyship is more than posting a black square or putting on makeup, it’s standing beside your Black peers when they face racism and educating yourself on white privilege and other racial issues. 

Teenagers on TikTok have also turned BLM into an aesthetic created by “alternative girls” who claim to be leftists for supporting the movement.

Images like the one above are extremely aggravating because innocent Black people are being killed left and right while privileged white people are turning it into cute cartoons to fit their feed. The movement does not affect them, so they feel enabled to turn it into an aesthetic that only benefits them, which is harmful to Black people.

Another hallmark of a white savior is an “ally” who makes the movement they’re fighting for all about them. While I was scrolling through my friends’ Instagram stories, I came across this post.

The first thing I noticed was that despite the number of likes this post received, no one in the comments was talking about how harmful this statement is. The post is essentially saying that Black people are strong for going through what we go through but white people are stronger for saying something about it. This post truly emphasizes how white people have been centering themselves in the Black Lives Matter movement instead of amplifying Black voices. You are not any stronger for standing beside us in times of injustice, we are stronger for going through everything we do and remaining resilient. 

This summer, when all the protests were going on and signing petitions was “trendy,” teenagers on TikTok thought it would be funny to create a petition to change the American flag to a picture of the character Manny from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Although this may look like a pointless joke, it is angering when something from a comic book gets more signatures than an actual petition of a Black person asking for justice.

While it is important to talk about the flaws in modern-day activism, I think it would be unfair to not talk about how allies should act. Before you post something, think about your intentions. Are you posting this because you like the pattern of the infographic, that you think it will make you look “woke”, or are you posting it because you truly care about educating others and spreading awareness? Focus your attention and allyship on amplifying the voices of Black people, instead of centering yourself in the movement by putting your interests first.