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Have I Ever Been a ‘White Savior’?

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

A post on LinkedIn just taught me something about racism and how easy it is to do harm when we think we’re doing good.

What did I learn? That even thoughtful, intelligent people can act like “white saviors” – Caucasians who think they’re uplifting people of color but end up looking self-serving and condescending.

Here’s what happened:

My LinkedIn news feed often shows posts from people who work in sales, consulting or training. Many of them use stories from their own life to illustrate a point.

This time, the writer was a white woman who trains others for a living. (In unfortunate timing, her byline said she trains in “inclusive leadership.”) She’s also a proud mom who wants to share a real-life story about her young daughter.

On a day when the daughter had friends over to play and the doorbell rang, the gaggle of little girls ran to see who was there. Standing on the doorstep was a Black woman.

“Robber!” the little girls screamed as they ran off in real or feigned fright.

To her credit, the daughter corrected her friends right away ("grocery delivery person"). The youngster went further the next day, informing her friends that what they’d said was racist.

I’m so proud of her, Mom said. “No harm was done.”

But actually, harm was done.

My first reaction was to give a thumbs up. White mom here: I’d be proud, too. But then I read the rational, polite and truly eye-opening comments from people of color.

A man with an Iranian surname wrote:

“While I understand the sentiment ... posts like this can continue to harm POCs by reminding them that they are consistently viewed as threats, and also can appear to validate their very existence through the eyes (and learning experiences) of children.”

That certainly shifted my perspective. Now it wasn’t a story about a little girl. It was a story about a Black delivery person assumed to be a robber based on nothing but her skin color.

A woman who I think is Black or biracial wrote:

“I have no doubt your sentiment was well intentioned, but ... imagine telling this story on stage or at an event to women of color. They might smile externally but they will cringe as they process the weight of your words. That’s the effect of this post.”

I hit the internet for some education.

Learn instead of teach.

In the Health article, “What Is White Savior Complex, and Why Is It Harmful? Here's What Experts Say,” Colleen Murphy said, “While helping out your fellow humans is a noble idea, the white savior complex is something that can stand in the way of addressing the real work that needs to be done.”

In “What is a white savior complex?” in Metro, Faima Bakar looked at why celebrities who take selfies while holding African children during their so-called missionary trips can be seen as white saviors. Those trips are expensive and often shift focus to the celebrity instead of the individuals they purport to help, she said.

I began to see what the story on LinkedIn was really saying: “Black people are so often the victims of racism, and we white girls are heroes for pointing it out and educating others. We're so proud of ourselves!”

I tried to imagine a story around me knocking at someone’s door and how some uninformed kids might react when they saw me – what label they might throw out at seeing a stranger at the door. I couldn’t come up with a single thing -- at least nothing that would make me feel a fraction of what it could feel like to be assumed to be a bad person by other people who don’t even know me.

Can you?

I didn't give a LinkedIn thumbs up to the post ... but I sure have thought about it a lot since then.