History Books & The White Savior Complex

By Joy Ng and Tiana Thwin

“Take up the White Man’s burden … To serve your captives’ need.” In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, a hymn to the U.S. Imperialism, a reminder of the burden for a white man to rule the colored, a mark of the racist legacy left upon the current generation. As the words fade to history textbook, an old form of how we discuss the privileges of white people, a new form lingers in disguise among common objects, in the books we read, holds the “White Savior” trope.

The White Man's Burden - Wikipedia
An editorial cartoon, “The White Man’s Burden,” drawn by Victor Gillam for the Judge Magazine on April 1, 1899

The white savior complex takes the form of expressing a white person using their privilege as white to provide help, assisting colored people in a self-serving manner. A manner where one supports racist policies in the morning, funds charities for blacks in the afternoon, and is praised for their “good deeds” in the evening. As we recognize racism as a crime, the manner of heroic yet intolerant slips into the books of students. To give the benefit of the doubt of the authors’ intention to write them, however, in the hands of students are an inaccurate depiction of history on the scars left by colorism, an act of kindness as an excuse to wipe away the past, the pain, the death of colored people.

There are several books that exemplify the “White Savior” trope, with one of the most prominent beings “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. In the present day, this book has been scrutinized, due to how it takes a one-dimensional point of view to racism, approaching it from the perspective of a white outsider, which lacked the emphasis on Black humanity and ambiguity. With the book acknowledging race’s interconnectedness, instead of it being taken out of the educational curriculum completely, educators have modified the way the book is taught, de-centering whiteness and focusing on the instances of Black characters. Another novel that exemplifies the white savior complex is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. In this novel, white slave owners justify their oppression, exploitation, and abuse of black slaves by relying on a racial myth that black people are psychologically inferior to white people, and are regarded as more animal than human. Referring to these two books, an American educator states, “Isn’t it ironic that after generations of high school students reading those two novels about racial injustice, white America still doesn’t really “understand.” Maybe those books are part of the problem, not the solution.”

Perspective: Atticus Finch a racist? There goes the ideal - Los Angeles  Times
Atticus Finch in the film “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Credit: Universal Studios)

Moreover, the white savior complex has a big influence on and plays a huge role in the lives of people of color. People of color, women, and gays, who now have more access to power than ever before, are still highly pressured to be well-behaved when discussing their problems. The white savior complex furthermore contributes to paternalism or doing things for or on behalf of others rather than empowering and building local capability. Instead of inspiring people to become the heroes of their own stories, it turns other people into heroes. Confronting this head-on is how we become allies and partners, and not ‘saviors.’

It is out of consideration to doubt whether all authors of such books ever held prejudice against colored people, for we may never know. Yet, what we do know is that in the hands of students, the future of a nation are coverups of the horrendous pain and insurmountable endeavors colored communities went through generations after generations. Commitment and actions for change are essential, starting with books. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, a closer look into the abyss of slavery; “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Phillip Hoose, the everlasting racism of the U.S by re-enslaving black people.; “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet A. Jacobs, firsthand experiences of an enslaved woman. These are the books that should be on the shelves of students, the true tales of history, a real education of racism, an accurate portrayal of how far we are from an equal society.

It matters to the youth and the future of what is taught and how it is taught. It was never a “White Man’s burden” nor in need of a “White Savior”, it is the burden of a society, of all communities. To correct the mistakes of the past, heal the scars of brutality, restructure our society, a bandage on a bullet wound is useless. It’s time to pay attention to all the aspects racism crosses, recognize and change it, it should never be a problem of the future, but a responsibility of the past and current generation.










Feature Image: Universal International Pictures

The Unread Initiative

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