The White Saviour Complex and Why Mission Trips are Problematic
an article by Cathay Lau
Dear Asian Youth,
The white saviour complex.
Whether it be through the big budget screens of the cinema or the charity trip offered to everyone at some point during their academic periods, there is little information that is accessible on this phenomenon, only examples that are hardly dissected critically and instead easily praised. The white saviour complex is seemingly everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The Hollywood industry loves to utilise the trope of the white saviour. The 2009 film ‘The Blind Side,' starring Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron, is a perfect example. The movie depicts a middle class white woman named Leigh-Ann Tuohy who takes in African American teenager Michael Oher and teaches him to play football in a biographical drama which, according to Holderbaum, “seemed to be the only film that people in mostly white populated suburbs could talk about''. Coyne claims that “what is most troubling about this film, to Oher himself’s disgust, is its revision of the truth, which belittles Oher’s competency and allows Tuohy to steal the show”, suggesting that the film itself was inaccurate and placed sole light on the white character. This is further supported with a quote from Michael Oher himself, reported by Payne for The Washington post: “Oher takes particular issue with the film’s depiction of him as a football novice until he was taken in by the Tuohy family, who is credited in the film as shaping Oher”.
The story, struggles, and praiseworthy determination of the real Michael Oher is glazed over in a shiny package for a media culture which loves the idea of an angelic white woman possessing this omnipresent force that helps everyone around them- especially BIPOC people. ‘The Blind Side’ is an overarching example that helps us view the white saviour trope at its absolute core; it disregards the identity of the BIPOC in the film and covers it up with the fantasy of white people being saviours instead of what history actually reveals to us through western colonialism. Walsh believes that the white character’s “‘saving’ of the black character sustains the damaging ideology of white supremacy; embedding a subconscious hierarchy of race into the viewers’ minds”. This idea that white people are heroes and can only do good for BIPOC is a misguided concept and links back to the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’, an American imperialist belief which entailed the destiny of ‘Americans’ to expand across Northern America. This belief was used to justify the genocide of hundreds of millions of Native Americans.
Many stories that inspire film and TV adaptations, such as the beloved children's novel ‘The Jungle Book’, date back to having European imperialist backgrounds and ideologies. Since its adaptation into a Disney film, ‘The Jungle Book’ has been criticised by many as the plot serves as a metaphor for British colonisation over India. Jackson states that “Mowgli the “man-cub” is portrayed as the larger nation for he is a human, though he has been raised by animals in the wild”, sending a subliminal message to the audience and readers that Britain is more civilised and of higher power and general status than India. Along with the novels blatant appropriation of Indian culture and people, the famed author of the book, Rudyard Kipling, has also been exposed as colonialist, racist, and anti-semitic. A prominent example of his work that also shows his problematic belief system is the poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’, in which he encouraged the American colonisation and annexation of the Philippines. The poem's title would later become a common saying which would justify the savage take over of the Philippines as an “imperial conquest”, which is deep rooted and sourced from the idea of ‘Manifest destiny’. Furthermore, Roisin writes that “the POC characters end up becoming props, which only perpetuates ideas of our otherness and unimportance”, highlighting the underlying and subconscious message that releasing white saviour movies and TV shows sends. It essentially normalises the already popular whiteness which is all over our screens and decentralises what the film or story is truly about: BIPOC.
Mission trips that are sold to us through the idea that “it’ll look good on our CVs/ résumés” (which in itself is of dire need of self reflection) are also all too often used to further the white saviour rhetoric. As well as being used to further one's career and employability instead of out of the goodness of human experience, mission trips are also used for selfish gain in the form of an all too familiar Instagram post. The post is always emphasised by the hundreds of likes that follow and captions like “don’t want to leave this lil guy” or “obsessed”, much like UK TV reporter Stacey Dooley. This behaviour is problematic due to the lack of awareness of the fact that the people you are helping are actually human beings and not dolls or objects to be “obsessed” with. Furthermore, No White Saviours for medium writes that “if you are white and/or a foreign national coming to do some good… chances are you are entering into spaces where you hold a great deal of power and privilege that can be wielded for good or used to manipulate, coerce, take advantage of or exploit the very people you claim to want to help”. This brings attention to the importance of understanding your privilege and power before going on these types of trips. Unfortunately, this is something that many do not understand. Checking your privilege and recognising it gives you the ability to form true compassion and self awareness that is needed to take on such a life changing trip not only for yourself but also the people you are helping.
Something that isn’t spoken about enough is the emotional stress that children from impoverished countries go through due to the individuals who go on mission trips. Imagine being a child from one of these countries and who is suddenly helped by people who give you everything you need out of what appears as good intentions. They care for you and you see them everyday for a month and then they abruptly leave. Can you imagine the grief-like emotions they experience? Although the genuine desire to help and do good is something that people who go on mission trips should be proud of, it’s worth considering that there are other options that are just as effective. Michelle C, who went on a mission trip herself when she was younger, writes that a short term mission trip essentially “ignores the long lasting consequences. Despite our good intentions, we’re actually promoting dependence rather than empowerment, perpetuating an unhealthy dynamic where the benevolent, rich foreigner is savior”. Handing out toys and bottles of water are only short term options. Poverty in countries is a complex subject and needs to be solved and changed rather than temporarily hidden away. What you leave a lot of the time when you go on mission trips is children with abandonment issues and your own sense of self importance which you can post for everyone to see. This is performative help.
My point overall is that if you’re thinking of going on mission trips, then go ahead! (after the pandemic of course). Before you go though, please sit back and ask yourself why you’re wanting to go. If it’s mainly because of selfish reasons such as “it’ll look good on my résumé” or “so I can post it on my instagram”, perhaps sit this trip out. The people getting the help deserve to be helped by people who genuinely want to help them for their benefit, and not their own. Whilst you’re doing that, perhaps sit the new screening of ‘The Blind Side’ or ‘The Help’ 2.0 out as well. The white saviour narrative is seen all over Hollywood and doesn’t need more attention, as it’ll just provoke them to make more. If you’re still thinking of going on a mission trip after concluding that you want to go for good and true intentioned reasons, then think about other options that are just as effective (and not lowkey modern day colonialism disguised as performative good work). If you’re white, you don’t have to be the all seeing, omnipresent angel who is here to help people who aren’t superficially viewed like that. You can do more without having all the attention on you all the time.
- Cathay Lau
Cover Photo Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/movies/22scott.html