white privilege, the white savior complex, and voluntourism

Here in the West, we are frequently schooled on just how lucky we are to live the way that we do…We are taught to pity the women, those other women, living in other places, who do not enjoy the same rights that we do. We are taught to be thankful that we are not these women. On the surface, these lessons seem to be fairly innocuous — after all, it’s a demonstrable fact that we in the West, especially white women in the West, face less oppression than non-western women of color. When we take a closer look at these statements, however, their core message becomes clear: our culture is better. We are more enlightened, more rational, and more civilized. Other cultures should strive harder to be more like us.

-Anne Theriault: The White Feminist Savior Complex

Before we move on to the meat of my post, let’s go through a few definitions:

  • White privilege: social, political, or economic benefits white people in western countries experience solely because of the color of their skin.
  • The White Savior Complex (definition from Urban Dictionary): White savior refers to (white) western people going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.
  • Voluntourism: Going somewhere abroad to do some type of volunteer or charity work.


Recently, I read a Facebook post from an acquaintance going on and on about how she was so proud of the work she did in “Africa” to save those poor children and how one day she would continue the work somewhere else…maybe a Native American reservation. I did what I always do but regret later and read the comments beneath the status. Every comment was praising her- good job, praise God, bless you! I was internally vomiting. There are so. many. issues with the entire post and who it was coming from- a white woman (who also had a photo posted of her and a ton of little black kids).

First, can we FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS GOOD, stop referring to Africa as a homogeneous area (often referring to it as a single country) that all needs saving??  As westerners, especially as white westerners, we need to be mindful of how we speak and what we assume. Who taught us to pity anyone from any culture other than ours and why? Why do we assume that everyone outside of our country/culture wants to live like we (westerners) do? Did you ask these folks in “Africa” if they wanted your saving? Did your “help” come bearing a religious obligation that they may or may not appreciate?

And maybe for a moment one should stop and reflect- what did I REALLY do when I was abroad? I won’t pretend to know what this woman on Facebook did or what others who pride themselves on their abroad volunteering have done. I guess it would have been nice or at least informative to know that this woman did–before everyone was patting her back for being a good white girl. Did you go to Africa and play with the kiddos? Maybe you did provide a real service- who knows. But I think what we must CRITICALLY think about, again- especially as white westerners, is does said group of people want our help, are we helping or empowering, are we doing something purely to make ourselves feel better–what are our motivations?

Something that really gets me wondering is what one’s motivation is in posting a photo of yourself (said white person) and a bunch of children of color. Did you ask them if you could take/post a photo of them (are they even old enough to consent)? Why did you take it? Do you think you look like a “good” servant or white girl/boy–maybe even a good feminist? I have seen so many people post these photos…even some of my social work colleagues and I am just so curious. Why? Perhaps one of the best tumblrs I have ever seen is this one. It is a collage of all the photos from Tinder of (mostly) white people “doing humanitarian work” abroad. Why are these photos a thing?

The White Savior Complex may occur in actual travel/voluntourism or also just theoretically in conversation. One example of this I hear all the time is that “we” need to help the Muslim women in the Middle East and liberate them! I think I hear this one more than any other currently, especially in today’s increasingly hostile culture towards Islam. What is most important when one is speaking or thinking these thoughts is to ask yourself- Do I really know what the fuck I am talking about? Do I know about Islam–and not just from a radical right wing source? Have I met a Muslim woman (or man) personally and asked her why she chooses to wear Hijab (or if she is forced to)? Have you asked one of “these women” if they want your westernized “saving?” Also, what do you really know about women’s role in the Middle East? Did you know there are more women in government in Iraq and Afghanistan than in the United States? Have you considered the idea that western feminism (and of course white feminism) may look completely different from feminism in a different country? I mean—doesn’t that make sense? A different country with a different culture will likely have feminism that looks different. So let’s stop trying to “save” women in the middle east. Let’s pick up a book, listen to them, realize they have diverse opinions within their cultural group, etc. While you’re at it, check out this Huff Post piece that features a beautifully diverse group of women explaining what the Hijab means to them.

Ok, let’s wrap it up.

Important takeaways:

-white people need not and should not see themselves as saviors and also should not view non-white people as  in need of saving.

-next time you go abroad to volunteer, think CRITICALLY about your choice. why are you going? are you really just going to tour a country? that is cool; i love to travel. but let’s be real about our motivations. before you rush to someone’s “aid” ask them–do you want this from me?

-fight hard to dissolve preconceived beliefs about countries or cultures other than your own. go to the source: speak to someone different than you. have an open mind. it is amazing how far an open mind and respect can take you. it is unjust and unethical to hold beliefs about someone outside of your culture based on literature written BY (white) WESTERN people. Think about that. It’s simply illogical. What better way to get true and tried information than going to someone belonging to that group. You will likely be surprised at how eager they are to share about their culture or beliefs-just be respectful.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments?

Peace and love, y’all.





P.S. google “white savior cat.” You will thank me.