When we hear the word “racist”, most of us probably think of an overtly aggressive, extremely prejudiced person – maybe a far-right protester marching through the streets with a «refugees not welcome» sign or a person insulting someone with a racial slur.
However, there is also a more subtle form of racism, which is not as obvious: Whether that’s white parents telling their kids to “eat up and think of the poor, starving kids in Africa”, or white, western celebrities pleading for donations “for Africa”. There are numerous ways in which we can see how a generalising and condescending perspective on Africa has taken hold in the western world.
By generalising that all Africans are poor people from an underdeveloped continent in desperate need of help, while all white westerners are rich, kind, and benevolent, we continue to uphold a deeply problematic world view. But why is it, that now, in an allegedly post-colonial world, this patronising attitude towards Africa continues to hold sway?
The White Saviour Complex: What it is, where it comes from and why it is problematic
“White Saviour Complex” describes the phenomenon of white people feeling the need to help people in, for example, African countries. This might not sound problematic at first glance, but it leads to an understanding of Africa as a barren and bleak wasteland, full of poverty-stricken, helpless individuals. The White Saviour Complex is also heavily contested because it can be traced back to European imperialism, one of the main reasons that some African countries grapple with economic instability today.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Privileged people wanting to reach out to the underprivileged – even when the privileged are white and the beneficiaries aren’t – is not inherently bad. But at the very least, the privileged should view the underprivileged as individuals and not one colossal entity. Alaso Olivia, co-founder of the “No White Saviours” advocacy campaign, put it this way: It is not about getting rid of white people, but about raising awareness of the fact that Africans are not helpless. She said: “We are trying to give our children a better education. We are developing our countries. We need aid, but it must not come with strings attached. We are saying that if you want to help, first listen to us and provide what we need – not what you think we need.”
The White Saviour narrative can point to a dangerously backward way of thinking by depicting Africa as one place, uniformly full of dread and fear – which does an enormous disservice to a giant continent with huge linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity. So-called “white saviours” also seem to ignore the fact that some African economies are making rapid progress. In 2018, for example, Ethiopia and Egypt were under the fastest-growing economies worldwide and therefore didn’t have to rely on white westerners to step in and “help”.
Racial colourblindness and its interconnection to the White Saviour Complex
People who do not regard the White Saviour Complex as a problem tend to argue “Who cares whether you are a black or white person helping in Africa? As long as you do good – so what! Skin colour is irrelevant anyway.” But this mindset can also be problematic. Even though well-intentioned, thinking “I don’t see race – I just see people” does not help solve the problem of structural racism.
Think of it like this: Imagine you are walking past two houses in your neighbourhood and you see that one of these houses is burning. Saying “I don’t see a burning house – I just see houses” would be of no help at all, because the house continues to burn even if you are frantically trying not to see it. If you simply ignore the fact that one of the houses is on fire, you are choosing the easy option: To ignore the problem, because it would take a lot of effort to find out where the fire comes from, why the fire started in the first place, who is in the burning house and think of concrete ways in which you could help. And while you ignore all of these things and claim that you don’t see the burning house, the fire is getting worse and worse.
This “no race, no racism, no problem” mindset doesn’t solve the problem of racism. In creating a ‘colourblind’ public sphere, a metaphorical tiny plaster is put on a wound that is actually a deep and bloody one. The problems that accompany the social construct of race do not simply vanish because the category has been removed from public discourse. As the British author Reni-Eddo Lodge once said: “We must see who benefits from their race, who is affected by negative stereotyping of theirs, and on whom power and privilege is bestowed (…) Seeing race is essential to changing the system.”
So, what needs to be done?
We must work together to eliminate Eurocentric as well as Americentric world views from our minds in order to dismantle established power structures in the long term. A beginning can be the continuous engagement with world affairs outside of Europe and America – just as much as reflecting colonial history and connecting it to current circumstances. We need charities that give a greater say to Africa’s trained individuals with the motto “African solutions to Africa’s problems”, as well as – and this is probably the hardest problem to tackle – a profound mentality transformation in the western world.
 The Guardian: “Charity at heart of ‘white saviour’ row speaks out”, 3rd March 2019.
 The Guardian, “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”, 30th May 2017.