3. The European Superiority Complex

The White Savior

While questions of global inequality and the flow of capital are essential, we return to some of the ideological and social implications of European and white supremacy. The hierarchies of worth produced by our current global systems normalize historical and ongoing slavery, colonialism, imperialism, racism, capitalism, heteropatriarhy, ableism and other forms of supremacy and violence. These hierarchies condition how we feel about ourselves and how we relate to others and the world, regardless whether we identify with them or not.

In the particular context of global inequality, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira describes how “those in the ‘developed world’ are represented as intelligent, benevolent, clean, capable, deserving, and entitled to leadership and to dispense rights; while those in the ‘developing world’ are constructed in deficit and pathologizing terms such as inadequate, ignorant, unsanitary, violent, helpless, and lacking knowledge, information, manners, work ethos, education and rights” (pg. 73).

Teju Cole’s 2012 article The White-Savior Industrial Complex explores the ongoing proliferation of white fantasies of conquest and heroism. A white savoir is someone who rescues Black, brown and racialized communities from their oppression. A white person from Europe or its settler colonies can go to a country in Africa or Latin America, for example, and at the very least have their emotional needs of “making a difference” or “doing good” satisfied. They can claim they are there to rescue local populations from violence and poverty, while they are having a travel experience.

Similar to how we discussed the development industry above, the ideas of “helping” and “saving” the world’s poor, “helpless” and “underdeveloped” people and regions goes beyond the development sector. The “white savior” is also seen in the tourism and humanitarian industries and the proliferation of what many call voluntourism. Check out nowhitesaviors.org to explore this topic further and watch the satirical video created by SAIH Norway (4 minutes).

The “white savior” is also a persistent trope within film and television. White characters take the lead, challenging racism or confronting their peers, all without facing systemic issues and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. It’s another way that whiteness deflects blame. White characters are portrayed as playing pivotal roles in challenging injustice. For example, thanks to their help, racial segregation is defeated! It had nothing to do with generations of resistance and movements towards liberation of Black people leading change for their own communities. And it by no means problematizes the ongoing realities of white supremacy; rather, the white savior trope serves to uphold white dominance instead of challenging it.

Check out The Take’s video on the White Savior Trope below (21 minutes).

Check Your Understanding

Recommended Reading and Listening


Reflection 8

After completing the section on “The White Savior” consider:

  • Can you think of any other examples found within Western European culture and society that depend on the trope of the white savior?
  • How does the white savior connect to the structure of white supremacy?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the introduction section of the European Superiority Complex module.


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Global Justice and Change Copyright © 2022 by Nisha Toomey and Emma Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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