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The white savior is a literary and cinematic trope portraying a white character rescuing people of color from their plight. Critics have observed this narrative in an array of genres in American cinema; however, the white-savior narrative pre-dates the invention of cinema and is derived in large part from poems and novels created by British colonial writers, such as Rudyard Kipling. For example, in the poem “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” (1899) Kipling appeals to the white people of U.S. society to civilize the non-white people of Asia, and in the novella The Man Who Would Be King (1888), the protagonists—ex-soldiers Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, formerly of the British Indian Army—attempt to become kings in Afghanistan. In American popular culture, the white savior narrative has given rise to many popular Hollywood films. The Legend of Tarzan, Blood Diamond, Avatar, Glory, and Dances with Wolves are distinctly different films that have in common a white savior protagonist.
Serious problems can arise when well-meaning white people try to carry these Hollywood narratives into real life. Volunteering in African countries, saving Muslim hijabi women, inspiring low-income students of color — may be examples of progressives contributing their time and talent as helpful white allies. On the other hand, they may be examples of condescending white people trying to fulfill a fantasy that does more harm than good. How can we understand the difference?
In this short video, Celia Edell attempts to answer this question with an explanation of why these feel-good stories don’t actually feel very good for people of color. In fact, you might take the role of a “white savior” and believe that you’re helping, but there’s a good chance that you got that idea from some pretty messed up portrayals in the media.
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