Understanding the ‘White Saviour’ complex and ‘volun-tourism’
This session supports a critical understanding of ‘white saviour’ behaviours, which see white people depicted as liberating, rescuing or ‘saving’ Black and People of Colour (BPoc) communities. It identifies key aspects of ‘white saviourism’, highlights how damaging and dangerous they can be, and gives practical advice on how to avoid ‘white saviourism’ in international working. It also explores the pros and cons of ‘volun-tourism’, through the critical lens of ‘white saviourism’, and discusses how learners can themselves challenge ‘white saviourism’.
|Key learning outcomes
|Understanding what is meant by ‘white saviour’ and can identify these behaviours
|I know what ‘white saviour’ means
|Understanding of the seen and unseen damage that ‘white saviourism’ can do
|I see how ‘white saviourism’ does real damage
|Appreciation of the complexity and sensitivity of such issues, and the dangers of making assumptions about others with limited knowledge
|I see that this is complicated – that nothing is 100% ‘good’ or 100% ‘bad’ and you need to really listen to people to understand
|Understanding the risks that ‘volun-tourism’ can be ‘white saviourism’ but also an appreciation that not all international work is bad
|Travel and volunteering in countries like Malawi can be good if done well, but I can see how it can also do harm if not
|Understanding tools and ways of thinking which will help learners avoid ‘white saviourism’ when working internationally
|I know how to try and avoid becoming a ‘white saviour’
|Ability to discuss this complex topic constructively and appreciation of the importance of self-reflection and modifying your own action before criticising others
|I can see the sensitivities here and why it’s more important to change my own actions rather than try to make myself look good by criticising others
Teacher notes: Introduction to this session:
This webpage gives all you need to deliver a lesson exploring ‘white saviourism’ and ‘volun-tourism’. This is a hugely important area but we recognise it is complex, sensitive and important to get right. As presented here, it is most suitable for upper-secondary but many aspects of this lesson could be adapted for different age and stages.
The lesson is made of five units. You don’t have to do all five. We have put three key learning outcomes in a text box at the end of each section, so you can pick and choose.
Most of the units are framed around class discussions. There is also a short online video to trigger discussion. There is also an accompanying PowerPoint presentation, with notes, which you can use to deliver this lesson.
We’re here to help, so if you want any support, advice or even someone to come and deliver this lesson for you, please just email email@example.com.
Do No Harm:
In keeping with our Partnership Principle, ‘do no harm’, we encourage teachers in delivering this lesson to be careful they do not unintentionally:
- Reinforce negative stereotypes about the global south.
- Leave learners with a sense that all interaction between the global north and the global south are inherently questionable – this is not the case.
- Leave learners scared to engage internationally for fear of being called out or getting the language wrong – it is important to speak of the benefits of internationalism and global citizenship.
- Deny that extreme poverty exists in countries like Malawi, that there is significant social injustice in the inequality between countries like Scotland and Malawi, and that there is crucial value in working together with countries like Malawi to call this out and look to reduce these inequalities
- Encourage unnecessarily hostile, combative or polemic attitudes towards others, even those which might be guilty of elements of a ‘white saviour’ behaviours. Rather, look to build a depth of critical understanding, showing the complexity and encouraging learners to think of ways to challenge and change which are constructive and empathetic (discussing not shouting!).
SECTION ONE: What is a ‘White Saviour’
Ask learners this question, listen to their level of existing knowledge and facilitate a discussion.
Q – What is a ‘White Saviour’
A ‘white saviour’ is a critical term that is used to describe a white person who sets out to help, or ‘save’ a non-white person, very often in the developing world. Their actions are often driven by negative assumptions: that they know best what is needed and how to help, and that local communities do not have the skills to help themselves. While seemingly well meaning, such actions are often driven by a motivation to make themselves look or feel good.
Often ‘white saviours’ parachute into a local community, looking to ‘do good’ but not listening to those in the community or acting in a respectful manner. In the stories that white saviours tell, through words, pictures videos and on social media, they are themselves the ‘heroes’ and local communities are seen as ‘helpless recipients.
Since 2018, there have been an increasing number of voices looking to ‘call out’ white saviourism in different places, most notably criticising certain celebrities and charities.
Four key questions when considering ‘white saviourism’ are:
- What are the motivations?
- What are the assumptions?
- Who is the ‘hero’ of this story?
- What is the impact (positive and negative; seen and unseen; intended and unintended)?
This is what we will explore in this lesson.
Facilitate a class discussion around the below questions, looking to draw out the following points.
Q - What was her motivation for going to Africa?:
- To increase her own popularity and profile on social media.
Q - What assumptions might she have had about Africa and what it would be like?
- It is very poor and there are many people in desperate need.
- She will be automatically welcomed by local groups.
- She will ‘do good’ just by going there.
- It will make her look good to do so.
Q – Who is she setting up to be the ‘hero’ of this story on social media?
Q – What impact is this having (seen and unseen, intended and unintended)?
- Disrespecting those she visits and taking away their dignity.
- Getting in the way of the local teacher and teaching culturally inappropriate topics.
- Getting in the way of local medical staff trying to do their jobs.
- Sharing negative stereotypes about Africa on social media (this narrative only makes it harder for parts of Africa to build their own economies and encourage others to invest – countries can become defined by poverty and this does real damage).
- Encouraging others to do the same as her.
- Contributing to climate change through long-haul travel.
Q - Is it always wrong to go to Africa and try to help? Are development projects involving people in the global north and the global north working together always bad? Is this always ‘White Saviourism’?
No [Listen to learner’s views and use this to lead into the next section].
- ‘White saviourism’ is about assuming that you have the solutions that other communities need: it makes you the hero and others seem helpless and grateful.
- Social media, and the desire to look and feel good, drives ‘white saviourism’.
- ‘White saviourism’ does real harm: it robs people of their dignity.
SECTION TWO: How to avoid being a ‘White Saviour’
Ask the class the below question and facilitate a discussion, looking to draw out the following points.
Q – How could the lady in the video have engaged Africa in a way less likely to be ‘white saviourism’?
Use the below headers to prompt learners’ thinking in the discussion. Click each header for points to try and draw out of discussions.
She could think carefully about what is motivating her and ensure it is not about her own self advancement or others perceptions of her. She would probably then make different decisions.
She could think carefully about what assumptions she has before travelling. Then look to build her own understanding to challenge these assumptions. Perhaps by joining communities working with that country and listening to others, as well as reading literature and consuming media produced by people in that country.
She could ensure the story she is presenting to others does not have herself as the hero – instead focusing on what the local teacher and the local doctors and nurses are achieving.
Ideally, she could establish links directly with an individual or group in that country, such that she can really listen to their experience of life, looking to understand what their needs and priorities are. Through two-way dialogue she could use this as an opportunity to share about herself as well, being honest about the challenges, issues and shortcomings she faces, with humility and self-awareness. In this way, she would build solidarity and mutual understanding in a respectful way.
Most importantly, she could unpack and challenge the assumption that travel to a country like Malawi will automatically help Malawians: why would it help? She could think about the risks of travel: the climate impact, the risk she reinforces stereotypes, and the risk she might make others’ lives worse. She could explore alternatives to travel: perhaps supporting a locally-run charity if her motivation is to ‘do good’. If a genuinely dignified, two-way partnership is built up, with self-awareness and mutual understanding at both sides, it is absolutely possible to travel to countries like Malawi in ways that genuinely help both sides.
The best way to build empathy and mutual understanding is the simple thought experiment: ‘how would I feel if it were the other way around?’. In this case, how would she feel if someone from a richer country came to her community, didn’t talk to her but took photos for social media which made her look bad, and then assumed they had ‘saved her’. If you can keep asking yourself ‘how would I feel if this were the other way around’ and you’re comfortable with it, you’re probably more likely to be on the right track.
If you are taking images or using social media, think seriously about how you are representing those you meet. The Norwegian Students' and Academics' Assistance Fund (SAIH), who made this video, have four key principles with regards how to use social media:
PRINCIPLE 1: PROMOTE DIGNITY
Promoting dignity is often ignored once you set foot in another country, particularly developing countries. This often comes from sweeping generalizations of entire people groups, cultures, and countries. Avoid using words that demoralize or further propagate stereotypes. You have the responsibility and power to make sure that what you write and post does not deprive the dignity of the people you interact with. Always keep in mind that people are not tourist attractions. Learn more
PRINCIPLE 2: GAIN INFORMED CONSENT
Informed consent is a key element in responsible portrayal of others on social media. Respect other people’s privacy and ask for permission if you want to take photos and share them on social media or elsewhere. Avoid taking pictures of people in vulnerable or degrading positions, including hospitals and other health care facilities. Specific care is needed when taking and sharing photographs of and with children, involving the consent of their parents, caretakers or guardians, while also listening to and respecting the child’s voice and right to be heard. Learn more
PRINCIPLE 3: QUESTION YOUR INTENTIONS
Why do you travel and volunteer? Is it for yourself or do you really want to make a difference? Your intentions might affect how you present your experiences and surroundings on social media, for instance by representing the context you are in as more “exotic” and foreign than it might be. Ask yourself why you are sharing what you are sharing. Are you the most relevant person in this setting? Good intentions, such as raising awareness of the issues you are seeing, or raising funds for the organization you are volunteering with, is no excuse to disregard people’s privacy or dignity. Learn more
PRINCIPLE 4: USE YOUR CHANCE - BRING DOWN STEREOTYPES
When you travel you have two choices: 1. Tell your friends and family a stereotypical story, confirming their assumptions instead of challenging them. 2. Give them nuanced information, talk about complexities, or tell something different than the one-sided story about poverty and pity. Use your chance to tell your friends and stalkers on social media the stories that are yet to be told. Portray people in ways that can enhance the feeling of solidarity and connection. A good way forward is to ask the local experts what kind of stories from their life, hometown, or country they would like to share with the world. Learn more
- To avoid white saviourism, it’s valuable to reflection on: what are your motivations, what are your assumptions, who is the ‘hero’ of your story, and what are the impacts of your actions?
- When you think this way, you realise sometimes travel is not the best way to achieve what you want (but this doesn’t mean all travel is bad).
- There’s a really useful thought experiment to test your actions against: how would I feel if this were the other way around?
SECTION THREE: Identifying ‘White Saviourism’
Go through each of the three case studies below, facilitating a short discussion as a class or in groups, after each. You could ask learners to stand in a continuum line: standing against one wall if they think this is 100% White Saviourism, the opposite wall if they think 100% not White Saviourism, or somewhere in between if they think partly.
Case Study 1:
A Scottish school goes to Malawi and paints a library of the school. The is no existing partnership with the school before the visit and one does not develop from the visit. There is very little contact or discussion between the young Scots and young Malawians, apart from a brief event as they arrive and when they leave. The young Scots tell their stories on video and social media. Is this ‘White Saviourism’?
Discussion points to try and bring out:
- Yes. There certainly seems to be some uncomfortable aspects here which might be described as having elements of ‘white saviourism’
- Why are they painting the library, could this not be done more cheaply and better by Malawians? Who identified this as a priority?
- Are there educational benefits if the Scots and Malawians aren’t speaking to each other?
- What story are the young Scots telling on social media if they haven’t really spoken to the Malawian young people? Are the Malawians able to tell their story?
- Is this just reinforcing stereotypes?
- Is there an unequal power relationship?
- BUT, to really unpack any further, or have any depth of understanding, you would need far more information. Most importantly, you would have to really listen to both sides.
Case Study 2:
A Scottish and Malawian school have a longstanding partnership together in which there is regular communication by WhatsApp and email, between teachers and students. There are occasional reciprocal visits (both Scottish teachers and students going to Malawi and Malawian teachers and students going to Scotland) but there is also regular educational work together between visits, including live links for discussion between classrooms. Both sides contribute and both sides benefit from the links together. Is this ‘White Saviourism’?
Discussion points to try and bring out:
- This looks less like ‘White Saviourism’ because:
- There is a real, two-way partnership
- Both sides seem to be setting the agenda
- Both sides have the same opportunity to travel
- Both sides benefit
- It feels respectful and reciprocal
- BUT, are there still assumptions behind this work? Again, to really understand you need more detail and to really listen to those involved.
Case Study 3:
A Scottish and Malawian school have a link together and regularly exchange messages. Their Partnership Agreement includes specific school improvements in Malawi, identified by the Malawian school, for which the Scottish school fundraises and transfers money. Is this ‘White Saviourism’?
Discussion points to try and bring out:
- Elements of this are potentially uncomfortable, and some might say there is ‘white saviourism’ if there are assumptions that the Scottish side is ‘solving’ the problems of the Malawian side through the fundraising.
- But there is a partnership agreement and the needs have been identified by the Malawian side.
- To draw any real conclusions you would need far more information about the nature of the partnership, how it arose, the tone off communications, how each other is represented, etc.
- Understanding ‘White saviourism’ is complex and sensitive.
- It’s important not to jump to conclusions with limited information. You have to really listen to really understand.
- Nothing is 100% ‘good’ and nothing is 100% bad
Q - What is volun-tourism?
Voluntourism is a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, often for a charity. Volun-tourists range in age and come from all over the world. The work they do can be related to agriculture, health care, education and many other areas. Aspects of volun-tourism have been criticised for being part of the ‘white saviour’ complex.
Q – Is volun-tourism good or bad?
Split the class in two and ask one side to think of reasons why volun-tourism might be a good thing and one side to think of why it might be a bad thing.
Arguments against voluntourism:
- Volunteers sometimes lack experience: they wouldn’t be qualified to build a school in Scotland, so why should they in Malawi?
- Work could almost always be done more cheaply using local labour – this would also support the local economy.
- Climate impact of long-haul travel.
- Local resources can be drained supporting visitors, with food, accommodation and support which takes away from local communities.
- It can reinforce negative stereotypes.
- It can build resentment between local communities and visitors.
- The real beneficiaries are often the visitors, in terms of personal development and a ‘feel good; holiday, but they are made to feel they have helped a local community.
Arguments in favour of volunteerism, if well managed
- If done in a sustainable way, a volunteer’s actions can have long-term positive impact in communities
- Both sides (host and visitors) can learn about each other’s cultures, building mutual awareness and developing friendships
- Can help stimulate local economies
- Can help increase a sense of solidarity, helping create ‘global citizens’ in both nations, who then go on to support positive international engagements
- Gives a greater appreciation of the challenges and opportunities others have, triggers self-awareness of the privileges those from richer countries enjoy, raises awareness of global economic injustice
Q - Is all Volunteering bad?
No. Many parts of life and society in Scotland are reliant on volunteers: people giving up their time without payment to help others. The same is true in Malawi. Just as its not automatically inappropriate for someone internationally to volunteer in Scotland, it’s not automatically inappropriate for someone from Scotland to volunteer elsewhere. It’s the detail that matters: how they volunteer, how they work with local communities, whether it is respectful, two-way and helpful.
Q - Is all Tourism bad?
No. Countries like Malawi reply on tourism for sustainable economic development, just as we do in Scotland. It is essential to understand the impact of your travel, on both the climate and local communities, but it’s important we don’t deter all travel to Malawi. It is a fantastically beautiful country and an amazing holiday destination. Learn more at www.visitmalawi.mw and www.malawitourism.com
Q - Is all volun-tourism bad?
Not necessarily, although it’s increasingly been used as a critical term. The important thing is measure it against the same set of four questions:
- What are the motivations
- What are the assumptions
- Who is the ‘hero’ of this story?!
- What is the impact (seen and unseen, intended and unintended)
The quickest and best test is asking yourself ‘how would I feel if this were the other way around’ test.
- Volun-tourism is a type of tourism which involves volunteering
- Not all tourism is bad, not all volunteering is bad, therefore not all volun-tourism is bad; however, it is all too easy to slip into the ‘white saviour’ complex if you think you are going somewhere to ‘do good’. This can do real harm
- It is therefore important to think about: what are your motivations, what are your assumptions, who is the ‘hero’ of your story, and what are the impacts of your actions.
Ask learners to vote with their hands which answer they agree with most to the following question:
Q - What is the best way of ending white saviourism?
- Publicly call out and criticise those you believe to be ‘white saviours’ and look to ‘cancel’ them
- Learn as much as possible about others’ work and look to have a discussion with them to raise your concerns
- Focus first on the motivations, assumptions and impact of you own words and actions.
Try to draw out the following in discussions:
Recent efforts to ‘call out and cancel’ those seen as ‘white saviours’ has helped expand the debate, raise awareness and has encouraged many more people and organisations to think seriously about their motivations, assumptions and impact.
However, this is a complex area and it is risky to try and judge others with limited information: it’s ultimately the communities on the ground who are best placed to say what is harmful and what is beneficial. It is these communities we should be listening to.
Often, even those doing the criticising online would do well to go through the same self-reflection: what are their assumptions, what are their motivations, who is the hero of their story, and what is the impact of their actions. If you are criticising others based on what you assume others are doing; if you are motivated to criticise others to make yourself look good; if you are the ‘hero’ for calling out others; and if your criticism is having a really harmful effect on others, it is possible you are just as ‘guilty’ as those you are looking to criticise.
Constructive challenge, discussion and debate is a good thing but simply shouting at others based on your presumptions of what they are doing wrong rarely achieves much.
Far better, look to understand, engage and positively influence. And most importantly, focus on your own words and actions, examining your own motivations, assumptions and impact. This is where you have the most control, and this is how you can therefore have greatest impact.
Perhaps we should
- FIRST… ‘Focus first on the motivations, assumptions and impact of you own words and actions’
- ONLY THEN… ‘Learn as much as possible about others’ work and look to have a discussion with them to raise your concerns’
- AND ONLY THEN… ‘Publicly call out and criticise those you believe to be ‘white saviours’
Q – Is anyone willing to share a personal reflection from this lesson, perhaps a time you might -looking back- have acted with a ‘white saviour’ mindset?
Ensure this is a supportive and safe space for people to share, in which no one feels judged if they share. We recommend teachers have an example they can share, regarding their own past thoughts, words and actions.
Q – Can everyone try to think of one thing you could do differently yourself, as a result of your learning today?
- Debate and discussion are crucial ways for us to learn from each other, challenge assumptions, and explore different ways of working.
- However, it can be dangerous to make conclusions about others’ work with limited information and simply jumping with others to criticise or cancel someone, whether in social media or real life, is very rarely the best way to bring about positive change.
- You have greatest control over your own actions, not others’. So use your understanding of ‘white saviourism’ and ‘volun-tourism’ to critically examine your own motivations, assumptions, words and actions.