Perhaps you’ve heard of Benjamin Rush.
Most likely, however, you have not.
Well, Benjamin Rush was one of the more obscure Founding Fathers, but he was kind of a big deal back in the day.
Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, served as surgeon general of the Continental Army, and was an all-around Enlightenment intellectual. He opposed slavery, advocated for free public education, supported women’s rights, and lobbied for a more equitable justice system—all edgy ideas for the 1700s. He is also regarded as the father of American psychiatry, and he left a legacy of philanthropy and scientific excellence.
Wow, he sounds great, doesn’t he?
Oh, he also believed that being Black was a horrible disease, and that with proper “treatment,” African Americans could be “cured” and become White.
So there’s that as well.
The point is that despite Rush’s intellectual powers and benevolent spirit, he thought that White people were the pinnacle of humanity. He viewed anyone who was not White as diseased and in need of saving.
We still see this bizarre form of racism—a kind of non-antagonistic bigotry—today in the condescending comments of many White liberals and theoretically “color-blind” Americans. And we’re not just talking about smiling individuals who compliment Black people for being articulate, or who pat Latinos on the head for working hard.
We’re talking about the highest level of this mentality, where White Savior Complex kicks in.
That phrase, of course, refers to a White person who “acts to help non-White people, but in a context that can be perceived as self-serving.” White saviors are often celebrities who want to show what good people they are, but sometimes they’re just regular men and women who get to flash their humanitarian bona fides for the rest of us to admire.
Now, it might seem that this behavior, while annoying, is hardly egregious. And presumably, the struggling people who benefit from some rich guy’s donation don’t give a damn if that person’s motivations are altruistic.
But in truth, the White Savior Complex “can be traced back to the racist brutality of colonialism,” and “its impact is the continued dehumanization and colonial infantilization” of ethnic minorities.
Let me give you a personal example of this problematic viewpoint.
I once worked with a baby boomer—let’s call him “Dave”—who was White, religious, and extremely polite. He often used his vacation time to build houses in Haiti, or to volunteer with charities in Latin America.
To be clear, this is something that I have never done.
In any case, I recently ran into Dave after not seeing him for several years. Our conversation soon turned to current events. He calmly (and oh so politely) stated that Black Lives Matter was a terrorist organization and that Trump, while a flawed person, was not as bad as liberals said.
I told him I disagreed, but before our talk got bogged down in unpleasantries, we ended the conversation and parted. This was most definitely for the best.
However, this interaction vexed me. I knew that Dave gave his time and money to destitute people in foreign lands. Yet he also believed that a president who locked kids in cages and tear gassed protesters was a good guy. This dichotomy is a mindset that psychologists commonly refer to as totally fucked up.
Of course, I can’t claim to know Dave’s unknowable motivations. But it seems clear to me that the man suffers from White Savior Complex.
You see, Dave feels sympathy for poor Black and Brown people in distant lands. But he’s not so crazy about Black and Brown Americans who get all uppity and imply that he has benefitted from White privilege.
When Dave builds a house for a starving orphan in Port-au-Prince, he feels good about himself. But when Dave is asked to pay a little more in taxes to support social programs, he doesn’t feel so good.
Dave travels to far-off places to be the White hero, and to revel in the gratitude of dark-skinned people. Back in the U.S.A., however, he sees African Americans and Latinos who demand equal rights, and this subversion of the natural order upsets him.
In his world, he saves pathetic wretches who know their place, and he certainly doesn’t want to hear shit from Blacks and Hispanics who don’t have the decency to shut up and be grateful to him.
No BLM protester will ever beam at Dave with adoration. Therefore, they must be terrorists. And Dave’s attitude, shared by millions of Americans, has very real consequences for this nation.
This is the legacy of White Savior Complex.
It’s easy to address overt racism. We can just point to that guy in a KKK hood and say, “Don’t be like him.”
It’s not so easy to assert that a friendly, courteous man who is devoting huge chunks of his life to helping impoverished people is actually a bigot.
No, it’s not easy at all.
Featured image: “Colonial life in Indochina, in 1903. Cuộc sống ở Đông Dương năm 1903” by manhhai is licensed under CC BY 2.0