The Rise of the White Savior Complex and Our Failure in Diversity

What do movies like Dangerous Minds, Hardball, and The Freedom Writers all have in common? They’re all movies detailing a well-meaning white person coming into the ‘hood’ to save all of the little black and brown children from themselves and the wayward people in the community.

The White Savior Complex is a modern spin on the classic idea in Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden.” A quick Wikipedia search offers the following analysis of the concept: “One view proposes that whites have an obligation to rule over, and encourage the cultural development of people from other cultural backgrounds until they can take their place in the world economically and socially.” This has manifested itself in many forms over the past 500 years. Since the age of European colonization, it started the day Christopher Columbus first stepped foot on the shores of Haiti.

dangerous minds (2)
Photo Courtesy of the New Model Minority 

White Staff, Black and Brown Clients

At first, I thought it was because I went to an elite private institute for my social work graduate degree that there was a racial imbalance in just my class. Many of the students were white, ranging from working-class backgrounds to the 1% also; most of my classmates were women. (But that will be addressed a little bit later on in this article). I sure thought that when I went into the field and became a street-level bureaucrat, many of the people serving the people on the ground would be reflective of the communities they served.

That assumption couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The State of Diversity in the Nonprofit Sector states that 30% of the U.S workforce are people of color. When you peer into the nonprofit and social service sector, they have always served historically underprivileged communities. But only 18% of staff in nonprofits were classified as people of color, and 22% at foundations.

I worked for one of those nonprofits after being there for only two and a half years. Twelve men who are black and brown (myself included) left or got fired from the organization; during that time, the organization was growing. It started to become whiter and whiter with each new employee hired. This might have to do with the fact that the people hiring were also white, which possibly created a feedback loop. The population this organization served was 95% people of color, predominately black and Latino, with some Southeast Asians and Middle Eastern clients, and a handful of white students.

This was not far off the mark from other nonprofit educational and youth service organizations I worked with in Chicago. Many of the staff at these service organizations were white men and women. The men were mainly at the executive and director levels. At the same time, the woman served at all employee levels of their respective organizations. This was especially true for the more prominent and better-known nonprofits. It seemed the only diversity was in the gender of staff members, more so than race and sexuality. These organizations had a few black and brown faces, but not a critical mass.

I believe that white people can be real anti-racist allies to people of color. In fact, we need more white folks to come forward and call out white supremacy and privilege. Especially when it rears its head in so-called anti-racist, social change, and mission-driven organizations.

When I worked at that nonprofit, I was moved into a teacher role, which was appropriate due to my educational and professional background. I taught and led a very successful class of students. Most of these students were from the West and South Sides of Chicago. They were mostly from black and Latino backgrounds. I could relate to many of the students because I understood their culture. I was from the same racial background and lived in many of the neighborhoods that these students still called home. I utilized my social work skills to build empathy and make connections with students from various racial backgrounds. Thanks to my time in the armed services, I knew how to work closely with people from a diverse array of experiences. I didn’t make that much money during this time period, but I absolutely loved my work. I was happy to make a positive impact in the lives of these young people.

An anonymous source on stated this about the said organization: “Lack of diversity in senior management, lack of interest in having diversity on staff mirror diversity of students or population served. A tendency for self-congratulation and belief that building the program is ‘saving’ young people instead of empowering them.” This was 100% accurate, in my personal opinion.

I was unceremoniously relieved of the teaching position and put back into the community outreach role. (I mentioned that story in a previous post.) A colleague and dear friend of mine in a more senior position informed me that a couple of my white colleagues didn’t want to go out to black and Latino neighborhoods to do outreach and actually recruit potential clients for the program. This wasn’t surprising because during my time at Chicago Public Schools Central Office, during the historic teacher’s strike in 2012, there were whispers of white central office employees complaining about not feeling safe when we had to go to the schools and mainly babysit the students during the two-week-long teacher’s strike.

Unfortunately, many of my liberal white and some of my colleagues of color both in the education and nonprofit sectors, fail to realize what happens in a setting where there is a massive disconnect between staff and clients. This is definitely true when it comes to class and race. These students and clients, in many instances, shared with me their feelings about staff members they didn’t connect with; they felt staff members didn’t indeed view them as equals. At CPS high school, as a social work intern, I had several students disclose to me that staff and teachers set low expectations for them and didn’t expect them to succeed in life. When I moved into the educational development program, several adult clients shared similar sentiments with me. I was highly impressed with the self-awareness displayed by so many young people I encountered over my years in the field.

I even recalled sitting in meetings where staff members intentionally set a low bar for the students and clients. Often, I would chime in and question this logic. Staff members would shut me down due to my questioning. This troubled me, especially when the people who set low expectations were people of color. It seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy for many clients in these environments. Even in my talks amongst those working daily in nonprofits and education, many would share their stories of the low bar set for students based on their racial differences. One nonprofit creator and a fellow social worker who is white shared the feelings that so many of her white colleagues and teachers felt about Latino students versus African-American students: “The Latino students are more appreciative of them being there than the black students.” Another bi-racial colleague shared with me a similar perspective and mindset she noticed from many of her white co-workers at her youth service organization.

My friend, who’s a Latino community organizer and fellow social worker, Ulysses Diaz, put it like this about whites in the Midwest: “White people feel more comfortable with us Latinos here in Chicago because we’re lighter-skinned thus closer to white than black folks.”

I took from these exchanges that many of my white peers who don’t view themselves as racist or racially biased feel that they are doing the world a favor by going into the ‘hood’ and helping us darker folks. If they come into a culture with an attitude that they are saving or helping ‘those people’, there’s already an inherent bias in their thinking. They are coming in from a position of privilege and authority. They feel that they dedicate their precious time educating and training ‘those people.’ So ‘those people’ should be thankful that they’re there at the schools and organizations ‘saving young colored folks.’

It’s no wonder that so many youths felt an underlying lack of respect for their shared humanity from specific staff members. Sometimes the white savior who comes to ‘save’ the hood can have life and death consequences. Just look at the life and tragedy of the Hart family. Devonte Hart and his siblings were killed by their adopted white parents. Despite reports of child welfare concerns, these women were not pursued by the law until it was far too late. All because in a system of white supremacy, it’s impossible to think that a couple of young and socially conscious lesbian white women could also be monsters.

Where are the men, and why is the field so bright white?

Where are the men in the field of education and nonprofit work? Let’s look at some data: “… women continue to dominate the nonprofit space—they made up 75 percent of the sector’s total workforce in 2005…” According to the American Associations of College for Teacher Education, 80 percent of BA’s earned in education went to non-Latino white students in 2009-10. The same report stated that only 4.2% of teachers are Latino, and only 2% were black males. These statistics come when about 45% of the K-12 student population are children of color, and this is expected to grow tremendously by the year 2050. With this data, we can see that the nonprofit and education sector lacks diversity and equity.

The rise of the prison industrial complex has removed a significant number of black men from the labor force. Even once many felons are out of the criminal justice system, they still face many roadblocks to entering the workforce. We can break down the demographics of working black men and women that paints another picture around this topic. In 2011, 33% of employed black women had jobs in management or professional occupations compared to 23% of employed black men. As a matter of fact, 64% of working African American women hold “white collar” occupations compared to 50% of African American men. Thirty-six percent of employed black men hold “blue-collar” occupations compared to 8% of black women. These results show a vast discrepancy in the number of black men and women in educational attainment and careers, which likely accounts for the differences seen in the fields of social service and education. There are significant numbers of professional black men who work in the area of business. But a far higher percentage of men work in construction and production fields than their female counterparts. These factors create a less diverse workplace.

What can we do to change things?

Communities need to demand changes in their schools and social service organizations that serve them. Demand that they hire and recruit people who reflect the community. I saw firsthand how people in the communities of Chicago have made positive changes in their respective neighborhoods. Like the Chicano families coming together in the Pilsen neighborhood preventing the City of Chicago from closing the community’s library. Or the excellent work was done by the violence interrupters Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra in Humboldt Park and Englewood neighborhoods.

It’s also important to vote in elections at the local level for leaders that support the community and actually give a damn about the people living there. In Chicago, a second reign of the Rahm administration has led to further budget cuts in education, directly impacting schools and educators in some of Chicago’s most impoverished communities, particularly the black ones. His hand-selected school board has recently planned to cut educators’ salaries by 1.6% this year as teachers in that city plan to strike again on April 2nd, 2016. Imagine if a critical mass of people voted out the infamous mayor.

Local elections and elected officials directly impact the lives of everyday people. His neoliberal policies have directly affected black men and women who work at many of the city’s schools. Those policies and politics behind them are clearing the path for more privately funded Charter schools that often self-select individual students from the communities they supposedly serve.

Secondly, we still need our white allies to call out racism and white supremacy. Black people have been calling it out for 400 years, yet there is always a segment of white America that denies racism exists. But any Donald Trump rally would prove the notion of racism being over is dead wrong. We need them to not sulk in white guilt but become active anti-racist advocates. Call out colleagues and co-workers who work in education and nonprofit organizations that say prejudicial things about their clients and their client’s communities. Or call them out when they refer to grown clients condescendingly as ‘kids.’ I personally know white allies who admit to their unearned privilege and aren’t afraid to call out others.

Many middle-class, upper-class, and now working-class black families opt out of public and private schools altogether. They are moving to homeschool their children to shield them from school-based racism and teach their children history that is culturally appropriate and more reflective of the actual African-American experience: A history that doesn’t begin with slavery and ends with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s brilliantly laid out in the Atlantic article titled “The Rise of Homeschooling Among Black Families.”

Black Kids homeschool-Atlantic
Photo Courtesy of The Atlantic Magazine 

Finally, we should attract more men of color and retain people of color in social service and education. In that case, it is crucial to demand higher pay and competitive salaries. In grad school, it was a running joke amongst some working-class students that many of our upper-crusted peers came to social work school. But really wanted to find wealthy law and medical student fiancées. They only wanted to get an ‘easy’ grad degree. They’d be ‘kept’ men and women after graduation. However, they still wanted to pat themselves on the back for showing ‘those’ poor people how to be sustainable and respectable human beings.

We can look to educational models in Finland and Taiwan to see there’s a smarter way to create higher retention and prevent teacher burnout in the field. First, let’s stop linking standardized scores to teachers’ pay and job stability. They offer competitive compensation, free continuing education courses, and monetary rewards for high-performing teachers in Taiwan. In America, we have an education system in many low-income communities being subsidized by bright-eyed, low-paid Teach for America Ivy-League educated teachers who only spend two to three years in inner-city schools; then, they move on to their ‘real’ careers. We tie school funding directly to property taxes of the surrounding community and to standardized test scores. We don’t share best educational practices among all schools, including private, public, and religious ones. But Finland does do that, and they have been rated by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to be one of the top performers in education in the world.

It’s time we value teachers and other educators. These individuals spent most of their days with our children and put in many unpaid hours of work. Even student loan forgiveness programs for people from STEM fields or those who teach for over five years in schools in underserved communities would change things a bit. This would attract men and people of color who don’t come from upper-class backgrounds and ease the burdens of those drowning in student loan debt.

Instead, the current trend is for local and state governments to continually attack teachers and the teachers union.

Nonprofits should get additional tax breaks and funding for increasing diversity across religious, race, sexual orientation, and veteran status lines. Many big and small nonprofits talk a good game about diversity. Still, it’s not reflected in staffing: definitely at the executive level. Nonprofits should look towards the military to attract retired officers and senior enlisted non-commissioned personnel. They are usually more diverse in race and gender than their private sector counterparts. Plus, there are a lot of well-qualified men of color in our Armed Forces.

By 2050, the racial makeup of the United States will be the most racially diverse since this country’s inception over 200 years ago. If we stay on the current course, students will continue to disconnect from school and see no connection with the people who try to teach them. The school-to-prison pipeline will only increase, and our schools will continue their march toward total privatization. Students and clients need teachers and social service workers who truly empathize with and share their experiences at the most fundamental level.

The current trend shows that, unlike the movies, the so-called white savior has failed us time and time again. No wonder, so many of the street and book intelligent clients I served in Chicago saw schools and social services organizations as no more than petty social pacifiers to their communities. We fail to solve our most significant challenges because of the lack of diverse voices and perspectives. Instead, we are stuck with a class of bourgeois white people who think they know what’s best for the communities they serve but at the same time despise the people who live in those communities. They only act as barriers to authentic and meaningful change and educational enlightenment of the most forgotten about a group of people in America.


Recent Articles

3 responses to “The Rise of the White Savior Complex and Our Failure in Diversity”

  1. This is such an Important issue on many levels. I cringe at my younger, well meaning self. I think part of the impetus is also recognizing the discrepancies and wanting to help close those gaps. One example is our neighborhood school, which is diverse in just about every way you can slice it with no majority race or even class really. We have I think around 70% white teachers, and they recruit teachers of color pretty heavily. But there’s a lot of competition from lithe schools/districts, combined with low teacher turnover, so limited changes. So increasing the applicant pool for credentialed positions is an important, but not quick, piece. The other thing is I’ve been pondering is the idea of how we define qualified. In organizations with strong social missions, there’s this push to hire “qualified” people who can hit the ground running and have an immediate impact. Well, for a lot of jobs, you learn in the role. There’s no real school or degree for learning these things. So if you only hire people who already generally know the work, you are eliminating people who have great potential but need some training, mentoring/coaching, and time to grow into the role. We as a sector are poor at supporting career growth/developmen in general, and I think we just get lazy and settle for what we think a successful candidate looks like without being willing to invest in something “non traditional.” And I think we from the dominant culture can do better at figuring out how to take the sincere desire to make the world better and even our choices to focus on populations different from our own and direct it to a healthier direction. The intentional npo sector is a bit farther along these conversations in some ways, using community asset approaches to varying degrees. But still, long way to go…..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

%d bloggers like this: