White people like the white saviour narrative, because they can identify with the white protagonist, who is absolved from white guilt and becomes a white hero for people of colour to worship. When the white protagonist joins the group of people of colour, white people imagine that it is possible for a white person to purge his whiteness, and hence, to free himself from white guilt and responsibility. Paradoxically, not only does the white protagonist rid himself of white guilt, but he also becomes the hero, the saviour, the superior group member because he is white.
Moreover, in the white saviour narrative, all the people of colour collectively bow down or even prostrate before the white protagonist to symbolize the white person’s superiority over all people of colour (such as in Avatar, after Jake Sully tames the Toruk), and to indicate the submission of people of colour to white leadership. The white protagonist is smarter, better, faster, or stronger than people of colour because of his whiteness. The story’s internal logic requires a reason for the white protagonist’s unique superiority, so it is usually his white culture that makes him superior. Superior white culture takes the form of symbolically white technology (telescopes, rifles, Western marksmanship in Dances With Wolves), white skills (American military training in The Last Samurai), or white knowledge (scientific reasoning from the white protagonist in Avatar, who happened to be characterized as being below-average in both science and reasoning).
In other words, the white saviour narrative is white supremacist. Although this narrative demonizes overtly malevolent actions associated with white identity and which induce white guilt (e.g., colonialism), it still assumes that white people are superior as long as they act benevolently.
White Anti-Racists’ Fantasy
White anti-racists are inundated with white saviour narratives in white media beyond those three films, so most expect that their anti-racist journey will follow the white saviour narrative. In the white anti-racist saviour narrative, the white anti-racist passes an Anti-Racism Loyalty Test, and after this test, she sheds her whiteness as an individual, her white guilt and responsibility. After this event, no person of colour can ever accuse her of being racist or white.
Moreover, in the white anti-racist saviour narrative, the white anti-racist as an individual has the ability to solve the problem of racism, and people of colour failed to solve racism because we were not as creative or educated, or we are deficient in some way. The white anti-racist offers unique insights into race or racism that people of colour have never considered, and receives applause and gratitude from people of colour.
Basically, most white anti-racists expect that since anti-racism is a Good ThingTM, doing it should feel good and boost their self-esteem.
White Anti-Racists’ Reality
What usually happens is that a person of colour calls out the white anti-racist’s racism or white privilege after she has passed her mentally-constructed Anti-Racism Loyalty Test, and the white anti-racist insists that the person of colour must be mistaken. Even when she sees her error, she lashes out at people of colour, because instead of receiving gratitude for what she did right, she receives criticism for what she did wrong. Additionally, the white anti-racist feels like she is being silenced by people of colour, because she is not allowed to lead the movement or make decisions about which issues are most important or which strategies are the most effective. People of colour tell her that she does not understand basic points about racism, which she interprets as a personal attack on her intelligence, akin to being called “an idiot who wasn’t able to finish high school”, for example.*
In essence, the white anti-racist becomes frustrated and upset, because her expectation that she will become the white saviour does not materialize. Underlying this expectation is the unconscious belief of white supremacy, which is why white people interested in anti-racism need to understand Kil Ja Kim/Tamara Nopper’s White Anti Racist Open Letter:
Rather, white people need to be willing to have their very social position, their very relationship of domination, their very authority, their very being…let go, perhaps even destroyed.
Otherwise, white people are working to maintain white supremacy even within anti-racist communities and communities of colour.
* When Nquest suggested that a white anti-racist did not grasp a basic point argued by black intellectuals to whom the white anti-racist was exposed, the white anti-racist responded with, “Right, I must be an idiot who wasn’t able to finish high school, so hard is it for “basic points” to penetrate my thick skull.” This implies that a high school education is sufficient for a white person to understand basic points made by black intellectuals on what racial progress looks like, which is racist.
- When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”? commentary by Maia at Raven’s Eye:
I am struggling so much lately with the ‘white guilt story’ where no matter what gets said by a poc about race, the conversation ends up being centered around — what can white people do. and the thing is that when i get to the question, i just find myself blubbering…i just dont get what the white people are asking me. cause it seems obvious: stop doing shit that hurts.
but in reading this. and looking back on those convos. i am wondering if what white folks are asking me is: how can i be the saviour/leader?
- White antiracists appropriate the words of people of colour to advance their thesis. by Restructure!
- White people cannot know how it feels to be a person of colour. by Restructure!
- White woman: “I am African Canadian when I’m encountering injustice.” by Restructure!