Black Panther & the White Savior Complex

By: Kara Haselton

An iconic film that has taken the world by storm is still in theaters and is still destroying all kinds of stereotypes: Marvel’s Black Panther.

In the film, the first popularized African Superhero is introduced in a way that is better than one could’ve imagined, displaying a beautiful blend of raw, African culture and futuristic technology, destroying the idea that in order to celebrate African culture it must also be primitive. Not only are the Wakandans progressive, but they’re progressive without forgetting their roots. We need more of that in our history books.

It’s hilarious seeing at different points throughout the movie that Americans, or other first-world Western nations, are skeptical of what the fictitious African country, Wakanda, can do for them. They assume that in these instances, they’re the ones that have to do the saving, not this third-world, African nation.

This idea is the “white savior complex” at its finest. Like most other issues of this day and age, the “white savior complex” stems from colonialism and the time of imperialism. As most high school students taking any US History class learn, the European empires—the white people that often invaded and imperialized countries around the world justified their actions by truly believing that they were saving the people they were invading. They thought it was in the best interest of the natives for the white people to take over and impress their own culture, practices, and lifestyle onto those natives. This often happened in more than PG-13 ways.

This mindset has been passed down from generation to generation, specifically, those of western descent. While most of us can agree that colonizing lands already colonized was a bad idea, this perspective has been watered down and packaged into this nice, subconsciously taught belief known as the “white savior complex.” It’s not a belief that one wants to admit to; it’s not a belief that people even know they have, but it’s evident in their actions and words, such as the powerful white people in Black Panther simply asking what poverty stricken Wakanda could do for the world.

In less than delicate terms, this mindset can be described as the feeling that predominantly white westerners have when it comes to helping other countries—especially poor third-world countries—especially Africa. It’s the reason why neighbors find it so honorable when you come back from building houses in Mexico because they feel you were helping the less fortunate. It’s the feeling when you go on a trip to South or Central America, Africa, etc. and you’re so excited to “save the world,” even though you’ll only be there for a week. This all stems from the white western roots of justifying imperialism by claiming that you’re saving the less fortunate from themselves. Without you, where would they be

But when you start describing and explaining this phenomenon, you’ll say “Well I don’t believe that! I don’t go into a place thinking that I’m going to be their savior, that’s ludicrous.” Yeah, well, stop trying to deny it, it doesn’t work. I would know. It’s simply ingrained into our minds by society starting at a very young age when people say “you better finish your dinner because kids in Africa are dying of hunger.” Sure, that may be true, but that mindset makes you think “Oh, I’m more privileged than they are, so I am entitled to more, and I should be generous by saving them and giving them food.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help the less fortunate at all, but you need to go about it the right way.

You are not going to save the world. I am not going to save the world.

You don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the answers.

Our culture and society is not superior to theirs just because we have more stuff.

That’s the first step. Realizing that. Dismantling that instinctive “white savior complex.” Work hard to get that out of your head.

In a way, Black Panther helps with that. Understanding where these “needy” people are coming from helps you realize that maybe they’re not as helpless as you thought. While Black Panther is a fictitious story, it’s so important. It shows that African culture is different than ours, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. It shows that the very people we’re trying to “save” might need to start saving us. It shows us that perception isn’t always reality, and that we white people have been wrong for too long. And it’s time for us to change that.

Again, the first step is acknowledgement.

I have a white savior complex.

But I’m changing that.

 

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