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White Saviour


White Saviour (1700s- ) or Mighty Whitey is that thing where a white hero saves the “natives” (people of colour). It is so unlike white history, yet so beloved in white fiction.

Examples of White Saviour stories:

  • 1826: The Last of the Mohicans
  • 1912: Tarzan of the Apes
  • 1962: Lawrence of Arabia
  • 1975: Shogun
  • 1987: Cry Freedom
  • 1988: Mississippi Burning
  • 1990: Dances with Wolves
  • 1995: Dangerous Minds
  • 1997: Amistad
  • 2003: The Last Samurai
  • 2007: Freedom Writers
  • 2009: Avatar
  • 2009: The Blind Side
  • 2011: The Help
  • 2012: Lincoln

I remember watching “Cry Freedom” thinking it was going to be about Steve Biko, a hero in the fight against white rule in South Africa. Imagine how I felt when I found out that the hero of the story was – a white reporter!

White paternalism is what these stories push: White is right, whites are better, therefore natives need their help. The truth is, whites are no better than anyone else – just more powerful. Power does not equal wisdom. Far from it: power corrupts, it morally blinds. So the truth is often the opposite of these stories – which makes them all the more appealing.

Some White Saviour stories are, in fact, true. For example, “Freedom Writers” was not made up. But why a story about a white teacher who gets through to poor ghetto students and not the far greater number of black and Latino teachers who do the very same thing? Because those stories do not help whites to feel good about themselves.

Sometimes the White Saviour goes native, like Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai”. Sometimes they force their culture on the natives, like Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds”. But either way the racist message is clear: whites are better than natives.

Sometimes White Saviour stories are turned on their head: In “To Sir, with Love” (1967) Sidney Poitier, who is black, plays the White Saviour character while white English students play the natives. In “Apocalypse Now” (1979) the White Saviour goes mad.

Are White Saviours just Magical Caucasians – like Magical Negroes? While both help whites feel at peace with the way race is in America, Magical Negroes are mostly just plot devices while White Saviours are the main character of a story. Also, the White Saviour’s powers do not seem like a mystery to the white audience – even if they go against all common sense, like in Tarzan.

Some might argue that White Saviour stories are a simple business decision: whites will only see a film where the main character is white. Except that it is not true. Even the 1960s Sidney Poitier proved that was not true.

Most people who see Hollywood films are not White Americans. For example, during the first weekend of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009), they made up only a third of the audience at best. But most Hollywood directors, writers and producers are White Americans. And they determine what makes a good story for the rest of us. It is part of the structural racism of our times.

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