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White Saviorism Within Education

What is white saviorism and how can we combat it within the classroom setting?

Discussions about racial discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color prompt us to consider our own social privileges and experiences with racism, or lack thereof. True reflection requires a thorough examination of all aspects of our lives, particularly our academic settings. To begin with, white saviorism among educators in BIPOC communities must be addressed.

As schools become increasingly diverse, white teachers and school administrators must learn to confront their own racial biases while also working to deconstruct white savior beliefs and assumptions. To be genuinely effective educators, they must learn to bridge gaps between themselves and their racially disenfranchised students.

The white savior complex refers to white individuals moving into BIPOC settings for self-serving reasons -- there is no precise dictionary definition of the word. According to Contemporary Racism, these reasons include

“attempting to ‘save’ people of color and get them out of unpleasant circumstances,” "to somehow prove that the white person isn’t racist,” “to raise their ego,” and “to establish that the white person is, in no way, racist.”

White instructors who work in minority populations are prone to adopting a worldview that reflects this concept. White instructors who work with pupils of color are sometimes lauded as “heroes” or benefactors for doing so, however, they should simply be commended for entering such a tough industry as teaching. Whiteness does not automatically make someone better qualified to teach kids of color, just as race does not determine a person’s intelligence or lack thereof.

This perception causes more harm than good. As a Latina, my white teachers “checked in” on me more frequently than others to see whether I understand the content. When I performed well, they were pleased and complimented me, despite the fact that the same achievement was expected of my white classmates. One teacher confirmed to me (or to herself) that I did not require assistance, which was a strange statement that I did not comprehend until later.

These concerns about my intelligence have made me feel as if I need to prove that I know what I’m doing whether by raising my hand too frequently in class or refusing to ask for help when I need it. These toxic attitudes among white instructors, if left unchecked, have long-term consequences. According to research, white instructors have lower expectations for pupils of color, which has a significant impact on their motivation and accomplishment.

Expulsion and disciplinary rates, as well as many other aspects of students' academic experience, are influenced by white teachers’ prejudices towards students of color.

To be clear, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with white instructors wishing to engage with and encourage adolescents of color, as long as they do it with a positive outlook. Data reveals, however, that instructors of color help, not only students of color are few, which poses a problem when considering how white teachers manage BIPOC contexts. There is a divide between white instructors and pupils. White teachers are usually unprepared for the instructional situations in which they find themselves. An academic publication titled “I Can’t Be Racist-I Teach In An Urban School, and I’m A Nice White Lady!” opens a narrative from one of the white writers, who’s a freshly certified teacher.

“I had no idea how to address my whiteness and their brownness and what it meant to them or me.”

She says about her first job in a mostly Latinx school. Because of this lack of understanding, it is particularly difficult for pupils of color to relate to their teachers and vice versa.

This issue isn’t ending here; there is actual work and development to be accomplished that is rarely acknowledged. During this year’s Black History Month, a school in Utah first enabled parents to opt-out of learning about BHM. These fundamental dialogues about racism with children are difficult to conduct in classrooms. How can we, therefore, hope to combat white saviorism among faculty?

It begins with avoiding treating racism as a taboo subject in many schools and fighting for children of color. This covers anything from being open to challenging conversations to widen the scope of what students read, from diverse historical perspectives to new primary materials. Teachers should be actively anti-racist and consider how their own privileges and biases influence their pupils. In a Deseret News Report, Tony Zani, a teacher at Rose Park Elementary, stated:

“We aren’t attempting to be colorblind. We are working to reject racism and to honor every student’s race and culture. Students at Rose Park are more invested in school because the teachers honor every student for exactly who they are.”

Institutions should also be willing to modify obsolete curriculum and devote effort to addressing racial prejudices and concerns among faculty. Facilitating seminars and difficult debates regarding teacher positionality and racism should not only be encouraged but should be incorporated into teacher education.

White saviorism begins with the attitude of each white person who enters BIPOC spaces- it’s not only a systemic issue. White professors may enter the diverse classroom with a stronger, clearer goal if they discover strategies to interact with students of color and fight prejudice inside the academic context. In the words of activist Lilla Watson:

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


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