White Savior Complex

Throughout Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger suffers the effects of visible displays of racial prejudice and violence. However, there is the less obvious and more subtle harm from characters acting with a White Savior Complex, as Bigger ultimately experiences more subjugation from their “progressive” attitudes. The White Savior Narrative has been an ongoing trope in literature and film, featuring a heroic white character that swoops in to save a POC from their circumstances. Organizations and programs that seek to help those in need with the conscious or unconscious mentality that they are superior to the people they are helping also fit under this complex. The privilege they hold combined with their lack of genuine understanding and empathy, results in their efforts having a more negative than positive impact, because It is ultimately serving the white ego and eliminating any guilt they might have felt. For example, to make up for the fact that Bigger cannot go to aviation school and earn a job himself, the white relief aid gives Bigger a job and expects gratitude for this consideration. However, Bigger still feels the loss and asks, “Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships?” (20).

This is also evidenced by the dichotomy between Mr. Dalton’s charity and the central role he plays in the systematic oppression of Black communities. “You see Bigger, I’m a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (53). This appearance is accepted by white people in their community as Peggy tells Bigger about the support “his people” are receiving and that “Mrs. Dalton’s always trying to help somebody” (55). However, in court when Max questions Mr. Dalton about donating money, he is publicly accused with charging higher rent for worse conditions and under his excuse that “I think Negroes are happier when they’re together” (327).

Mary and Jan also operate under a White Savior Complex. Their misguided attempts of helping Bigger are done in a demeaning manner that ultimately makes Bigger feel more afraid and emasculated. The message their behavior conveyed to him was that he could only feel like a man in their presence because they allowed it. “Mary said ‘After all I’m on your side now.’ What did that mean? She was on his side. What side was he on?” (64). Mary tries to align herself with Bigger’s problems without even getting to know him. Mary is infatuated with the idea of helping people but does not actually have a personal connection to the community. She says, “No, I want to work among Negroes…When I see what they’ve done to those people it makes me so mad” but then on the next page she says “Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some” (77). She is only concerned with her personal gratification and does not listen when Bigger said he was uncomfortable eating with them. Jan struggles to come to terms with his White Savior Complex towards the end of the novel when he tells Bigger in jail, “I was kind of blind…in a certain sense, I’m the one who’s really guilty” (287).

The question I pose is: Does Max resolve the White Savior Complex? Max asks Bigger questions no one else had ever bothered to ask, because he wanted to get to know him and understand his motives on a more personal level. He also admits from the beginning he is unsure if he can save Bigger but tries regardless and ultimately wants Bigger to fight for himself and his life. This is an on-going question today as we evaluate white advocacy and question what spaces of activism white people should enter.

2 thoughts on “White Savior Complex”

  1. Towards the end of the novel, the white savior complex was something that stuck out to me, as well, especially with Mr. Dalton. I think you bring up the exact problem with Mr. Dalton and his dichotomy with his charity and the role he plays in systematic oppression, that is on full show in the third book. He tries to say that he plays no role in up-charging Black people for rent and claims that him sending over Ping-Pong tables is the best he can do to help. I also agree with you that we saw this right from the beginning with Jan and Mary and their awkward and demeaning interaction with Bigger. But, your question about Max is super important because I believe that he was actually trying to help Bigger in a genuine way and was using his platform to do what was right. The issue is that many white people, like Mr. Dalton, do not acknowledge their roles in racism and instead try to make up for it in superficial ways that either, one: do nothing or two: do more harm than good. I would add on and say that more discussions on the white savior complex need to be had especially surrounding religious organizations, and maybe even our own University.

  2. I think you raise an important point when you describe the interactions between Mary & Jan and Bigger in the first section of the novel. These characters’ failure to listen or start with relationships makes them act like tourists in Bigger’s life rather than actually getting to know him as a person. Like you, I was struck that Max was the first white character in the book who seemed to know or care that Bigger had opinions and a story of his own to share. Max tried to truly see Bigger—I would argue that he made this effort because he knew what it was like for people to make assumptions rather than listen to Max’s own experiences as a Jewish man. I’m glad you bring up the white characters’ attitudes towards Bigger, because I think it brings up a lot of connections with today. As more white people are engaging with issues of systemic racism and movements like Black Lives Matter, your points resonate with conversations about active vs. performative allyship, and how Black voices can be put first.

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