The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Conclusion

Conclusion and Future Studies of the White Savior Industrial Complex

The above cited literature and empirical examples of the White Savior Industrial Complex provide a global picture of the true nature of international aid and Western postcolonial humanitarianism in a new age of social media and Web 2.0. Research on whiteness, postcolonialism and Western imperialism is broad and reaches back to the mid-twentieth century, with the works of Fanon, Foucault, Bhabha and Grimes being cited most often in the literature that was compiled for this topic. Due to the narrower and more contemporary nature of new media’s influence on the White Savior complex, these works were not utilized in this literature review.  A classic treatment of postcolonialism and poor economics would likely contribute to a deeper, more philosophical approach to the theme, yet these topics are foundational in understanding the basis for postcolonial whiteness and its derived discourse.

From the research in this literature review, the articles by Hughey, Zhang, Davis, Rideout, Jessie, and Cole, touched on “digital whiteness” in ways that other researchers did not. They examined how “the Other” was portrayed or suppressed while the West’s image was augmented, and they explained how codified imagery and visuals aided in the solidification of the White Savior myth. By describing the issue of the “voiceless Other”, they alluded to the need for counter-narratives in framing global issues like poverty, while reifying the fact that global issues are indeed complex and not reducible to the common Master/Native binary frame. While Cole is in fact from Nigeria and can use his personal stories to counteract those in the media (as he did in his Atlantic piece), it is not clear whether the remaining authors are from the areas about which they write, nor if they have personal experiences with people from those areas. What is necessary to dismantle the myth of the White Savior Industrial Complex is the employment of counter-narratives to combat naturalized digital whiteness; additionally, these counter-narratives must be shared by those who have lived experiences of them. Research on the ills of foreign aid and the White Man’s Burden should not only be written by White men; moreover, they need to provide the avenues through which media can disseminate these narratives in the same methods that the current myth is being propagated. Gaps in the research include participatory research (aside from Cole) and lack of understanding around the “viral” factor of new media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. For every new NGO, there exists an account each for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest: multiple media outlets with the potential for exponential message saturation.  These movements cannot be ignored nor neglected. As new media spreads throughout the world, so does the ability for those who were voiceless to have their voices heard. The Arab Spring is a good example of the movement being “owned” by those participating in it. The Western media attempted to augment their role and involvement, and while Western tools were used to amplify online voices, the movement was successfully crafted by and for the people in the Middle East. While certain themes from the movement have been lost over time, the movement itself is a representation of the types of counter-narratives that can be employed by giving those in need the tools and access in order to share their stories. The hopeful outlook on social media’s world penetration, and the subsequent narrowing of the “digital divide” is that one day, the Western narrative would cease to exist, revealing a more democratic, empowered, self-sustaining, multi-faceted  and representative world narrative in its place.


The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 6

Empirical Examples – Pleasure Principle, Agency and Empowerment

The following are example Tweets or Facebook (social media) posts that exemplify the West’s fixation on “making a difference” by empowering itself through oversimplified calls-to-action while simultaneously omitting participation from “the Other”. Organizations such as the United Nations Development Project,, Toilet and Global Citizen are cited as examples of the one-way dialogue that is perpetuated, at a very low cost and very large scale, to the masses in the West. By perpetuating the myth and glorifying the West, these pernicious examples of codified whiteness do not help the intended recipient. At best they are bits of knowledge about commonly cited world issues, and at worst they are coercive tactics that subvert power in order to continue to promote the West’s postcolonial agenda.

UN DevelopmentTwitter Post (2012)






Kiva.orgFacebook Post (2012)





Toilet DayTwitter Post (2012)










Global Citizen – Twitter Post (2012)


The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 5

Subverted Agency and Pleasure Principles

Adding to the complexity of the White Savior Industrial Complex is the issue of agency, specifically around the empowerment of recipients of aid versus the power of donors. In many ways, Western donors are the ones receiving the largest benefits.  In the context of KONY 2012, one can receive a “KONY” bracelet for just a single $10 donation, which can then be shared via Facebook and worn around in public to show one’s support of a so-called “good cause”. These types of symbols exist in many forms, but it may be that the biggest pleasure is derived simply by being the sought-after audience: the viewer.

For Cole, Western viewers benefit largely by proxy – one can be part of the global movement, aka “make a difference”, simply by being there and watching. Video advertisements in the UK, according to Rideout (2010), had a clear path available for viewers in this regard: “The call to action was to visit the website to find out the number of ways in which they could help make a difference – from donating £5 to sponsoring a child for £18 a month.’” (Rideout, 2011) Additionally, popular, catchy theme songs – “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” are two that Davis (2010) cites – provide a way for citizens to feel engaged and empowered. She writes:

“…famine relief songs were…integral in the rallying of public support. While journalists and academics rightly criticized [the songs] for their ethnocentric overtones and flawed one-world sentiment, [they] received little such criticism from the public. On the contrary, the songs became the self-congratulatory theme tunes to a growing movement that provided many disenfranchised groups with a sense of purpose, community, and agency as global citizens.” (Davis, 2010, p. 93)

Clearly, the agency and empowerment provided to the West is intended to trickle down to the real recipients, but not without gimmicky and consumerist tactics.   As Davis (2010) astutely points out, “While ultimately [Live Aid] offered few new options to those starving in Africa, [it] offered many economic and cultural opportunities for the cities in which the concerts were held, for celebrity organizers and participants, for corporate sponsors, and for concert-goers.” (Davis, 2010, p. 96)

Pertinent to the notion of agency are the concepts of representation and empowerment for humanitarianism’s intended recipients. Despite the strategy that claims donors must feel empowered in order to take action, Davis (2010) critiques the level of autonomy and direct participation of recipients in large-scale events:

“… with Live Aid, the hype and the technology overshadowed the cause. Few Africans were allowed to perform, thus proving that little had changed since 1985 when [Live Aid founder] Geldof, during a visit to Burkina Faso, undermined national customs, laughed at the ceremonies designed in his honor, and scathingly joked about the impossibility of putting on a Live Aid event in Africa because such an event would fail to attract Michael Jackson.” (Davis, 2010, p. 106)

Cole (2012) and Jessie (2012) refer to the lack of representation in KONY 2012 as well. The media deliberately reduce participation and representation of “the other” in order to elicit the necessary emotions and actions from its (real) audience – the West. By employing digital whiteness, the West can relate to the Savior character and, correspondingly, take action to “make a difference”. Cole (2012) admonishes this trend precisely because it is perpetuating the myth of the White Savior by subverting the actors:

“This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. After all, there is no simple demand to be made and — since corruption is endemic — no single villain to topple. There is certainly no “bridge character,” Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers.” (Cole, 2012)

The other subverted effect of the media’s portrayal of the White Savior is the pleasure principle involved. Just as buying a $10 KONY bracelet, or a Product Red© t-shirt from the GAP, allows one to feel empowered through one’s purchasing power, the act of consumption of digital videos, images and texts also allows the same feeling of pleasure. Davis (2010) explains:

“By consuming famine and famine relief texts, by donating time and money to the famine relief effort, consumers not only showed their propensity for compassion for the Other; but they also elicited pleasure, and carved out for themselves the new socio-cultural role of compassionate consumer, of self-reliant philanthropist, of worthy citizen.” (Davis, 2010, p. 103)

Davis continues on by excoriating the West and its subverted goals by summarizing the following: “Presenting Africa as helpless victim, and celebrity activists as white men willing to take up the burden to save a continent dying from the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, does little but aggrandize celebrity figures” (Davis, 2010, p. 111) The “White Man’s Burden”, aka White Savior Industrial Complex, feeds and nourishes itself through the use of perverted pleasure, agency and empowerment principles. By suppressing “the Other” and praising the West, the discourse remains one-sided and empty. Cole admonishes the West through his pithy tweet, “the world is nothing to but a problem to be solved through enthusiasm.” (Cole, 2012)

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 4

Orientalist Global Media Campaigns

Cole’s center argument about the White Savior Industrial Complex – that the media, using white privilege, distorts, oversimplifies world problems while disempowering the “other” – is widely apparent in recent years due to the rise in social media campaigns and online activism. Before the internet, however, global humanitarian and aid campaigns were just as powerful, yet inherently more costly and “in your face” due to the nature of broadcast media and the ways consumers absorbed and shared knowledge.  Citing the world concerts Live Aid (1985) and Live 8 (2005), global campaigns spearheaded by white men to end poverty in Africa, Louise Davis (2010), details how the media was used to further a Western agenda aimed at serving “the other”.  She summarized how the 2005 Live 8 concert was “broadcast live, via seven telecommunications satellites, to an estimated one billion television viewers in over 150 countries worldwide. Over the course of one weekend, Live Aid raised over seventy million dollars to ―feed the world” (Davis, 2010, p. 95) The issues inherent in global media campaigns is that they must, by the nature of broadcast media, be oversimplified in order to reach and penetrate a large audience. Employing the binary narrative, the West condenses complex social problems like governmental corruption, lack of primary education, inadequate health care, hunger and starvation, violence against women, and so on, under the simple phrase “global poverty”. By rolling up all the interlocked and interwoven, complex issues that plague the “Third World” under the banner of “poverty”, the West can more easily comprehend the problem and begin quickly addressing it through action, and aid. Media allow for the oversimplification of problems in order for us to justify the outcome – a response.  As Rideout (2011) explains, “Visual representations of the Third World by western powers were essential in naturalizing colonial discourse” (Rideout, p. 33); this “essentialization” continues on in new form, with the rise of global charity and White Savior movements.

While white privilege is inherent in these types of global campaigns (just by the nature of their existence, in employing celebrity power, money and agency, they reinforce white privilege), not all of participants remain unaware of the intended affect and how to achieve it. Lisa Rideout (2010) interviewed the creator of an advertisement video for one UK charity’s global campaign against poverty.  Discussing the “shock value” tactics of the campaign – it juxtaposed a suburban white setting with that of violence and poverty in Africa –  the agency spokesperson said:

“The very aim of this film is to contextualize the situation in developing countries [for] those in the First World. That’s exactly the problem with these social, political and economic issues – they’re all far too broad and complicated for the layman to understand, let alone care about. By giving the viewer a close-up look at a single issue, it makes it easier for them to understand and subsequently act against. It is also a far less hopeless scenario than hitting them with the bigger picture and all the facts and figures at once.” (Rideout, 2011, p. 28)

Rideout acknowledges that the agents are overtly aware of the media’s ability to propagate the binary, Savior/Saved narrative to the masses. It is also clear that Rideout is sensitive to the orientalist nature of the campaigns – how the white narrative supports continued action in the “Third World”. She explains that in two different campaigns, the “negative portrayal is related to the ‘othering’ of the Third World that can be viewed in both advertisements” (Rideout, 2011, p. 35) By continuing to maintain the West as both the center and intended audience of global campaigns, these global movements are nothing short of Orientalist and full of white privilege. The videos, concerts and advertisements place the West as the subject and the “Third World” as the “other” – vile, violent, dysfunctional, frightening.  By identifying with the White Savior, the West can push its agenda and solicit donations and action.

Another global media campaign that recently came about in 2012 was the Global Citizen Festival and subsequent online media efforts. The Global Citizen Festival and website, launched in October to coincide with the UN Summit, aimed to “end global poverty” through a combination of high-wattage celebrity concerts, online petitions and social media. Run by the Global Poverty Project, a small Australian NGO founded by white men and women, the Global Citizen Festival reached a live audience of more than 60,000 in New York’s Central Park, and more than a million viewers from online and across the globe. Like the Live Aid and Live 8 predecessors, this concert was filled with Western musical groups and hit its target with broad strokes (after all, they all shared the same goal – “to end global poverty”). As its website suggests, the task is difficult and requires help from all angles;  the intended angle it proposed, however, is inherently Western and full of white privilege: “We know that people living in extreme poverty are working hard themselves, and that we need to learn and take action to change the rules that trap them in broken systems.” (Global Poverty Project, 2012) This statement alone speaks volumes for the Orientalist, Western-centric approach it boldly, with zero explanation, endorses.

Cole’s article focused on another global campaign, one that in many ways trumped the Global Citizen Festival in its popularity and virality – the campaign, created by the NGO Invisible Children, called “KONY 2012”. The “KONY 2012” video exposed the war crimes of Ugandan rebel leader, Joseph Kony, while oversimplifying the narrative in order to capture the minds of impressionable (white, middle-class) youth to take action. The video generated 75 million views within just a few days; the results were unprecedented and to this day it remains one of the most popular internet videos of all time. The most egregious part of KONY 2012 was that it grossly oversimplified the issue and yet captivated the white audience into taking action, with little more than a click of a computer mouse. White youth could identify with the young boy (the videomaker’s son) in the video, while subsequently vilifying Joseph Kony as the “bad man”. The video’s global reach is still being talked about today – and the NGO released a follow up video that attempted to contextualize the problem a little further to assuage its critics.  The oversimplification and distortion of the true issues at hand are the metrics Cole measures during his argument about the White Savior Industrial Complex: “There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans.” (Cole, 2012) And yet, these types of narratives persist – they were televised in 1985, live-streamed in 2005, and Facebook “liked” in 2012 – without much focus on who is creating, disseminating and institutionalizing these types of events.

Social media, in particular, makes the task of shifting the discourse from one of majoritarian to counter-narrative extremely difficult. One critic of the KONY 2012 video, Jessie, wrote on the website Color Lines:

“The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voice over narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa.” (Jessie, 2012)

Since digital whiteness is everywhere, and resists being confronted, it perpetuates the codified, naturalness of “whites as the human race”, as Dyer (2010) put it. Whiteness, dominion and savior complexes only continue to grow in the mainstream discourse with the rise of social media – what’s to prevent a white, middle-class teenager from seeing a majoritarian video on Facebook from sharing it with her 1,000, equally impressionable, friends? As Zhang et al. (2010) wrote, “Whiteness practices and Christian ideology have contributed much to the savior versus the saved rhetoric of benevolence…they are reinvented in the cyberdiscourse of imperial imaginary” (Zhang et al., 2012, p. 217) Being recast as images, stories, and videos, white privilege and “otherness” become entangled in a digital mire of information. As the digital realm currently exists in its uncontrolled, unbounded, and unpolice-able form, we are left to react with horror when these types of imagery are shown and replicated time and time again, with little to no recourse.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 3

Invisible – now Digital – Whiteness

Cole (2012) implores the reader to realize that “those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” (Cole, 2012) What his subtext is alluding to is that invisible, white privilege allows for charities, NGOs and the West to make decisions about the rest of the world without their consent.  Whiteness, in particular, according to Dyer (1999), implies that “whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” (Dyer, 1999, p. 541) The invisibility that goes along with whiteness and, as a result, the advantages afforded to whites – known as white privilege –  is what makes confronting it so difficult. Without naming it, how can it be dismantled?  And more importantly, how can we believe that we can fix issues of justice around the world if we don’t confront white privilege first? Dyer summarizes the situation perfectly: “The media, politics, education are still in the hands of white people, still speak for whites while claiming – and sometimes sincerely aiming – to speak for humanity.” (Dyer, 1999, p. 541) The invisible whiteness that persists and manifests as white privilege is what allows charities, NGOs and international development agencies the ability to raise awareness and further their causes while simultaneously proposing solutions to “Third World” countries’ problems – they are the subjects because they are the ones with agency, money, and power.  According to Macintosh (19998), this privilege “can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate.” (Macintosh, 1998) Macintosh’s point rings true in every facet of development, and is precisely why it is a complicated and frustratingly abhorrent phenomenon.

Zhang, Gajjala, & Watkins (2012) take the discourse a step further by examining a concept they call “digital whiteness”, whereby images, digital texts and media propagate and reinforce white privilege by subjugating “the other” to a position of “voicelessness” and disempowerment. Digital whiteness, they assert, relies on “text in the forms of stories, mission statements and solicitation for donation that implicitly revive White supremacy inherent in a White standpoint” (Zhang, Gajjala, & Watkins, 2012, p. 210) Websites, media and stories purport Western values and binary “master/native” narratives in order to solicit donations and encourage action. Digital whiteness is white privilege in a new media age, but is apparent and widely appropriated in films; for example, Hughey describes how there exist a “spate of Hollywood films” which he calls “white savior films (WSF).” (Hughey, 2010, p. 478)  From Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers, these films employ a white (often woman) savior character to fix the dysfunctional, criminal group of “natives”; using Cole’s theory, the narratives in these films are primarily focused on the viewer  to have “a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” (Cole, 2012) Hughey posits that movies serve as “one of the main instruments for establishing a context in which whiteness – whether victimized or valorized – is framed as ultimately superior and normative.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 478) Digital (film or web-based) whiteness is especially dangerous because it serves massive audiences on a very large scale, and is propaganda to pushing white privilege and indoctrinating it into the discourse.  It perpetuates the binary relationship between Savior/Saved, White/Black, Master/Native, and burnishes it under the guise of personal history or even humanitarianism.  Hughey (2010) goes as far to say that there “remains a substantial gap in empirical analyses of how active audiences comprehend these [white savior] films.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 476) This issue of agency, in particular, bubbles up in Cole’s work and in other empirical examples of media-driven participation, which will be discussed later in this paper.

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 2

Postcolonial Discourse in Development

The terms “development” and “Third World” are used liberally when discussing poverty, economics or global politics; however, their widespread usage suggests that Western or European views of the Global South are the representative and respected understanding of the world; “Third World” problems are viewed from an outside-in lens most frequently when employed within the framework of “humanitarianism”.  The phrase “White Savior Industrial Complex” takes its name from similar phrases like “White Man’s Burden” or “White in Shining Armor”, terms used to explain how the West has, since colonialism, inserted itself into the affairs of other countries under the guise of humanitarianism or international development. While the West has offered its strategies and money to those in need, it continues to assert its power with a postcolonial viewpoint: there are poor countries and poor people, and “we” (the West) better, so we must do what we can to help. There are strings attached – be they political, monetary or otherwise – which make the implementation of international development a double-edged sword for the countries that are recipients of such aid, since they are consistently viewed as victims and “in need”. The institutionalized concepts of “Third World” or “development” are so entrenched that it becomes almost impossible to divorce certain countries from them within the international discourse. “Third World” often reads synonymous with terms like, “poor”, “dysfunctional”, “black” and “backward”. It is precisely this reason why critical analysis of the communication around such concepts is so important.

The “Master/Native” Binary Framing in Development

As Teju Cole points out in his article, naming white privilege within humanitarianism is often seen as “unduly provocative.” (Cole, 2012)  And yet the “master/native” binary framing in international development persists – the West, formerly the colonial master, now the postcolonial savior – and continues to proliferate and metastasize every passing decade, in new and different ways.  Cole excoriates “do good” types like Western journalist Nick Kristof, in writing, “all he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” (Cole, 2012) With the master/native binary, so-called “easy” solutions are created and implemented by a white, rich benefactor, with little input or feedback from the recipients, and little analysis of the complex factors that create the need in the first place.  Unfortunately, according to Hughey (2010), “binary frameworks are a cornerstone of our social structures and a roadmap for our navigation of everyday life.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 492) As humans, we simplify our problems to binary narratives in order to move through life – e.g., good versus evil – and good must ultimately trump evil so that we can survive as a species. And even more grotesquely, this same method is applied to humanitarianism with the postcolonial lens, by the West’s persistent use of First/Third World comparisons in its discourse, media campaigns, and its scholarship.

Syed and Ali (2010) used a critical feminism lens to describe postcolonial imperialism, and offered examples of the West’s binary framing during a campaign for Afghan women’s rights in the 2000s. A Western charity, Feminist Majority Foundation, campaigned to raise money to halt gender apartheid in Afghanistan. And, “while the campaign drew public attention to the discrimination and violence facing Afghan women under the Taliban, its discourse was embedded in an ahistorical and orientalist framework that assumed the benevolence and superiority of the US in establishing gender equality.” (Syed & Ali, 2011, p. 258) The example of the Foundation’s charitable dilemma highlights the West’s neglect in acknowledging its responsibility in creating hostile conditions for women through its involvement in multiple wars throughout the last few decades; instead, the charity distorted the complexities and oversimplified the narrative in order to solicit donations and support. It is precisely these types of efforts that Cole denounced in his Twitter feed: “the white savior supports brutal regimes in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon and receives awards in the evening” (Cole, 2012).

The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 1


The concept of “White Savior Industrial Complex” is not necessarily new, but the phrasing is attributable to the poet and author, Teju Cole, as recently as March 2012 (Cole, 2012). Cole composed a series of tweets, and later an opinion article, both posted on the Atlantic Monthly’s website, in response to the increasingly widespread use of social media to further Western nonprofit and social causes. He used the social media campaign, “KONY2012”, as an example of how white privilege, under the guise of “making a difference”, perpetuates postcolonial policies while validating the “master/native” binary framing in the developing world. Through his own use of social media, the author was able to further the discourse and revive discussions around white privilege in the West. Cole’s tweets, pulled from the Atlantic’s website, can be viewed on page 4 for reference throughout the paper. Through this lens, the paper will explore the literature around the concept of “white savior” in media and in critical discourse papers.

This literature review will attempt to understand why the “White Savior Complex” is not a widely recognized or confronted phenomenon by examining the following generative themes: postcolonial discourse in development; “master/native” binary framing; digital and invisible whiteness; orientalist global media campaigns; subverted agency, empowerment and pleasure principles; and new media propaganda.



The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Intro

What is necessary to dismantle the myth of the White Savior Industrial Complex is the employment of counter-narratives to combat naturalized digital whiteness.

I developed a literature review in December 2012 around the “White Savior Industrial Complex” as part of my graduate class at USF: “Race, Culture and Ethnicity”. Following are portions of my paper in a series.


This literature review focuses on how Western media aids in sustaining a phenomenon called the “White Savior Industrial Complex” (Cole, 2012).  This concept, coined by the author and poet Teju Cole, posits that Western media contorts and oversimplifies developing or “Third World” countries’ problems; through Western media outlets (books and journalism), aid concerts, charity galas, and social media campaigns, the West continues to propagate the White colonial theoretical frame that poor countries, as objects, need the West to “save” them and right the wrongs that they cannot do themselves. Globalization and the rise of social media has shaped the contours of this narrative with greater impact (and ease) – stories of “the other” are now circulated at warp speed across social networks, purporting “the other” as objects and not subjects, while leaving the hard work (and pleasure derived from it) to the West. In many ways, international development discourse and policies mirror colonialist practices of the West; moreover, due to the way media is employed, it also validates and supports white privilege.