We Need to Talk About Saviorism

Picture of a bright orange life ring with yellow rope, in front of a blue painted wall. Sign in upper left corner says “SAVING, ING” second word cut off. Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Every few weeks I’ll sit through a presentation and someone, normally a white person, will wax passionately about how their program “literally saves lives.” The first eye roll is at the word ‘literally,’ more like figurately save lives. The second bigger eye roll, combined with throwing my head back and staring at the ceiling (if I’m online and watching from home) is at the ‘saving lives’ part. I have a very high threshold for claiming this credit, and the vast majority of policymakers or people working in nonprofits and government do not get to claim this credit.

When policymakers, educators, or others claim they are saving lives they are practicing saviorism. Saviorism does not acknowledge how messed up the systems we’re dealing with are and how we’re forcing people to endure them.

For those working in government or the nonprofit industrial complex, we need to acknowledge we benefit from these paternalistic and oppressive systems at the expense of Black and Brown people, poor people, people with disabilities, immigrants, and so many others who struggle because the system wants to ‘save them.’ What we endure in our jobs is little compared to what we force to put up with for meager handouts. We get paychecks, sometimes praise, professional networks, and other benefits from these systems that benefit us more than the people in them. We cannot take credit for saving people when we are doing it on their backs.

Saviorism is harmful and comes out of colonial practices. I grew up in Hawai’i and growing up I heard a lot about how white missionaries came to the independent island nation and imposed their will on Native Hawaiians in the name of ‘saving’ them. The missionaries felt they knew better and were superior, and in return, they decimated a way of life, language and culture was lost, and they brought diseases – they did not save people literally or figuratively. Saviorism implies those doing the saving know better than those having to live through the oppressiveness. Saviorism allows white people and people with privileges to make choices for others and put their values on other people. That is just icky – everyone should have the right to autonomy and choice.

Saviorism is also about poverty parading or even poverty pimping. I know some of you are recoiling at that terminology, but I can’t find a better way to talk about it. Poverty pimping is when we take people out and use them as examples of our great work in ways that benefit us or our programs with little benefit to the person. It is icky to exploit another person’s story for our gain (e.g., fundraising, policy advancement, etc.) – stop it.

Instead of Saving People

Instead of talking about saving lives, we need to acknowledge the barriers and harms systems put in place. These might be barriers we’ve inherited and they are now our responsibility to remove to ensure people can survive and overcome the harm done by racist and ableist policies and practices. While acknowledging the barriers and harms, we need to be specific in naming them. Naming barriers allows people to understand and work to undo them.

We also need to stop speaking for others. People can speak for themselves and know their own stories. When we speak for others, especially white people speaking for POCs, we are taking away from authentic narratives. Instead, share your airtime with someone if they are ready to share their stories. I’ve seen this done well, where people will answer a question briefly and then smoothly pass the mic to someone with lived experience on the topic to speak about their experience. Make sure the person is willing and ready to share so you’re not putting them on the spot unfairly.

If you must save someone, save yourself.

Why I wrote this: I wrote this because I was annoyed listening to people talk in euphemisms and practicing self-praise while not acknowledging the barriers our systemic work puts up. This is a challenge to undo the systems we force people to live through.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawai’i; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.