The White Saviour Narrative

Feb 2, 2017 | Opinions


So you’ve got this native people, okay, and they are “more in tune with nature” and therefore have no indoor toilets or shoes, and they have Issues, man. Issues that are usually insurmountable for them (because they don’t have access to modern plumbing, of course) but less so for the Mighty Whitey who makes first contact with them and brings them the knowledge of pooping indoors and wearing boots. This white person, male or female, absorbs the native culture and uses their amazing white outsider knowledge/strength to save the primitive people from their deadly Issues, usually becoming their leader in the process.

This, my friends, is the White Saviour narrative. Sound familiar?

This is coming up again because The Continent by Keira Drake is back on my radar, as it was supposed to be released this month. Not for me to read, mind you – these days I’m still only reading stuff recommended to me by my most esteemed friend, Mab Morris – but because of racism. Creeping, insidious racism.

I have to assume that Drake meant well, because I assume no one goes out with the intention of being offensively racist unless they’re an actual Nazi, and Nazis are usually not that subtle. But this is an example of the kind of unconscious racism I keep seeing over, and over, and over and OVER, and you get the idea… So I want to talk about that, and perhaps we can all learn by example.

There is no point asking, “why didn’t she do the research?” Drake set out to write a book around a particular theme. She believed that she executed that theme well. But her execution held a dozen offensive cultural tropes; things she’s likely absorbed without realizing it all her life, and she never thought that perhaps she was writing these brown people a certain way, and these white people a certain way, not because she was being imaginative, but because she was unconsciously repeating certain narratives that feel familiar.

There comes a point where you end up failing because you didn’t even know you needed to start asking questions of yourself.

So we’re likely to see more of this, and the reaction is predictable. “But I didn’t MEAN to! Here are all the reasons why I’m not really being racist!” Ms. Drake delivers, of course. There isn’t much to say about it other than the fact that there is nothing she can say about her book, or her world-building, that will make it any less racist. Her good intentions don’t make it any less racist. That will hurt, of course, but there you have it.

My fellow white authors, I have mentioned before that there are some plots you cannot write. (I know, I know, there’s this idea that we should be able to write whatever we want, but frankly I think we should act like we live on Planet Earth and not the Fairy Marshmallow Kingdom of No-Consequences. Deal with it.) We cannot write these things because of various reasons: we have almost zero chance of doing it well, or it’s propagating offensive and harmful stereotypes, or it abusively appropriates another culture. In this case, it’s the second. The White Saviour narrative is offensive and racist, and contains a vast array of coded bullshit that I (a white author) am not qualified to analyse in depth. At its core, the very idea of a white person burrowing into a native culture, sucking it all up into themselves, and then solving some insurmountable problem with their advanced knowledge fused with native elements is fucking insulting on its face. (If you want to know more, google the metric ton of writing by First Nations people on the subject.)

The point is, you can’t write about it.

I mean… yes, you can, in the way that you can sit down and write a book and publish it, but you shouldn’t, because you are a moral person who wouldn’t dream of propagating harmful tropes, even unconsciously.

So don’t. If you’re thinking of writing something that could turn out to be a White Saviour narrative, stop. Analyse it, change it, make sure it doesn’t go that way. If you’ve written something and you’re afraid it might be a White Saviour narrative, please refer to any number of First Nations people willing to exchange an appropriate sum of money for their input. (Google. Learn it, live it, love it.)

If you’re certain that you’ve written a White Saviour narrative, then forget about it. Close that file, open another, and start writing something new. As Keira Drake finds herself in this unfortunate position, I see she and Harlequin Teen have taken the option of rewriting the problematic parts… but I think it would be better for her to let it go, and have her writing skill be applied to something else.