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Saturday, December 9, 2023


White savior stories can cause real world harm

Lily Huynh/The Cougar

To many people, “The Blind Side” could be considered a modern classic. It’s a film about football, finding family in surprising places and doing the right thing in the face of prejudice. But like many other popular films about race, its use of the “White Savior” trope perpetuates real world harm.

“White Saviorism” is broadly defined as “when a white person acts from a position of superiority to rescue a person of color from prejudice or other harmful situations.”

On its surface, this can seem like a good thing. Multiple stories containing this trope depict a white character standing up against prejudice to save a BIPOC character from certain harm. Other stories, like The Blind Side,” feature a person of color being lifted out of poverty and into a successful life.

The issue lies in the fact that these narratives tend to be just that: narratives. In other words, they tend to vastly oversimplify the complex history of race relations, and some of them outright lie when it comes to important details.

For example, “The Blind Side” was based on the real life story of former Baltimore Ravens quarterback Michael Oher. Just like in the film, Oher was raised in an unstable housing situation but was given a second chance by the Tuohys, a white family who eventually adopted him.

Oher went on to have a successful football career, but the Tuohys were not so altruistic in real life. Recently, Oher made headlines by alleging that the Tuohys made him sign a conservatorship, meaning that they would retain the rights to profit off any money made from “The Blind Side.”

If what Oher says is true, the Tuohys never considered him as a “real” member of their family, and a once heartwarming story of second chances becomes one of greed and exploitation.

But even if Oher’s story was entirely fictional, the potential for harm is still there. “The Blind Side” follows a long history of white savior narratives that frequently influence how white people in particular think about race.

Many white Americans might fondly recall reading about Huckleberry Finn, a white boy, helping an escaped slave find freedom. Others still likely remember being inspired by Atticus Finch, the lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird” who defended a black man accused of murder.

Though these stories differ in setting and some are based on true events, their core message is the same: Racism is a moral flaw that can be overcome by a singular white person doing the right thing.

But history is rarely that simple. Racism was and is not just a moral failure. It is ingrained into every aspect of American society, from segregated school systems to restricting Black communities to poor and unstable neighborhoods.

Overcoming these racially prejudiced systems did not happen because of a handful of kindly white people “doing the right thing.”

Schools had to be desegregated with the assistance of National Guard troops, and black children like six-year-old Ruby Bridges had to walk to class amidst white adults screaming slurs at them.

This ugly legacy is not as far in the past as some would like to think. Ruby Bridges is still alive and well, as are many who opposed desegregation. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was just recently found in a picture of white students jeering at black students trying to enter their school.

For many white people, race can be an uncomfortable subject. It can be easier to pretend that you would have “done the right thing” if you had been there during the civil rights movement. But the ugly truth of the matter is that the fight for racial equality is far from over.

Just this year, Texas schools have faced the removal of diversity initiatives and had books about race banned from school libraries. The systems that were torn down over the past several decades are being slowly rebuilt.

Defeating these initiatives will require more than just a fancy speech about “doing the right thing.” Being an ally means real personal sacrifice, maybe even risk to one’s security or health.

It’s okay to be inspired by these movies, but we can’t forget our ugly past as we try to build a better future. For well-intentioned white people, it’s time to stop asking “What would I have done then?” and instead ask “What can I do now?”

Malachi Spence Key is a journalism senior who can be reached at
[email protected]

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