We Don’t Need the White Knight in Shining Armor

The white savior trope in American literature is blatantly racist, and it’s starting to reflect real-life politics.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As a South Asian Muslim girl, I prefer to dress a bit more conservatively: I wear a hijab, cover my arms, and do not wear shorts in the summer. The manner in which I dress, act, and socialize with others is influenced by my religion, my heritage, and simply my personal comfort. However, my friends often assume that I don’t dress the way I do out of choice. Several of my teachers have tried to hold impromptu “interventions” to ask if my family is abusing or oppressing me, simply because I dress more modestly than most other girls my age. When I assure them that I am safe, they only feel worse.

I started to notice this pattern in literature as well: Muslim or South Asian girls would abandon their interests, niche hobbies, and fashion to impress white peers. Doing so would then magically solve all of their problems and make them feel more confident—or really, more Westernized. One such book is “The Lines We Cross” by Randa Abdel-Fattah, in which a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan falls in love with a rich white boy whose family is part of an anti-immigrant group. I was ecstatic to read something with a strong, Muslim lead character, featuring someone who is proud of both her heritage and her new home. Instead, the plot revolves around a white boy falling in love with someone so “pretty” and “different,” and a Muslim girl wanting to change nearly everything about herself for him. It sends a harmful message to small brown girls like me that no one will love us unless we are unrealistically pretty or assimilate into white culture. We cannot keep associating people of color with a lack of freedom, underdevelopment, irresponsibility, and other harmful stereotypes; it only serves to falsely portray people of color as inferior to the “model” white man.

American history is well-acquainted with the media’s use of the “white savior trope”: a common storyline in which white protagonists “help” the people of color around them in a loose attempt to uplift them. Though the trope tries to promote the understanding of other cultures, it rarely ever does. Many white authors hang on to this archaic, savior-type mission because it gives them a sense of power and superiority.

The sentiment that it is the duty of white people to civilize other cultures dates back hundreds of years. In the 19th century, many Europeans believed in a concept called the white man’s burden—the self-assigned duty of white people to manage the affairs of non-white peoples, whom they viewed as less developed. European colonizers felt this way toward Native Americans, whom they saw as poor, underdeveloped, wild savages. Many don’t realize that literature had a monumental role in spreading this idea. Rudyard Kipling, the author of the beloved “Jungle Book,” wrote a poem called “The White Man’s Burden,” in which he urged the U.S. to follow Britain’s example and to “serve [its] captives’ needs.” After his poem came out, it was applied to conflicts in the Philippines, Africa, India, and other regions. Poems, books, essays, and newspapers like this work influenced the thoughts of millions of white people at this time and thus passed on these ideas through generations.

This trope commonly features determined, non-traditional, seemingly sympathetic white protagonists who try to help people of color, despite facing large threats from their own community. For example, in the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” white lawyer Atticus Finch volunteers to defend a Black man accused of raping a white woman. The readers see the Finches fight against the white community’s prejudice, but we do not see the struggles of the Black community as much as we should. Besides the rare scenes with Tom Robinson and his neighborhood that are sprinkled in once the court trial begins, the protagonists learn the bare minimum about the people of color around them. Another common characteristic of the white savior trope is that characters’ understanding of other cultures is very shallow and surface-level. For instance, in a key scene of the hit Netflix show “Elite,” student Nadia Shanno takes off her hijab and walks into a bar confidently, because all of a sudden she’s not oppressed, shy, sad, or even herself anymore. In BBC’s “Bodyguard” and “Homeland,” the Muslim characters are always either terrorists or assets to the white governments that saved them.

The image of the white knight in shining armor still bleeds into our modern lives—a parallel between literature and politics that is very unexpected. Our media today often informs its audience to pick up these same ideas and project them onto their peers. Now, however, it’s made its way into social media and our treatment of each other’s lifestyles.

When our books, friends, teachers, and our society collectively treat people of color as objects to be saved, it follows that the same trend will continue on social media. The #BlackoutTuesday trend, when white influencers posted black squares on their Instagram feeds to show support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) rather than donating money or posting something of actual substance, grew in popularity mid-2020. When called out for doing essentially nothing, some influencers fought back, saying that we should be appreciative of their menial efforts to show riskless support. However, they were essentially detracting attention from the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, which many used to stay informed on events and demonstrations. On TikTok, white influencers used the BLM and Stop Asian Hate movements to make content and take aesthetic photos; at the same time, many did not take the time to promote creators of color.

Instead of reading books about white people saving other cultures, we should be reading about those who want to make changes in their own community based on experience, familiarity, and a clear understanding of what they want. In Stuyvesant, many English teachers and students are advocating for more diversity in the curriculum, which is a great step to destigmatize foreign literature. On the other side of the publishing process, readers should be encouraging and supporting writers of color who want to share their stories of change and growth.

The fact that many white readers internalize these white savior tropes and apply them to real people to “save” them from prejudice is increasingly problematic. It’s not right to pretend one cares about people of color, simply to shame them for who they are. It’s not right to gatekeep literature because the people in power want to feel better about themselves and their superiority. The white savior trope is a lazy and uneducated attempt to push Eurocentric ideas onto other cultures, when we should instead be understanding and supportive of other cultures.