The Myth of the White Savior

I must admit that when I was a little girl newly arrived from the Caribbean I felt lost in a sea of Eurocentricity. In stark contrast to my island upbringing, suddenly I was seeing white people everywhere: in the grocery store, on the bus, on television, on the radio, living in every house on the street, and worked into every nook and cranny of every history book. They would often tell me to go back to Africa, refused me service and liked to refer to me by the “N” word quite a lot. I was always elated whenever I saw any black face anywhere, whether it was on the stage or in film, Just to be represented on these pieces of media seemed to be a victory to me. I did not realize the meaning of it, but only the shallowness of the fact that they were there. So naturally I was elated to see the mammies in Gone with the Wind; Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “To Sir with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and so many others. Then there was “Julia,” a ground breaker with Diahann Carrol, “Archie Bunker,” “The Jefferson’s,” Sanford and Son, Good Times, Flip Wilson, Beverly Johnson, Iman. I respect the fact that these people were ground breakers just by being and doing what they did. I must say that I will be ever grateful to them for what they accomplished. They are the people that helped to pave the way for me and managed to help me believe that there could be something greater for myself.

Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier in Paris Blues (1961)

Although there were many others, the fact is that there were few roles for black people and they were written for black people but not by black people and so the perspective that we got was always a white perception of what white people thought black people must be like. We were always servants, we were always thought to be stupid, ignorant, funny or exotic we had to be exceptional to be involved with white people like the physician and doctor of medicine played by Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Why did he have to be a doctor? The answer is simple. My mother always said we had to be four times better to achieve something so ordinary and Sidney Poitier portrayed an individual that was four times better so that he could marry a white woman. What would her parents have done if he were just an ordinary laborer? He would not have been good enough to step through the door no matter how liberal they were.  If you were a lowly “other” person you had to act like a foolish mammy like the ones in Gone with the Wind, or Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup which also featured a famous Mammy that was updated over the years to look less mammyish; and more like a black domestic servant. Black domestic cooks were always thought to be the best at rustling up a good tasty “stick to the bones,” meal. Dr. Prentice was polished and had to act respectfully but not like a foolish minstrel stereotype like Aunt Jemima, to fulfill the low expectations white people held for us. The writer wanted to add another dimension to the scenario by creating a significant age difference between the couple. The white parents were apparently so unbelievably liberal that the 14 year difference between their ages did not seem to matter.

Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

It appeared as if the patriarch’s main concern was how society would treat and view the couple and all of the hardships that they would face. This seems to be a rather reasonable and practical concern considering the times. Despite his recognition that his daughter’s fiancé was quite a gentleman he could not accept the union at first for those seemingly obvious reasons; despite the fact that the couple acknowledged and knew that they would face these difficulties. When it came time to meet the black parents; which were introduced afterwards as the black fiancée felt uncomfortable about how they would take it. I wondered why this was written in this way. Why would the white family be expected to be more accepting than the black family? It actually seemed absurd that anyone could reach such a conclusion in the political climate of the 1960’s. In the end the black father holds out and the white father has to bring everyone together. He is the one seen as worthy of all the praise for such a heroic and insightful act. The intentions may have been good but we always have to consider the mind and heart from which art is created and from which it comes. The art may have been manipulated by a well-meaning writer and producer not knowing what was coming from inside themselves. They may have believed themselves to be as liberal minded as the characters they created. That is the insidious nature of systemic racism and white privilege is the vehicle that continues to carry it boldly forward. The fact is that systemic racism does not get erased but it changes its ways so that it can adapt somewhat like a virus that mutates as we find ways to cure it and wipe it away. Sometimes it takes years, but it continues to eat away at us; creating the destruction of black lives in its midst.

Spencer Tracy as the father of Katherine Houghton’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

That is why it makes more sense for ordinary people to look to examples of strength in our own communities. We may aspire to be a Sidney Poitier or Oprah Winfrey and it is okay to aspire to be just as successful as these individuals but we have to be realistic as well. We can also derive remarkable strength from ordinary leaders that we grew up with. We think of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, the late Martin Luther King, the late John Lewis and the real work that they did by putting themselves on the line. I had an extraordinary black grandmother an extraordinary mother and father. There are people out there that weren’t even lucky to have that but some have had mentors or people that gave them a helping hand or lent them kind words of encouragement, showed them books and opened up their tiny worlds into huge ones. It was my Grandmother that told me not to pick up the dirty garbage in the school yard with my bare hands. I was so small and the teacher looked as large and strong as a tree and in her hand she held a cane that she whipped across my four year old back when I refused to pick up a filthy piece of garbage with my bare hands. I felt the pain as she tried to whip the stubbornness out of me but failed. At a young age I chose the welts on my little back and to fight back with peaceful protest as my grandmother had taught me.

It is time for people to tell their own stories; the real stories not the dreamy ones made up by Hollywood and perpetuated on lies and fantasy of whiteness and white power. That is the only way that black and brown people will take their own power back. That is the only way they will take their lives back and tell the full history of the world. That is the only way to make history inclusive and respectful of all life. Is it possible for white people to overcome their subconscious bias? Is it possible that we are not one with our creator? White privilege truly destroys people and continues destroying the world to a point that life will no longer be sustainable. It is difficult enough just to be a human being and to understand that we have a finite time here. Your time may be shorter than you think and there is a common saying that “there is no promise of tomorrow,” so what counts is what you do today. When you finally leave this earth you will bury the myth of the white savior; so why not bury it now; and help us all to live a better life while we still have the privilege of roaming the earth. It is time to carve out and live the true narrative and a time to remember all of those that paved the way for further progress and forward movement.

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