The [White Savior] Elephant in the Room: Ally Theater, Savior Complex, and Speaking for ‘The Other’

Ally Theater (2)

[Note: Christopher Sebastian McJetters is a Black and vegan man who approaches non-human animal compassion activism with anti-racist and decolonial frameworks.]

Years ago (but post-2000), my friend, a person from Africa ( I won’t be too specific to protect their identity) was studying at UC Berkeley as an Anthropology doctoral student. They told me that they saw a disturbing poster in their Anthropology department. The poster had the images of indigenous African people and gorillas, with the question, “Who will speak for them?”

They were appalled, but certainly not surprised; the traditional discipline of Anthropology in the USA was fundamentally a white colonialist/imperialist project: on many levels, that poster reflected that continuing tradition, whether intentional or not (because it’s all about impact and not intentions).  My friend wrote on a public forum about the experience:

The now infamous Gorilla poster is wrong on so many levels; however, my initial views concerning the poster’s phrases and imagery straddled the line between applauding the conservationism and masking my embarrassment over the overt paternalism inherent in the question: “Who will speak for them?”

Did it occur to the creators of the poster that they (meaning the “Indigenous people”) could speak for themselves? That rather than speaking for someone they could act as allies transmitting their message to areas they cannot reach, if in fact they are incapable of reaching such areas on their own?

Despite being bothered by the line, I wasn’t the least bit shocked by the poster. I’m kinda used to encountering that line of thinking, even at Cal. This type of conditioning results from a life time of hearing, seeing, and reading others act as if they can speak on my “Indigenous” behalf in the way that parents do for their children.

It didn’t occur to me that the poster’s content could be interpreted as comparing Sub-Saharan Africans to Gorillas. The notion that some groups of people are “monkey-like” is not universal and certainly not an a priori form of perception and understanding. Sadly, some of the people making such comparisons will do so regardless of reason and truth. We can just work to ensure that that crowd becomes (or remains) a minute minority that doesn’t perpetuate its perspective


Though savior complex and ally theater are not limited to white people, I am focusing more or less on white savior complex within the USA. This is because a significant number of POC (vegan and non-vegan) experience ‘post-racial’ white people involved in animal rights (and other spaces) as being on a mission[ary] to be their allies save them. But, these “saviors'” are collectively ignorant about a centuries old history of [white] savior complex and have not engaged in any self-interrogation about its impact on how they both relate to non-white people and non-human animals…and how that, in turn, racializes and socializes them into whiteness.

And by ‘save them’,  I mean the goal is to save the collectivity of POC from their perspectives that are so centered on anti-racism (which is read as “irrational and distracting” by the collectivity of white animal rights/vegans). POC must be saved and taught that non-human animals come first while issues around race and whiteness are not only secondary, but divisive and distracting.

However, veganism and animal rights are not the only spaces in which [white] savior complex and speaking for the ‘other’ can happen. White anti-racist and vegan activist pattrice jones’ recent book Oxen at the Intersection, critically analyzes the impact of white supremacist and ableist logic in terms of speaking for ‘the animals’. The book narrates the story of two oxen at a Vermont College, Bill and Lou, that focuses on locavorism and ‘traditional’ pre-industrial use of non-human animals. Even though there is a lot going on in her brilliant book, I can’t emphasize enough how students, staff, and faculty at Green Mountain College felt compelled to speak for the oxen through their white supremacist and speciesist imagination of how the oxen can ‘best’ serve the mostly white bodied campus. They ‘saved’ the oxen from having ‘meaningless’ lives by forcing them into a life of servitude and being part of a nostalgic white pre-industrial agricultural narrative…nothing short of the ‘noble savage’ narrative applied to the non-human animals who cannot speak for themselves or have their own agency to determine if they even want to be part of this white bygone-era farming narrative. (Click on title below for more info)


So, now that you’ve read this post, here are some questions below (but don’t feel limited by them).

  1. What was your initial reaction after reading the quotes?
  2. Have you ever engaged in ally theater or savior complex?
  3. Were you ever called out because you were engaging in ally theater or savior complex behavior, and if so,  how did you respond?

Thanks Christopher Sebastian McJetters for starting this conversation and giving me permission to post. Thanks pattrice jones for your amazing book.

About the Author and The Sistah Vegan Project

Dr. A. Breeze Harper
Dr. A. Breeze Harper

Dr. Harper currently manages the Staff Diversity Initiative’s Multicultural Education Program at UC Berkeley and is the founder of the Critical Diversity Solutions. Check her profile out on LinkedIn. Inquire about Dr. A. Breeze Harper lecturing or giving a workshop at your organization, school, or business.

4 thoughts on “The [White Savior] Elephant in the Room: Ally Theater, Savior Complex, and Speaking for ‘The Other’

  1. Hi 🙂 great article. I thought I’d have a go at some of the discussion points you raised, starting with the final two first.

    I have definitely engaged in both ally theatre and savior complex in my (often misled) journey to be decent human being.One of my oldest and best friends received a lot of racial abuse whilst we were at school together, and I took it upon myself to shout down his bullies. In hindsight, there was an element of showboating on my part, and more importantly, I shouted over him in the process, detracting from his capacity and right to defend himself as an attacked non-white person in a majority white sphere.

    I have never been called out on it though. I’ve called myself out on it a few times, since reading articles such as this and attempting to educate myself on issues I know I won’t fully be able to understand. If I’m truly honest (not proud of this side of myself) I suspect if someone else had called me out on white savior complex, I would have responded by begin offended instead of having an open mind. I’m hoping I would respond better nowadays, as I expand my mind a little more to accommodate these ideas and concepts.

    I think it’s a vital point that you make, that it isn’t about intentions it is about impact. The intention I’d had with “defending” my friend was to try to put a stop to racist abuse, but the impact was to further the concept that white voices are more significant than non white voices. I think it’s so important for privileged members of the community to understand the difference between intention and impact, particularly when it comes to being open minded to criticism.

    As for your first question; the first quote to sited rang so true to me. ally theatre within animal rights spaces is such a difficult one. I actually think animal rights movements are guilty of fetishising and objectifying animals much in the same way as the abusers they protest against. There is rampant one upmanship between vegans, particularly online, and I find the celebrity status of a lot of animal advocates (most commonly white middle class men) strange and inappropriate. Veganism has become a badge of honor, a way of becoming “holier than thou” which is depressing, but at the same time I have no idea of how to tackle the issues in our movement without becoming guilty of all of the things I criticise.

    Anyway, this is a great thought provoking article. thank you for sharing and for suggesting points of conversation 🙂

  2. As a white vegan who has also participated in certain forms of direct action, this conversation prompted me to think about the difference between speaking for animals and saving animal lives. It’s becoming more common to challenge phrases like “Be Their Voice™” but not language challenging the claim that going vegan can “save 300 animals a year” (or whatever the number is).

    The distinction between influencing other humans regarding identifying and challenging oppression of animals and taking personal responsibility for intervening and preventing the further abuse, neglect, or killing of someone from another species is one worth paying closer attention to.

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