(UPDATED) 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

(Source: http://savageminds.org/2012/03/04/a-plea-for-anthropology/)

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.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but get the sense that collectively, these people who wanted to decide the fate of Lou and Bill considered themselves non-human animal allies. These ‘good allies’ were teaching Bill, Lou, and other non-human animals how to make a mostly white campus look ‘ethical’ and ‘holier than thou’ when it comes to sustainability and creating a better food system.  The ‘white innocence’ agricultural narrative and image, depended on how this pro-locavore white Green Mountain College community spoke for these animals as both their ‘allies’ and their saviors– whether Bill and Lou truly benefited or not (which isn’t really the point; branding a white dominated college in white dominated Vermont as the symbol of white ethical practices around farming and food is the point).   (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?
  4. If you identify as white, have you every leveraged ‘being an ally’ or savior  for non-white folk and/or non-human animals to show how you are ‘one of the good whites’? (You may not even be conscious of having done so)

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.

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

  1. White person here! This is a great article from the always amazing Christopher Sebastian. I have a podcast, and we did a show a while time ago on the speciesism and patriarchy inherent in the savior complex a lot of vegans have towards animals and were not overly surprised when a lot of white dudes were like, “I don’t have a problem with it.” Sigh.

    This article helped me a lot. I kind of made up the term “speciesist savior complex” at the time because I hadn’t read or heard about it anywhere, but now with this article I’m very happy to have more education and some reference materials on this topic. I like the term “ally theater,” I hadn’t heard it before, I’m glad to have learned it. Thank you both for always being such a great resource of information and frank discussions. Every time I read something from either of you, I feel a little more aligned with my beliefs and intentions; better able to be a truly good ally, not just someone who likes to think of themselves as a good ally.

    I can relate to savior complex as a formerly poor person (and as a woman, of course). There is a definite belief that poor people are poor because they are either intellectually incapable (uneducated or low IQ), or because they have made bad life choices, and so must have all decisions about their care and support made for them. It’s a topic that still gets me very angry. We responded to a comment on Facebook about how vegans are “picky” and that starving people would be grateful for whatever food they could get and wouldn’t be so selfish. I surprised myself with how incensed I was at the notion that starving people should be grateful for whatever someone wants to throw at them, that they couldn’t possibly have culture, ethics or standards that they might like to operate by, given a choice. And that starving people should be grateful for being helped out – shouldn’t we all be helped? Should we really be grateful when we’re given the very bare minimum to sustain life? Shouldn’t that be the standard, not something you get a gold sticker for doing? I was reading today about how the U.S.’s “generous” donations of corn and rice after each natural disaster have hurt the Haitian farmers (while helping U.S. farmers), and how our cheap crops are generally hurting them anyway. Should they be grateful for that?

    1. Hi Nichole! I wanted to appreciate your comment and encourage you to join a discussion that will be deepening the contradictions of “white veganism”. It’s about how white vegans and vegetarians should stand for reparations to African people and solidarity with black power. Would you be interested in coming? You can register at VegansForReparations.eventbrite.com to secure your spot (there’s only 50 available!) and get the login info. There’s a lot of work to do in the white community to address the harms of whiteness and white power.

  2. Oh, I forgot to answer the questions!

    1. The quote made me feel a lot of things, mostly that it was truthful. I think there is an inherent patriarchy to fighting for animal rights that a lot of activists refuse to see, or see as a bad thing. I think a lot of people are drawn to the fact that the animals can’t speak for themselves, and it makes them feel big and important without being able to be checked.

    2. I don’t know of a particular instance of ally theater / white savior complex but I know that in my younger days I definitely did or said some ignorant shit. I was always very liberal, but my dad was a bigot and I grew up in this beautiful but broken world so I know I had internalized some stuff that took years of personal growth and education to exorcise. I remember thinking or saying things like, “people should be grateful for X” or “why do they have to be so loud / angry / etc. to make their point?” It feels me with shame now 🙁

    3. I was never called on it. After living in a poor, ethnically diverse area in my early youth, I spent my most formative years in New Hampshire in an extremely white, heteronormative, small town. I was by far the most liberal person I knew, so there was definitely no one to check my privilege. It wasn’t until I got a bit older and started reading media by people who don’t look like me that I was able to refine my liberalness and work to start becoming a truly good ally.

    4. I think, as a white person, I definitely have leveraged ally theater (as I understand it) to make myself look good, although I think I did it more as a straight person than a white person. I’ve had very good friends who are gay and I know that at times I’ve (unintentionally) used my relationship with them to look like a good guy, or to communicate what a open accepting person I am. I still struggle with this – how to telegraph to others that I’m a safe person without exploiting the people I care about. I’ve finally started to figure out that by just using certain words – heteronormative, or binary, for instance – I can let others know that I’m a safe person without having to mention my gay best friend back home. Oh, and as a white person I’ve definitely told the story about almost dating a Jamaican kid in 7th grade more than once to let people know that I’m open to and attracted to other races, which is something I’ve tried to stop doing (although I will say that he was so handsome, so sweet, and why did my parents have to move us to white-ass New Hampshire just as things were getting good?!?! But I digress).

    I just realized I attributed the whole article to Christopher Sebastian in my above comment, that was an oversight on my part. I’m so sorry!!! A lot of times I’m commenting in between doing other things and don’t pay enough attention to the details.

    Great article, great discussion!

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