Poma: White Saviorism in Education Hides in Plain Sight


Maya Fraser

West High School Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City (Photo by Maya Fraser | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Sasha Poma, Assistant Opinion Editor


Conversations about racial discrimination against Black, Indigenous and people of color ask us to reflect on our own social privileges and experiences with racism. True reflection means examining every facet of our lives — especially our academic environments. White saviorism among educators in BIPOC communities, to start with, urgently needs to be checked. As the Salt Lake Valley grows more diverse, white teachers and school leaders must become comfortable addressing their own racial biases and work to deconstruct white saviorist mindsets and assumptions. They need to learn to bridge disconnects between themselves and their racially marginalized students to be truly effective educators.

While there’s no neat dictionary definition of the term, the white savior complex generally refers to white people going into BIPOC spaces for self-serving purposes. According to Contemporary Racism, these purposes include “to somehow prove that the White person isn’t racist, to boost their own ego, and most alarming, to attempt to ‘save’ people of color and get them out of unfortunate circumstances.”

White educators who teach in minority communities can easily fall into a mindset that resembles this definition. White teachers working with students of color are often praised as “heros” or philanthropists for doing so, when they should just be praised for entering a field as demanding as teaching. Whiteness does not automatically make someone more qualified to teach students of color, just as being of a certain race does not dictate a person’s intellect or lack thereof.

This attitude does more harm than good. As a Latina, I got “checked in on” by my white teachers more often than others to see if I understood the material. They would then be surprised and praised me when I performed well, even though that same accomplishment was expected of my white peers. One teacher reaffirmed to me (or to herself) that I did not, in fact, need her help, which was an odd statement that I didn’t understand until later on. These doubts about my intellect have made me feel I have to prove I know what I’m doing, whether through raising my hand too often in class or not asking for help when I need it.

These unchecked toxic attitudes among white teachers have long-term effects. Study after study shows white teachers have lower expectations for students of color, which greatly affects their motivation and achievement. The biases white teachers have about people of color also impact expulsion and discipline rates and many other facets of students’ academic experience.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with white teachers wanting to work with and support students of color, so long as it’s done in a good mindset. However, data shows that teachers of color benefit not just students of color, but students of all backgrounds simply because they have higher regard for all of their students. But teachers of color are few and far between, which presents a problem when we look at how white teachers navigate BIPOC spaces.

There is a disconnect between white teachers and students of color, and white teachers are largely unprepared for the teaching environments they encounter. An academic article titled “I Can’t Be Racist — I Teach in an Urban School, and I’m a Nice White Lady!” opens with an anecdote from one of the white authors, who was a recently licensed teacher. When her first job was in a majority Latinx classroom, she says that she “had no idea how to acknowledge my whiteness and their brownness and what that meant to them or me.” This lack of awareness makes it extremely difficult for students of color to relate to their teachers and vice versa.

This issue is not going to go away — there is real work and progress to be made that seldom gets acknowledged. And Utah should be engaged in this reckoning between teachers and students — we are not exempt from this problem. According to a 2014–15 survey, 76% of Utah teachers are female and 88% are white. Those numbers do not correlate to Utah’s increasingly diverse student populations. Last year, after the murder of George Floyd, Yan’Tu Barber, a Black fifth-grade teacher in Jordan School District, noted that none of his colleagues seemed to address the tragedy or racism in general, so he felt responsible to do so alone. During this year’s Black History Month, a Utah school initially allowed parents to opt out of being taught about BHM. Utah schools have a hard time having these basic conversations about racism with students. How can we expect to then address white saviorism among faculty?

It starts by not treating racism as a taboo topic in Utah schools, as well as advocating for students of color. This includes anything from being open to difficult conversations to broadening what students read, from different historical narratives to new primary sources. Teachers should be openly anti-racist and think critically about how their privileges and biases affect their students. Tony Zani, a teacher at Rose Park Elementary said in a Deseret News article, “…we aren’t trying to be colorblind. We are working to reject racism and to honor every student’s race and culture. Students at Rose Park are more invested in school because the teachers honor the students for exactly who they are.” Institutions should also be open to reforming outdated curriculum and make time to address racial biases and issues among faculty. Facilitating workshops and hard discussions about teacher positionality and race should not be simply encouraged but enthusiastically implemented into teacher education.

White saviorism starts with the mindset of any white individual who enters BIPOC spaces — it isn’t solely a systemic issue. By examining ways to connect with students of color and address racism within the academic sphere, white teachers can enter their diverse classroom with a better, clearer mission. In the words of activist Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


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