The White Savior Trope & Swept Into the Storm

The White Savior Trope & Swept Into the Storm

We talk a lot about tropes in romance novels, and my recent release, Swept Into the Storm, has plenty of them: gumpy/sunshine, forced proximity, caretaking, class difference, he falls first… They’re all there. But to be honest, I never think about these kinds of tropes as I write. I prefer to allow the stories to unfold as they will and leave the trope ID to the reviewers.

But there was one trope I thought a lot about as I was crafting Swept Into the Storm, and it’s not a pretty or a romantic one, though it is popular: The White Savior Trope.

What is the White Savior Trope?

This trope is most often talked about in cinema, though it applies just as well to other narrative art forms. Mathew Huey, the prominent American sociologist, describes it as follows:

“A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through their sacrifices, as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save—or at least morally redeem—the person or community of folks of color, by the film's end.”

The list of films that use this trope is long, and spans the history of filmmaking: To Kill a Mockingbird, Glory, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Help, etc.

Why is it problematic?

White Savior stories are attractive, especially to white people. They’re uplifting feel-good narratives that show how one well-meaning white person can make a difference and change the lives of people of color for the better. What’s wrong with that?

A lot, as it turns out.

In this analysis written for An Injustice Magazine, Björn Jóhann does an excellent job of laying out some of the most problematic aspects of the White Savior Trope. I highly recommend reading the full article, but there were two points that concerned me most as I was writing Swept Into the Storm.
  • In White Savior stories, the white hero’s redemption, or victory is central. White characters drive the plot, while characters of color seem to lack agency and are often pushed to the sidelines. Their purpose in the narrative is confined either to helping the white hero on his quest, or as passive victims who exist only to be saved. In this way, White Savior stories reinforce harmful stereotypes and social orders. They allow white people to continue to see themselves as the sole drivers of social, political and cultural change—the heroes of every story.
  • The White Savior narrative allows the viewer (or reader) to imagine the problem is solved. It shows one white person saving a person of color, or group of people, then a happy, inspiring or poignant ending—as if that one act solved the larger problems of racism, slavery or discrimination. The white audience member is able to move on with a sense that all is right in the world and no further thought or action is necessary—even though, in many cases, the opposite is true.
    What’s a white author to do?

    The most common advice given to those who want to avoid the White Savior Trope is to watch and read works by creators of color. This is great advice because, truly, these are the voices that are missing in nearly every work that falls into the White Savior narrative. All the movies listed above were written by white men. But there are plenty of Black filmmakers making great films, and there are some really wonderful authors—Beverly Jenkins, Courtney Milan, Alysa Cole and Vanessa Riley to name just a few—who write from historical romance from a non-white perspective.

    But what about someone like me, a white woman who writes historical romance? How does the White Savior trope affect my work, and how do I successfully avoid it? How do I, someone who will never know what it’s like to live in Black or Brown skin, write accurately and respectfully of the experiences of people of color?

    There’s no easy answer to that question. Well, that’s not quite true, there is one easy answer: I could do what many other writers in the genre do: sidestep the issue completely by omitting people of color and their struggles from my books, focus instead on balls and dukes and fancy dress, the gossip of the ton. But I was never one to take the easy way out. I believe my work should be inclusive—and that means writing characters of color. It also means addressing the historical realities of racism, colonialism and paternalism, realities that are often ignored by the genre, and for good reason. For many readers, romance is a much needed escape, and like it or not, these issues still exist in the modern world and can be painful to read about, even two hundred years later.

    All of this was on in my mind as I drafted Swept Into the Storm, and yeah, it wasn’t easy. It was messy, and confusing, scary and at times maddening.

    This is why, as frustrating as it may be to read, the villain ultimately gets away nearly unscathed. I couldn’t allow the reader to have that sense of rightness that would come with his death or imprisonment, as if one man’s punishment could solve the problems of slavery or racism.

    It’s why there’s such a focus in the book on the difference between pity and compassion, and why the passive statement “Am I not a man and a brother?” is juxtaposed with the much stronger, agency-filled statement: “I am a man, your brother.”

    The image used by abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick in 1824, a counterpoint to the image above.

    And it’s why, ultimately, our heroine—a woman of color—has to find her own way, in her own way. Her agency, and her sense of self is paramount. Because even if Cameron is the nicest, cinnamon-rolliest hero in the world, he’s still a privileged white man—the perfect candidate for a White Savior. To portray him as “saving” anyone would play right into the trope. Instead, Cameron (as nice as he is), must be forced to deal with his internal bias and his complicity in the paternalistic society he's been raised in... and he has to do it the hard way: alone, without the passive "help" of a person of color.

    Subverting a trope in this way isn't easy, or comfortable. It's like setting up a forced proximity romance, then giving the characters an out; or planning a fake marriage, then calling it off. It just feels... wrong. But in this case, the discomfort has a purpose, because this trope is one that needs to be recognized and subverted. It's the only way to move past it and for authors (both Black and white) to begin to tell stories that are inclusive and respectful of all people and experiences.
    Special thanks to my friend Jane Hadley for her help in this post!
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