The Politics of the White Saviour Complex

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Ty is a Wirradjuri man doing International Security Studies. He is the 2017 Indigenous Students Department Secretary, but is also interested in all things security and IR related.

The ‘white saviour complex’ is a pretty heavy-handed issue, so I’m going to start by saying my views do not reflect those of the Indigenous Students Department, the ANU or Indigenous people as a whole. Firstly, I’m going to say that even today there are many challenges that Indigenous Australians face that are unique to us.

The 2016 Closing the Gap report by the Federal Government found that in comparison with non-Indigenous Australians we have higher infant mortality rates, lower education and employment rates, and lower life expectancy rates, just to name a few. Many of these problems are being addressed not just by our mob, but by the wider Australian community as a whole. However, the debate that arises is whether this help is genuine, or if the ‘white man’ is offering his helping hand to the ‘Indigenous natives’. It’s a pretty controversial issue that is constantly under discussion.

In today’s world I like to think all the programs and opportunities for Indigenous people are created with the Australian Indigenous community, rather than for us. These opportunities should pave the way for the future successes of Indigenous youth, especially in roles and professions that Indigenous people have historically been absent from or blatantly unwelcomed. It is, however, hard to draw the line between where the support ends and the ‘saving’ begins, and this difference of opinion is where the debate comes from.

One interesting example of this at the ANU is the Law Reform and Social Justice project, who developed the ‘Ready 4 Recognition’ program. Run predominantly by non-Indigenous volunteers, it intends to ‘provide clear, concise and legally accurate information on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.’ This program, and others similar in nature, have been interpreted in some Indigenous circles as undermining our mob’s ability to fight for constitutional recognition.

I personally don’t agree with this approach to activism, and I understand that some blackfullas will criticise with me for this, however, I believe that the struggle of our mob isn’t one that we necessarily have to deal with entirely by ourselves. People like those from the College of Law are using their specialist skills and knowledge to assist in mending the relationship between our people and the non-Indigenous society.

I am fully aware that the white saviour complex is very real, and I do not doubt that it still manifests in the actions of many individuals and organisations. To think that it doesn’t is just an unrealistic view of today’s ethno-political relationship between Indigenous Australia and the rest of society.

There are people who believe that without their help, my mob would not be capable of reaching our goals. They need to be educated, and shown that blackfullas are equally capable of anything our non-Indigenous counterparts are.

There are also many non-Indigenous Australians who want to help and we should welcome them, not as a societal ‘higher-power’ reaching down to us, but as brothers and sisters wanting to see each other succeed, and striving for equality in all aspects of life.

I believe that this is an opportunity to bridge the divide between our two groups, and to eliminate the ‘us vs them’ mentality that is the underlying foundation to many other issues obstructing conversation about Indigenous rights to this day.