What is an ally? What is a saviour complex? When discussing social justice or activism these are key concepts that form large parts of the discussion. As organisations we try to do our part in uplifting marginalised groups to make their voices heard and in doing so create a positive impact in these communities. 

When trying to determine if an organisation is an ally or if they have a saviour complex, here are a few items to keep in mind:

Ally vs Saviour Complex 

Ally 

An ally is an individual who actively supports and advocates for marginalised groups or individuals. They often advocate for equality and social change through lending their voice and by platforming others. Allies recognise the systemic injustices faced by marginalised groups and use their privilege and influence to amplify their voices, promote inclusivity, and challenge discriminatory practices. Ideally allies are mentored and informed by individuals forming a part of minority groups and through listening to their lived experiences, gain understanding of both their privilege and the actions they can take to effect change. Allies do not advocate on behalf of marginalised groups, but do so in collaboration with them as this creates positive change. 

Saviour complex 

A saviour complex refers to a mindset often adopted by individuals or organisations who advocate on behalf of minority groups, rather than in collaboration with them. This mindset fosters a belief that they can save groups or fix problems faced by them while being disconnected from their lived experiences and the community as a whole. This is often reflective of a paternalistic or patronising attitude in which they view themselves as superior or heroic. Very often this may lead to actions or projects undertaken without consent or input from the communities they wish to influence or aid. 

With these two key definitions established, let’s go into a little more detail: as both Allies and those with a Savior complex take action to support marginalised communities, it is important to recognize the differences in their approaches and impact. 

Approach and impact

Mindset  

Allies approach advocacy from a place of understanding and humility. They recognize that they cannot speak for a group or community, but that they can platform, support and elevate members of the community. A key practice is intensive listening; allies listen and learn from marginalised voices, respect their autonomy and agency, and very often have relationships with members of the community. Allies understand that their role is to uplift and amplify and should not expect praise or accolades from others.

In contrast, organisations or individuals with a saviour complex may believe that they know the needs and what is best for the marginalised group whilst remaining detached and refusing input or criticism. They may make decisions without the input of a community, assuming that they have all the answers, data and insight. This is a very paternalistic attitude and is often detrimental. Very often because of this, they have an elevated sense of self and view themselves as heroes.

Empowerment

Allies often work to empower and equip marginalised communities, recognizing their strengths, capabilities and resilience. They strive to create opportunities, whether it be platforming voices or empowering others to leadership positions. Allies recognize that members of minority groups are able to make their own decisions and thus respect the autonomy of these communities. Their key goal is to create spaces where the voices of marginalised groups are heard, respected and action is inspired, rather than speaking on their behalf. 

Those with saviour complexes, in contrast, tend to take control in decision making and action. This is often disempowering and may perpetuate a cycle of dependency. Where individuals or organisations create a mindset that a group needs them in order to effect change, it becomes easy to recognize superiority complexes. These individuals or organisations may not recognize or fully acknowledge the autonomy of marginalised groups, thus inadvertently reinforcing power imbalances.

Self-awareness and accountability 

Self-awareness and self-reflection are an ally’s most important tools: being an ally means taking a step back and examining your privileges, biases and actions. Allies need to be willing to receive criticism, hold themselves accountable and change their actions without becoming defensive. As an ally, it is crucial to seek feedback from members of the community and to learn from mistakes. Being an ally means knowing that you are not infallible.

Those with a saviour complex often resist feedback and may become defensive when questioned or challenged. They infrequently acknowledge their mistakes or privilege and do not actively engage in self-reflection or accountability. This often leads to a detachment or alienation from the marginalised group they are aiming to help.

Collaboration and Inclusion 

Allies are not islands. They often work collaboratively with marginalised groups and individuals, and rarely take the lead. They recognize that they cannot dictate solutions or actions, but rather, strive to create inclusive spaces where marginalised voices are centred and actively involved in decision making processes.

Very often organisations or individuals adopt a top-down approach. They often dictate solutions or actions without involving members of marginalised groups. Very often, inclusivity and collaboration is not a priority and marginalised groups may unintentionally be silenced, perpetuating a paternalistic attitude towards them.

Reflecting on the approach taken to uplift a marginalised community will very often provide insight into the mindset or intention of an organisation or individual. Those who truly wish to effect positive change will support, platform and empower marginalised voices without seeking recognition. However, if the aim is to gain recognition or acknowledgement, very often these intentions will reflect in an inadvertent dependency, rather than a healthy collaboration. Such a dependency can be a long-term detriment. Should this harmful cycle arise, action must be taken to prevent long-term harm.

Staring down the saviour complex

Educate and communicate

When approaching an organisation that is showing signs of having a saviour complex it is important to keep in mind that they may not be fully aware of it. Always be mindful to approach from a place of patience and not hostility. 

To the best of your ability, educate others about the differences between allyship and tokenizing behaviours such as that embodied by those with a saviour complex. Share resources, provide clear examples and discuss the impact of paternalistic attitudes and actions. In collaboration with marginalised groups, communicate the importance of inclusivity, collaboration and empowerment in creating positive change.

Encourage reflection

Be wary that initial reactions may be defensive. Be patient and open-minded when addressing others regarding their actions, but do not shy away from difficult questions. Ask them:

Asking these types of questions will promote self-reflection and accountability. Following this, an individual or organisation may need time to reflect and examine their privileges, biases and actions, before they are willing to acknowledge any mistakes made, make necessary changes and adopt an open-minded approach to continuous learning.

Foster Inclusion 

When facing an organisation with a saviour complex, emphasise the importance of inclusion and platforming of marginalised voices. Encourage collaboration and intensive listening. It is important that all voices are heard, and that the community is allowed a significant amount of input into decision making. A helpful resource to use when implementing inclusion and attempting to be a good ally is the IDEA handbook from the European Coworking Assembly, as it also provides additional resources for organisations to use.   

Going from a saviour into an ally is often a challenge. Constant self-reflection and improvement is key to avoiding falling into old habits.

Healthy allyship

Don’t seek validation  

Allies are not lighthouses. As an ally, you must be mindful not to seek validation or recognition for your efforts. True allyship is about supporting, platforming and advocating for marginalised communities, not on their behalf, and certainly not for anything in return. Thus, be careful not to centre yourself in conversation or using allyship as bragging rights. Instead, appreciate your platform and prioritise the needs, voices and experiences of marginalised communities.

And remember: you don’t have all the answers. No one does. Be humble.

Be mindful of intent vs impact 

It is important to recognize the intent behind an action as these will not always align with the impact of an action. As allies, we may have good intentions, but our actions may have negative consequences. Therefore it is crucial that we are mindful of our words, actions and decisions, especially in light of microaggressions.

When receiving feedback, it is important to listen carefully and understand that it is not a reflection of your value as a person – it is teaching. Very often in our learning, we must reflect on our actions, biases, assumptions and blind spots, and be willing to make changes where necessary.

Take a step back   

As allies, we may often need to take a step back. Marginalised communities should be at the forefront of their own liberation and advocacy efforts. As an ally, your role is to support and amplify, thus, make your peace with sometimes being on the sidelines. It is crucial that as allies, we avoid taking up space or overshadowing marginalised voices, instead, we must create opportunities and platforms that elevate their perspectives, experiences and solutions.

Being a true ally requires active listening, collaboration, empowerment, self-reflection, and accountability. It’s about centering the voices of marginalised communities, working collaboratively with them, and fostering inclusivity and empowerment. On the other hand, having a saviour complex can perpetuate power imbalances, disempower marginalised communities, and hinder genuine social change.

As an organisation we need to place value on effective communication and foster a culture of allyship, where inclusivity, collaboration, and empowerment is a priority . Let’s strive to be true allies, not saviours, in our pursuit of social justice and equality. Together, we can effect positive change and build a more inclusive and equitable world.

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