How to Avoid the “White Savior Industrial Complex”

Ten years ago, writer Teju Cole coined the term White Savior Industrial Complex to describe what he saw as the all-too-familiar pattern of privileged white people seeking personal catharsis by attempting to liberate, save, or otherwise uplift disadvantaged people of color. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not a matter of justice,” Cole wrote in a viral Twitter thread, which he later expanded into Atlantic. “It’s about having a great emotional experience that validates the privilege.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Cole’s criticism lately. On the one hand, as a brown Muslim man from Iran, I know deeply about the White Savior industrial complex and the pernicious role it has played in my home country. On the other hand, my national hero and the subject of my new book, An American Martyr in Persiahappens to be a white evangelical man from Nebraska who went to Iran over a century ago to convert my countrymen to Christianity, that is, a literal white savior.

Howard Conklin Baskerville was a 22-year-old Christian missionary who traveled to Iran in 1907 to teach and spread the gospel. He arrived in the northwest city of Tabriz amid Iran’s first democratic uprising, the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. (Iran’s strong culture of protest can be attributed, in part, to this revolution, whose legacy can be seen in the wave of social unrest currently sweeping the country.)

About a year earlier, a group of brilliant young arsonists, backed by the country’s merchants and clergy, had persuaded Muzaffar ad-Din Shah, Iran’s dying ruler, to sign a constitution guaranteeing the rights and privileges of his citizens. For a brief period, Iran was a self-determined constitutional monarchy with free elections and an independent parliament. But when Muzaffar ad-Din died, the throne passed to his son Mohammed Ali, who destroyed the constitution and attacked the building where Parliament met. The new shah then ordered his soldiers to seize Tabriz, the last city where the revolution was still flourishing and where Baskerville had recently arrived.

Baskerville could not stand aside as a civil war raged around him. He gave up his duties as a missionary and teacher, renounced his American passport and took up arms. On April 20, 1909, he and his students attempted to force their way through the blockade to bring food to starving Tabrizis. Baskerville was shot through the heart and killed.

Baskerville’s death seemed to empower the revolutionaries, who overcame the shah’s siege and headed for Tehran. Once there, they deposed Mohammed Ali Shah. Soon the constitution was restored and a new Parliament installed, which immediately honored Baskerville.

I have known the story of Howard Baskerville most of my life. In Tehran, where I grew up, streets, schools and cafes were named after him. His willingness to sacrifice his life for freedom in a foreign land not only made him a hero in Iran; it has long inspired my own activism. But when I sat down to write his biography, I was immediately confronted with Cole’s essay. After all, the story of a privileged, Princeton-educated white Christian who traveled thousands of miles from his home to save the souls of people he called “Mohammedans” seems to have all the hallmarks of the white savior trope.

Yet the more I delved into Baskerville’s life, the more it seemed to me like some sort of antidote to the White Savior Industrial Complex. Of course, Cole wasn’t suggesting that white people should never try to help those of a different skin color. But Baskerville’s actions in Iran offer a set of guiding principles for how privileged white people can intervene in the world – whether volunteering after a natural disaster, providing aid during a humanitarian crisis, or even interceding on behalf of those seeking freedom from oppression – while avoiding the white savior trap.

1. Listen before you act.

Cole’s main concern with the white savior is how often he strips people of color of their agency, making them passive recipients of white benevolence. “Those who are helped should be consulted on matters that affect them,” he wrote.

Baskerville was sent to Iran by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions with explicit instructions to ignore the social and political situation in the country and focus entirely on saving souls. And that is, indeed, what he did during his first year in Tabriz.

But then he stopped talking at Tabrizis and started listening to them instead. He read the history of Persia and spoke with important revolutionaries. Between lessons, he brought food to the soldiers and listened to their stories. And he started asking his students questions about what they were seeing and experiencing in the city.

What he discovered was that people had far more urgent and immediate needs than hearing the gospel. They needed food, not faith; protection, not evangelism. “I cannot continue to teach calmly and quietly while tragic events are happening daily around me,” he told his superiors. He left his post, took a rifle and joined his students on the battlefield.

2. Connect the dots.

The White Savior Industrial Complex enables privileged white people to ward off systemic racism, injustice, and corruption in favor of individual acts of charity. Yet, by refusing to acknowledge and understand the power patterns that lie behind many humanitarian disasters, the white savior may actually be helping to perpetuate the problem – obscuring the disease by simply band-aiding particular symptoms.

Howard Baskerville’s fellow missionaries were not immune to the suffering endured by the Tabrizi as a result of the terrible famine that gripped the city during the Shah’s siege. What set Baskerville apart, however, was that he recognized that the problem in Iran was not just one evil monarch. It was the monarchy itself. A tyrant who has the power to violently crush the popular will whenever it suits him cannot simply be thwarted by charity and good works; it must be overthrown.

There is great symbolism in the fact that while his colleagues were trying to ameliorate the effects of the siege of Tabriz by sharing the food they had with the starving populace, Baskerville set out to break the siege himself.

3. Know where to assign blame.

To truly do good in the world without perpetuating the White Savior industrial complex, you have to look critically inward and recognize the role your own country might play in perpetuating the injustice you seek to correct. When Baskerville went to Iran, he saw the United States as a beacon of freedom whose light would one day shine in every dark and broken corner of the globe.

Yet it didn’t take him long to grasp the reality of American interests abroad. The State Department wrote in a memo that the United States could “not become aware of any subversive movement” in Persia. Feelings like this infuriate Baskerville. He believed that democracy should be universal, not just for Americans.

“I’m an American citizen and I’m proud of it,” Baskerville said, “but I’m also a human being and I can’t help but feel deep sympathy for the townspeople.” Rather than heed requests from the U.S. government and the mission board that it stop interfering, Baskerville simply surrendered his passport.

4. Sacrifice your privilege.

Perhaps Cole’s most astute observation about the White Savior industrial complex is that it reinforces white privilege. No matter how badly the security situation deteriorated in Tabriz, as an American, Baskerville knew he would always have a powerful force to protect him. Before he surrendered his passport, he knew it would protect him from harm.

What his passport couldn’t do, however, was protect him from witnessing the atrocities unfolding around him. Baskerville saw how the city he had come to call his own was repeatedly attacked by the agents of oppression. It was precisely his refusal to look the other way that ultimately compelled him to sacrifice his privilege by renouncing his American citizenship.

When the American consul general in Tabriz came to the parade ground where the revolutionaries were training to give Baskerville one last chance to retain his citizenship, Baskerville refused: “The only difference between me and these people is the place of my birth”. he said. “And that’s not a big difference.”

5. Be ready to be saved yourself.

No matter what good Baskerville sought to do as a missionary, one cannot lose sight of the fact that he was there first and foremost to bring salvation to Persia. Yet, in the end, it was Baskerville himself who was saved.

The evangelical Christianity he had come to preach in Tabriz was mostly concerned with individual salvation, requiring nothing more than accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. For the Tabrizi, however, salvation did not lie in adhering to one set of beliefs or another, but rather in the willingness to act on those beliefs, to sacrifice everything for them.

This truth dawned on Baskerville as he gradually recognized that the passive Christianity he had brought with him could not be reconciled with the reality of his experience in Tabriz. He was still a Christian, but he came to understand his faith in a different light. He started acting on his beliefs, rather than talking about them. In other words, Baskerville may have come to Iran to teach the Persians what it means to be American and Christian. But by taking up their cause, he allowed the Persians to teach him what it means to be both.

Although public memory of Baskerville has rapidly faded in Iran since the 1979 revolution, it is because of his actions that he is still remembered today not as another white savior seeking emotional validation, but as a hero and a martyr. His legacy shows that resisting the White Savior industrial complex is about the conscious choices one makes. It’s about using your actions to challenge white dominance, rather than uphold it.

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