Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of White Saviorism
Are you helping someone else or just yourself?
by Radeen Moncrieffe
Late last Friday, Lindsay Lohan took to Instagram Live to show her followers a drunken encounter with a homeless family. A family that she believed were Syrian refugees and that she believed “really need[ed] help”.
The video turns increasingly more bizarre as Lohan goes from offering to take the two young boys in the family to a hotel for the night to then accusing the parents of being “child traffickers” and “ruining Arab culture” when they decline her offer and are rightfully hostile.
Lohan, who during the 10-minute video speaks in a condescendingly orientalist fake accent as though she’s wandered off the set of ‘Red Sparrow’, becomes increasingly agitated when the family attempts to escape her harassment. She then proceeds to follow them for a few minutes until she’s within arm’s reach of them.
It’s at this point that the encounter turns physical as Lohan is seemingly struck by the mother of the boys and with a heightened lack of self-awareness Lohan begins crying to the camera saying “I’m in shock right now.”
The video recording has been met with almost unanimous disdain with many people online finding it uncomfortable to watch and finding Lohan’s behaviour inexcusable.
Now, while it’s easy to vilify Lohan and single her out due to her history of public breakdowns and erratic behaviour, this encounter is arguably just an extreme example of the white saviour complex. White saviourism refers to the misguided idea in which white people should rescue people of colour from situations they seemingly can’t escape themselves.
Lohan has centred her actions on the assumption that the homeless family needed her help even without asking for it. Purely by virtue of her status, she felt it was appropriate to intrude and harass people she didn’t know.
Even further, Lohan – whether intentionally or not – has directly exploited these people in her conquest to make herself feel like a good person and her sobbing at the end of the video only demonstrates her entitlement as though the family were ungrateful for rejecting her help.
Lohan’s behaviour isn’t far removed from “poverty tourism” or “slum tourism”. It’s still an increasingly growing industry which involves a group of privileged people – often white – visiting impoverished areas, usually with the accompaniment of a charitable organisation.
Think of all the pictures of white people on a volunteering trip in Africa as they are positioned as the hero and are surrounded by smiling black children. The problem lies again with this sense of entitlement that people who live in impoverished areas are incapable of helping themselves without a saviour to guide them. In reality, these groups of people are exploited purely for social comparison or self-realisation to make these “volunteers” feel better about themselves.
That isn’t to say that volunteer work in impoverished areas is inherently a white saviour narrative by in itself, but it’s important to not frame white voices as messianic or assume that you know what is best for people of colour.
White saviourism in these examples might seem like a far-reach concept, but it also comes in less extreme forms and permeates into our daily lives without any of us necessarily realising it. In fact, white saviourism is almost more dangerous in everyday scenarios as it is often painted as benevolent when in actuality, it reinforces orientalist structures of non-European cultures and is used to justify inappropriate behaviour.
More recently, attitudes such as assuming Muslim women who wear a hijab are oppressed and need to be “liberated” is another example of internalised white saviourism. It’s harmful and strips the autonomy of a group of people from being able to speak from themselves.
Ultimately, Lohan’s behaviour isn’t simply an isolated incident and should be seen as a symptom of a larger issue. The white saviour complex leads to minority voices being conflated into one and positioning the white voice at the centre of the narrative. In short, if you want to help someone, don’t make it about yourself.