As much as I claim to love sci-fi in all my geekery, my exposure to it is almost exclusively through comic books or video games. I don’t have much exposure to the “classics” and genre-makers outside of Star Wars/Star Trek.
But a few years ago I read the first Dune book by Frank Herbert. It instantly became one of my favorite sci-fi stories of all time.
For anyone who hasn’t read it, it’s about Paul Atreides, the heir to a governing family who is betrayed and ousted from their throne on the desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis seems to be a clear allegory for the middle-east. We learn very early on that Arrakis is the only source in the galaxy for the “spice” Melange. The spice is used by the spacing guild for interstellar travel. Does that sound like the oil industry to anyone else?
Anyway, the Atreides family is not native to Arrakis, but had been moved there to rule over it by an imperial edict. During the coup, Paul and his mother escape into the desert and are reluctantly taken in by a tribe of Fremen, who are the desert-dwelling natives of Arrakis. In a relatively short amount of time, Paul joins the Fremen under a new name Muad’Dib (the name of a desert mouse respected by the Fremen) and becomes their messiah, Lisan al-Gaib, who will make their desert planet more hospitable.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the 1927 film Metropolis.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s about Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who is the captain of industry in the Metropolis where the truly wealthy, who live high above the ground in the city’s buildings, have attained their wealth on the backs of the truly poor, who live and work on machines deep in the bowels of the city. Freder is shown the conditions of his “brothers” in the working class and is overcome with compassion. He meets a woman, Maria, who has become the spiritual leader of the working class.
Maria preaches a sermon (which Freder overhears) that compares the Metropolis to the biblical Tower of Babel. She says that those who built the tower (the “hands”) couldn’t communicate with those whose grand design the tower was (the “brain”) without an intermediary (who she calls the “heart”). To make a long story short, Maria believes Freder is the “heart,” the mediator, for the Metropolis who will ensure communication between the workers and the industrialists — but this is only discovered after the workers start a violent uprising that results in cataclysmic flooding of their homes, threatening the lives of their children.
I noticed after a little bit of reflection that these two classic works share one very obvious thing in common — both feature a privileged hero that enters into an underprivileged community to “rescue” them from their plight.
Whilte Dune’s native characters seem to have a variety of skin colors (except in film, where they are white), their entirely-blue eyes are a distinct visual quality that comes from prolonged exposure to the Melange spice. But since their culture is so clearly based on Earth people of color, the Fremen are often assumed to be brown-skinned. In Metropolis, the entire cast is white, and it’s primarily clothing and demeanor that distinguish the classes. Both films, however, have an element of the White Savior trope. (Before I go on, I want to interject here and say that just the fact that a story leans on a trope doesn’t make it a bad story. I think both of these works are excellent. Or at least very important.)
The White Savior trope is found in stories where a privileged outsider (usually literally white) encounters an indigenous group who has been oppressed (usually literally non-white), joins them, and then is the catalyst for the ultimate improvement of their lives. This is typically in the form of leading a rebellion against the White Savior’s previous oppressor-group, or providing the indigenous group with some sort of wisdom (like teaching them their value).
These are nowhere near the only works that make use of this trope. More movies than I can count fit the bill, along with plenty of video games, and plenty of novels. Many stories like this have earned a solid pedigree as “classics” because arts and entertainment have long been the domain of white men.
Stories that use this trope are often quick to point out culpability. “Of course white men were responsible for oppression. But that was in the past, and it’s only a few white men that are still oppressors. See look at how good we can be!” is the premise of many of these films.
The issue with these stories isn’t necessarily that premise. It could be perfectly true and the trope would still be a problem. The issue is that the white savior trope implies that without a white savior, none of these groups could “save” themselves. In Metropolis, it seems like the writers of the story had this problematic thesis explicitly in mind. When the poor workers began their uprising without the guidance of Freder, their savior, they are caught up in a furious mob that nearly brings about the death of all of their children.
Dune’s white savior, Paul-Muad’Dib, was foretold in the mythology of the Fremen people. But we find out in the story that their mythology had been manipulated by a secret matriarchal religious group, called the Bene Gesserit, of which Paul’s mother is a part. The Fremen people were conditioned to believe that their salvation couldn’t come except at the hands of an outsider.
Recognizing the role that geek culture has played in forming this particular trope, what is it that we geeks (but particularly white male geeks) take away from that discovery?
White males are in the unique cultural position of having agency in every situation. Except in very intentional situations, white men always have a voice that people in power are more likely to listen to than if the voice had belonged to a woman or person of color.
Is the lesson we learn from this trope that privileged people shouldn’t use their voice on behalf of the unheard?
I don’t think so… But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything. One of the biggest pitfalls many “charities” encounter in their work in underprivileged communities is making the assumption that they know how to “fix” all of that community’s problems. They begin to act without taking time to ask the community members themselves what they need.
We who have power tend to assume that we know best. We’re not wrong to think that we should help when we can, but we need to recognize that help can only be defined by those who want it, and often listening is much more beneficial than speaking out.
P.S. I couldn’t think of any geeky stories that explicitly resist the white-savior trope. This might be a problem of my cultural location – I’m a white man who falls easily into patterns of “favorites” and therefore doesn’t actively seek out stories created by persons of color. There are myriad works I can think of that don’t rely on this trope simply by virtue of having an all-white cast, but that hardly seems helpful either. I’d be really interested to hear from any readers that know of a story where an indigenous group advocates for themselves, or where a white-savior isn’t the sole protagonist, or where no attempt is made by a white protagonist to join and lead a closed indigenous group.