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Problematic Trope: Saviors
[Image: Cover image from John Brown: His Fight For Freedom by John Hendrix. The image depicts (and I shit-you-not) a grizzled white man accompanied by two small, pathetic-looking Black children, he cradles one in his arm and there’s an American flag and everything.]
Stories that feed into the narrative of the white savior
Quick Things You Need To Know:
- These are all problematic books.
- Check out this post about youth saviors for problematic books that reinforce stigma against older adults, with young people swooping in to offer super obvious solutions.
- I wrote extensively on the use of the savior narrative in kidlit in part #3 of Smashing Wealth Inequality – Beyond Victims & saviors. I’m not going to rehash that here, so you should read that whole thing for proper scaffolding before you move forward with this book list.
- Problematic books are best read to kids ages 4+, where you can stop and ask them “This book is saying…. how do you feel about that? Do you think the author should be teaching kids this?”
- Obviously just the overtly problematic stuff for preschool, but you can get into some pretty deep messages by the time they’re 7 (read Victims & saviors for an explanation on cognitive development.)
- We discuss a little bit about white saviorism in the Black Women in US history collection, too.
- I talk about nondisabled saviorism in this article about a book that bypasses it in the perfect way.
- And about centering saviors in books like Kunkush over here.
- There is such a thing as a book featuring white accomplices without glorifying them as saviors. These are rare. That will have to wait for another list.
- Authors like Gerald McDermott, Leonard Everett Fisher, and Paul Goble are good (and by that, I mean terrible) examples of white savior authors. Convinced that Indigenous voices and stories would die out without them appropriating, twisting, and profiting off their oral stories (because white printed media is superior to oral storytelling, right?) These authors have established reputations and careers off ‘saving’ (re: stealing) native stories, sanitizing them, and selling them to non-Indigenous kids under the guise of promoting ‘diversity.’
- Whenever you have a parent asking for ‘books to expose my children to diversity,’ that red flag word – ‘diversity’ is code for non-white or non-colonizer. Terms like ‘diverse,’ ‘ethnic,’ and ‘exotic‘ are words white folks use to differentiate us from a white standard/norm. Same thing with ‘differently abled‘ and ‘special needs’ – it’s all rooted in the idea that we can’t just call ourselves what we are, and we should be ashamed to be the other. People who use these terms must be handled gently, and they are liable to get violent when confronted with their bias. Step carefully.
- You can find more posts about the savior trope (including books that smash it) in the facebook group by searching for the word ‘savior.’ Click here.
- Don’t even get me started about the allistic people who invite autistic people to the prom and then go viral for this act of benevolence (VOMITS EVERYWHERE.)
- Made in China – Like a toaster! And just like a toaster, a Chinese girl can be comforted against all of the racism and bigotry she’ll face growing up in the US so long as her adoptive parents love her enough. Wait that’s not like a toaster at all. It’s almost like adoptees are complex humans with feelings and memories. YIKES. What is this trickery!?
- What Will You Be, Sara Mee? (Avraham) – Imagine a book where a white author doesn’t make a dig at the Asian culture they’re yanking babies from “Girls can be anything in America.” (which isn’t even true.) or fetishize our ’round moon faces.’ That book you are imagining is not this book. The adoptive parents throw a doljanchi, a traditional ceremony with lots of gorgeous meaning and depth steeped in Korean history and culture, but they celebrate this ‘prophecy game’ (ew) in a weirdly shallow way. The whole story is centered on the older brother of course, not the baby celebrating her Dol. No but it’s okay because this white author adopted a Korean daughter in real life so she can do make digs like this (also sarcasm.)
- King & King & Family – De Haan – oh my gosh. oh my gosh NO. NO NO NO. These gay kings go to a jungle for a honeymoon and a brown child that fits all the wild savage racist tropes you’ve learned about in the Jungle Book sneaks into their luggage. They get home and are like “Welp, let’s keep it because fuck the first parents and hey this is convenient since we wanted a baby!” And it’s (not) okay, because now she’s a princess (who has been kidnapped by ignorant monsters). Good thing you can just pick brown children out of the jungle and choose not to take them home without consequences!
- Orange Peel Pocket – I hate this book so much. Read the rant here.
- Coffee Can Kid – Adoptive dad just literally makes up some BS about what happened to his daughter’s first mother. There’s some colorblind bull about how this Asian girl’s name sounds funny, and she’s white now because she’s being raised in white culture (nope. not how it works.)
- Rice and Beans (Blevins) – Poorly written, racist, and at this point in the bookshelf I was just too burned out to take notes. Trust me, it’s rubbish.
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Quick & Messy Book List:
Adoptive Savior Parents
Lin’s ‘The Red Thread’ is by far the most blatant and disgusting example, and we’ll do an entire patreon video on this one. The others pale in comparison, but I’m listing others that I easily found by simply browsing the ‘parent’ shelf of our children’s library to give you a sense of how prevalent this trope is. It’s interesting that Asian authors can buy into this trope just as deeply as white ones and speaks to the way we’ve internalized white supremacy and bought into the white narrative.
Relevant: the mythic fairytale narrative of adoption and the way our US adoption systems continue to benefit white parents at the expense of traumatizing families of color and indigenous families and their children. And books that portray adopted children as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And books (including many of my favorites) which erase adoptive/surrogate families. And how adopting or giving birth to babies of color will magically solve racism. Which I guess we’ll have to get into later because that’s a whole other set of things.
- The Red Thread – Lin
- My Family is Forever – Carlson – those slant eyes. oh my gosh.
- Happy Adoption Day – McCutcheon
- The Call of the Swamp – Cali – this one isn’t transracial, it’s transpecies featuring white parents and a mexican axolotl. The same tropes as in transracial stories apply, and you have to ask – who is this book supposed to be validating for? If the story is coding for what happens to ‘the other’ when they’re rescued by nice white folks, it’s a strange choice to make the animal a critically endandered Mexican axolotl, and personify it. While the original author is italian, someone translated this into ‘swamp’ despite the negative connotations of this word in English. That’s an uncomfortable decisions, given the popular narrative of rescuing adoptive children communities of color and the spaces they inhabit – often given negative connotation themselves – barrios, ghettos, and gutters.
- Zachary’s New Home – this is cats and geese, but we still know the point isn’t to give parents the resources they need to be good parents – it’s to demonize first parents and take their kids away to be raised by ‘good’ people. Those geese – soooo white. Also this is not…how family placement works. yikes.
- The Goose Egg (Wong) – Instead of getting a goose mentor for thier adopted gosling, the elephant parent paints themselves white (white face!) and pretends to be a goose. This is written by an Asian person. I am serious. Apparently one with no concept of how this codes with transracial adoption.
- God Found Us You (Bryant) – That’s right. God put your first parents through such unimaginable hell that they had to give you up, because he so desperately wanted to use you as a reward for being faithful to Him. Worth it! (Sarcasm)
- Yes, I’m adopted! (Zinniger) – Beyond being bland and full of painfully bad verse, we see a first mother smiling as they hand over their baby to adoptive parents, like they are delivering a warm loaf of bread. Sure, this could work for the rare cases (if they exist?) when a first mother is totally casual about handing over the person they made, but um. Let’s just erase all the stuff we don’t want to think about!
- Wild About You – We chose adoption because our FIRST CHOICE of having a biological child didn’t pan out. Don’t ever forget you were a door prize we settled for.
- Wish (Cordell) – Adoption is about us. We parents. Us. It was so hard to get here. Can we talk about us? So hard, this journey. Our story. Much waiting. So hard. Let me tell you about it in this really boring baby shower book that will be really boring for kids to sit through. Why is this classified as kidlit?
- Hattie Peck (Levely) she just loves collecting babies! It’s a hobby! It’s not about them – it’s about her – what a hero! In the sequel, she brings them back and dumps them where she found them in a land where they are now strangers. Huh.
- Night Out (Miyares) – There’s no adoption in this one, it’s just a sad orphan being pathetic. But that habit of appropriating the identity of an orphan to emphasize sadness and loneliness is gross. Stop.
- My Real Family (McCully) – Designed to validate the jealousy biological kids are supposedly feeling when their family takes in an adoptive or foster child. Holy shit this is a mess. Just to be clear – there are books that do this without turning into a paper diarrhea. Starting with the idea that real parents = biological parents, the book just devolves from there.
*Also this isn’t relevant but I’m getting some very interesting ‘Customers also shopped for…‘ The same folks who like this book ALSO like Christmas shape-shifting dragon erotica. Hey why not?
- Jin Woo (Bunting) – Something about Asians just triggers Bunting’s worst biases. In this one, white parents treat their Asian kids like pokemon. Gotta catch ’em all! However in the Amazon reviews, the REAL Jin Woo chimes in to leave a good review, which I have to admit is utterly adorable. Too bad about his parents.
- Tell Me Again About The Night I was Born (Curtis) – I am at best, neutral about Curtis’s acting chops but I really, really, really hate her as an author. This is another garbage book from her, another story about how adoptive kids are an inferior door prizes to biological kids and erasing the systemic issues that force first parents to give up (or have taken away) their children.
- Sweet Moon Baby – Chinese parents are throwing babies in rivers because they would rather thier kids grow up with white folks. All the time. That’s how it happens. And they’re happy about it. And the Asian babies who grow up surrounded by whiteness aren’t traumatized by this and there’s not an undue burden on them to remember always to be grateful for saviors. Yep. (SARCASM.)
Baking Your Own Ally Cookies
- Intersectionallies – the portrayal of ‘allyship’ is a little bit too close to saviorism for my liking – many of the ‘actions’ are rescue-y in nature, rather than actively stepping back to give visibility and boost the voices of marginalized friends.
This is all closely related to #SlaverywithaSmile
- Sojourner Truth: Path to Glory (merchant) – Most books about Sojourner Truth really harp on the basic human decency of the Van Wagenens. This one goes above and beyond in focusing them and centering white perspectives and terminology. After reading this one, Q asked that we please stop reading books on slavery written by white men.
- Sweet Land of Liberty – Hopkinson – Read more.
- Phyllis’s Big Test – Read more
- My Two Blankets
- Secret Signs (Riggio) – Books about slavery and the underground railroad that center on white people make me uneasy. To the author’s credit, the protagonist is Deaf. But still.
- Bodhisattva & The Turtle – The turtle is code for an Asian Buddhist monk. After the turtle sames some dude bro, the bro is like “Imma learn all this buddhism shit and come back and school you in it. Yer welcome.” I’m paraphrasing. But seriously, this book is awe-inspiring levels of garbage.
- Kunkush (not to be confused with Lost & Found Cat, which is lovely). Read more here.
- Racism and Intolerance (Spilsbury) – This whole thing is garbage, but specifically we’ll focus on the page where some East Asian people are fighting with brown-skinned Muslims and a white lady shows up to calm them all down and save the day. WHAT NO. The author then goes on to propose that donating to charities (which are never unvetted, corrupt, or channels for wealthy trusts and the people behind them to profit off oppression, nope nope) is primary solution to combat racism (HINT: IT IS NOT.)
- Unspoken (Cole)- We don’t even see the people this white girl is ‘saving’ – just eyeballs peeking out of floorboards.
- Follow The Drinking Gourd (Winter) – On the plus side, it’s a disabled white man who rescues people. Which almost makes it okay that all these enslaved people need a white man to tell them basic stuff like ‘leave.’ (Except it is still not okay.) I’m being hard on this book – it has its merits, but I’d still love to see it centered on the actual people fleeing, rather than the white accomplice.
- John Brown: His Fight For Freedom – Hendrix – When a white militant anti-slavery radical gets violent and kills people to end slavery, he’s a complicated hero with good intentions. Somehow white violence always justifies itself. Sigh. Seriously though – click through and look at this cover.
- The Boy On The Page (Carnavas) he gives a homeless person a sandwich and then they are like, best buddies forever. Bless his heart.
- I See You – Acknowledging that a homeless person exists AND a blanket! WOW! Someone give this kid a trophy.
- Friends from the other side – Both the savior and victim are Latinx, but the story is narrated by a US citizen who takes pity on and rescues the pathetic undocumented citizen, who is also covered in sores because why not? Also the gratuitous use of ethnic slurs is…an odd choice.
Nondisabled folks rescuing incompetant disabled folks
Sometimes non-disabled saviors are celebrated not just for helping and including disabled siblings and peers, but just for being around them and not throwing a temper tantrum for no longer being the center of attention. The whole thing makes me rage. There are hundreds of these.
- The Snow Rabbit (Garoche)
- In My World (Ma)
- Ian’s Walk
- Becky the Brave (lears)
- The Blind Men And The Elephant
Dogs rescuing disabled people from a life of utter misery
Because if the popular narrative is to be believed, it’d be better to die of measles or whatever than live with a disability. Thank goodness pets distract us from and help us overcome our imperfections. There are SO MANY OF THESE. There’s also a weird gendered thing going on with disability – for some reason it’s safe to write about blind girls, but if a man or a boy needs a service dog, it has to be for a mobility disability or PTSD.
- Rescue And Jessica – this one is particularly gendered and gross. The lingering implication in this is that Jessica just could not even and would have done something dramatic if she didn’t have this dog. Her husband though – he could deal, even though he had been through the same violent/disabling experience. Because toughness.
- Looking out for Sarah
- Lola and I
Adults patting themselves on the back for seeing children as people
- Maybe Something Beautiful (Lopez) – It’s rare to find a dude so in love with himself that he’ll write an autobiographical children’s book about himself, but here it is. I thought this would be about the children’s contributions, but it really revolves around him. I’m embarrassed for him.
Children saving elderly folks from the misery of being old
Trope: useless old people just can’t be happy without young children to remind them that they aren’t dead yet. The bigger issue here is that elderly people are erased from stories unless they’re dying or senile. I’m working on a collection to combat ageism, which we will save for later.
- A Fire Engine for Ruthie (Newman) – This is nitpicky, but we forget that ‘traditional’ values are all relative. Grandparents are just as likely to be progressive and open-minded as parents. But this story plays into the trope that Grandma is just too conservative to do things like let Ruthie play with a firetruck – in fact, she’s actively oblivious and stubbornly ignorant in a way authors never depict parents. Sure, progress over generations is a thing. But we need to pay attention to the subtle messages stories like this continue to sell us. But whatever, Ruthie eventually opens grandma’s eyes and helps her be less sexist, because we’re supposed to assume that elderly people are unable to become open-minded as they age and keep learning.
- Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
Paternalistic saviors ‘rescuing’ women
Also see: Basically all princess/super hero stories written before the 90’s.
- Nothing but Trouble – We discuss this here.