How to Avoid the ‘White Savior Industrial Complex’

A missionary in turn-of-the-century Persia gave up his privilege and became a force for good.

A photo of Howard Baskerville against a green and red background
Wikimedia; The Atlantic

Ten years ago, the writer Teju Cole coined the term White Savior Industrial Complex to describe what he viewed as the all-too-familiar pattern of white people of privilege seeking personal catharsis by attempting to liberate, rescue, or otherwise uplift underprivileged people of color. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole wrote in a viral Twitter thread, which he then expanded on in The Atlantic. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Cole’s critique lately. On the one hand, as a brown Muslim man from Iran, I’m deeply familiar with 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 Persia, happens to be a white evangelical man from Nebraska who went to Iran more than a century ago to convert my fellow countrypeople 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 northwestern city of Tabriz in the middle of 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 tide of social unrest that is currently washing over the country.)

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

Baskerville couldn’t stand on the sidelines while a civil war carried on around him. He abandoned his missionary and teaching duties, gave up his American passport, and took up arms. On April 20, 1909, he and his students attempted to make their way through the blockade to bring food to starving Tabrizis. Baskerville was shot in the heart and killed.

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

I’ve known the story of Howard Baskerville nearly all my life. In Tehran, where I grew up, streets, schools, and coffee shops were named after him. His willingness to sacrifice his life for freedom in a foreign country 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 Princeton-educated white Christian man of privilege who traveled thousands of miles from his home to save the souls of people he called “Mohammedans” appears to have all the hallmarks of the white-savior trope.

Yet the more I delved into Baskerville’s life, the more it appeared to me as a kind of antidote to the White Savior Industrial Complex. Of course, Cole was not 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 white people of privilege can intervene in the world—whether by 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.

Chief among Cole’s concerns with white saviorism is how often it strips people of color of their agency, making them passive recipients of white benevolence. “Those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them,” he writes.

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 instead focus entirely on saving souls. And that is, indeed, what he did for his first year or so in Tabriz.

But then he stopped talking at Tabrizis and began listening to them instead. He read about Persian history and spoke with important revolutionaries. In between classes, 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 is that the people had far more urgent and immediate needs than hearing the Gospel. They needed food, not faith; protection, not evangelization. “I am not able to go on teaching calmly and quietly while tragic events happen daily around me,” he told his superiors. He quit his post, picked up a rifle, and joined his students on the battlefield.

2.         Connect the dots.

The White Savior Industrial Complex allows white people of privilege to brush aside systemic racism, injustice, and corruption in favor of individual acts of charity. Yet, by refusing to recognize and understand the patterns of power that lurk behind many humanitarian disasters, the white savior may actually be helping perpetuate the problem—obscuring the disease by just putting Band-Aids over particular symptoms.

Howard Baskerville’s fellow missionaries weren’t immune to the suffering the Tabrizis experienced as a result of the dreadful famine that gripped the city during the shah’s siege. What set Baskerville apart, however, was his recognition that the problem in Iran wasn’t a single villainous monarch. It was the monarchy itself. A tyrant with the power to violently stamp out the popular will whenever it suits him can’t simply be counteracted with charity and good works; he 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 what food they had with the starving population, Baskerville set out to break the siege itself.

3.         Know where to assign blame.

To truly do good in the world without perpetuating the White Savior Industrial Complex requires turning a critical gaze inward and recognizing the part your own country might play in perpetuating the injustice you seek to correct. When Baskerville went to Iran, he viewed the United States as a beacon of liberty whose light would one day shine into every dark and shattered corner of the globe.

Yet it did not take long for him to understand the reality of America’s interests abroad. The State Department wrote in a memo that the U.S. could take “no cognizance of any subversive movement” in Persia. Sentiments like this incensed Baskerville. He believed that democracy should be universal—not just for Americans.

“I am an American citizen, and I’m proud of it,” Baskerville said, “but I’m also a human being and cannot help feeling deep sympathy with the people of the city.” Rather than heed the demands of the U.S. government and the mission board that he stop interfering, Baskerville simply handed over his passport.

4.         Sacrifice your privilege.

Perhaps Cole’s most astute observation about the White Savior Industrial Complex is that it enforces white privilege. No matter how much the security situation deteriorated in Tabriz, as an American, Baskerville knew he would always have a powerful force protecting him. Before he gave up his passport, he knew it would shield him from harm.

What his passport could not do, however, was protect him from witnessing the atrocities taking place 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 away that eventually compelled him to sacrifice his privilege by renouncing his American citizenship.

When the American consul general in Tabriz came to the parade grounds where the revolutionaries were training in order 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 is not a big difference.”

5.         Be willing to be saved yourself.

No matter the good that 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 Tabriz to preach was most concerned with individual salvation, requiring nothing more than accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. For the Tabrizis, however, salvation lay not in adhering to one set of beliefs or another, but rather in the willingness to act upon those beliefs, to sacrifice everything for them.

That truth came into stark relief for 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. Put another way, Baskerville may have come to Iran to teach Persians about what it means to be an American and a Christian. But in taking up their cause, he allowed the Persians to teach him what it means to be both.

Though public memory of Baskerville has been rapidly fading in Iran ever 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 martyr. His legacy shows that resisting the White Savior Industrial Complex is about the conscious choices one makes. It is about using one’s actions to challenge white dominance, rather than uphold it.

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