Defeating the “White Savior” Narrative
by Robert Winter
It’s a truism that we don’t know what we don’t know. In my case, I didn’t know I was blind to my own privilege until the editing process for Asylum exposed it.
When I wrote September, I expected that Colin Felton would be the main character in its sequel. I also had a story I wanted to tell, of an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador dealing with the realities of life in the United States. I planted the seeds of their pairing in September by making Colin a lobbyist who works with a nonprofit organization focused on the issues facing immigrants.
I originally wrote Colin as a Prince Charming type, bestowing gifts and safety with no expectation—or need—for Hernán to do anything for him. It’s certainly a common trope in romance, as evidenced by all the books out there with “billionaire” in the title, or that are derived from fairy tales like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast.
My developmental editor, however, quickly pointed out that I was leaving myself open to a charge of the “white savior” narrative. I had to look that up, and what I read shook me badly. Simplistically, the term refers to a story where a white character rescues people of color from their plight. The common examples are movies like The Help, wherein the African-American maids “need” the activism of the wealthy white girl to find the strength to expose their employers’ racism, or The Blind Side, where the white woman “teaches” the young black man how to become a football star.
As soon as my editor pointed out what I’d done, I knew she was right. In the early drafts of Asylum, I focused much more on what the white Colin accomplishes for the Latino Hernán. I had produced a soft, feel-good story about a white man using his wealth to woo. For example, originally I wrote a scene where Colin takes Hernán to New York for a weekend, dazzling him with an expensive hotel and dinner. I liked the scene for its wish-fulfillment aspects, but I’d focused on the least interesting aspects of my own characters.
My first major rewrite, then, reconceived the book to focus on Hernán’s journey, experiences and growth. While Colin provides him with support and love (as do Rudy and eventually several other characters like Juan and Sofia who appear in later chapters), Hernán is the one who does the major work to repair his life. He makes all the leaps of faith, and ultimately deals with his troubled past.
The shift allowed me to see I had written about what Colin could do for Hernán, rather than what he might need from Hernán. I knew Colin was shy and regretted never having made a move on Brandon in September, but I began to wonder why. That gave me the opportunity to understand his weaknesses and the reason behind them, which in turn let me explore how Hernán could help. The book always began with Colin’s rescue after falling into a harbor. Now I could explore the other ways in which Hernán rescues him over and over.
The lesson I take away from this rewriting experience is that following old tropes like Cinderella without re-examination means that I have been lazy and have probably missed richer storytelling potential with my own characters. I hope you’ll give Asylum a try to see if I was successful in finding the deeper romance between Hernán and Colin.