Learning to Save Ourselves

When a book characterizes problematic “white savior” tropes, how can it be used to effectively question those concepts with students?
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Scene from the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird"

When I first encountered To Kill a Mockingbird, I had the biggest crush on Atticus Finch.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only 14-year-old girl who felt this way—he embodied so many things little girls were raised to look for in their Prince Charming. He was caring and sensitive, but a bit of a badass who secretly knew how to shoot. He was a good father and a smart lawyer. It didn’t hurt that he was played in the film by Gregory Peck, whose tall frame and chiseled jaw were the stuff of movie magic for years.

When I had to return to the text a decade later as a teacher, there were two things I remembered: that the book was long, and that I’d had a deep affection for Atticus Finch as a girl. 

When I went to reread the novel, I was surprised by how much I had missed at 14. There was a nuance in Harper Lee’s world building, and a lovely, flowy sort of prose that, as an educator, I now adore. (“The starched cotton walls of the pink penitentiary” is still a line I love to teach.) 

Four years later, I’m still teaching the book, and I love doing so. When a district in Biloxi, Mississippi, recently tried to ban it, I wrote a defense of the novel. I stand behind that defense, but I had a few teachers bring up an aspect of the novel I had failed to address. This was something that I had faced while coming of age as a young woman of color, but not something I’d associated with the novel—or the character—I adored: The book’s loving, fatherly “hero,” my crush Atticus Finch, fit into a number of problematic “white male savior” tropes common in our media. 

Books, television and film have ingrained audiences with the belief that a white person, often a man, will swoop in and, being a man of “principle,” save the day. I had forgotten how much Atticus Finch fits into (and perhaps is one of the early examples of) this trope. He is a strong, idealistic figure and, because he values the black community of Maycomb, he somehow proves to the reader that the black community of Maycomb is worth valuing. His approval of the novel’s “clean-living” black people somehow makes their lives worthwhile, when they weren’t before.

As an adult reader, I retook the journey of coming to value a group of people only through a white gaze. As I did so, I couldn’t help but feel a little…icky. It was icky because it was problematic. It was icky because it was frustrating. Mostly, though, it was icky because it was familiar.

I was disheartened that, as I read the book, I was reminded of the many ways my experience had mirrored that aspect of the novel. I had at times centered my own life around the gaze of a white man. How many times had I presented and sold my culture to white men—a boyfriend or authority figure—in hopes of gaining their validation that my “crazy brown culture” and its customs and traditions was worthwhile? How often had I lain my own personal struggle at their feet—anxiety, assault, trauma, insecurity—in hopes that they would come in as my shining white knights and save the day? 

I considered myself a strong, independent woman. Yet I saw that, subconsciously perhaps, I had consistently asked white men to appreciate and “save” my culture and identity instead of learning how to save and love myself.

This realization hit me right in the gut. It forced me to come to terms with how white-centered tropes dominate our media and shaped my perception as a young woman of color. More importantly, it made me see that the stakes were even higher now.

Now, I had to ask myself: What would this book mean for the young people I taught each day?

When I returned to Mockingbird, I realized I had three options:

  1. I could teach the book but ignore the difficult conversation about white savior tropes (and hope my students didn’t notice).
  2. I could not teach the book and avoid the discussion.
  3. I could teach the book, face the problems within the novel and use it as a jumping-off point for my students.

Of course, there is something to be said for not teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and instead teaching a book written by a person of color. I think that is a perfectly valid argument for moving away from the text.

That said, as uncomfortable as my realizations about the white savior trope made me feel, I also know that vulnerability and honesty are the best policies with students. As much as a part of me didn’t want to deal with the intricacies of the novel’s flaws, I also knew I’d be missing a huge opportunity to teach my students a valuable lesson about history, power, who gets to tell stories and how they get to do so. I needed them to understand that society has been feeding communities of color a lie about their self-worth.

Now, there are some important questions my students and I explore as we read the text and watch the film:

  • What does it mean that Atticus fights for Tom because he is a “clean-living” black person? What does “clean-living” mean?
  • What don’t we hear from Lula and Calpurnia? (This assignment from Teaching Tolerance helps, along with this one I created.)
  • In the novel, Tom is killed by guards and they find seventeen bullets in his body (Atticus notes, “They didn’t have to shoot him so many times”). However, in the film, Tom is killed accidentally by a police officer who was trying to “shoot to wound” and missed. Why did they make that change?

Asking these questions is hard, but they do more than assuage my own personal guilt when teaching the novel. In asking these questions, I am teaching my students to stop seeing texts—and authors—as infallible pieces of art to be placed on pedestals without question. 

By teaching my students to question texts and their authors and to place both in historical context, I am also giving them the skills to question the media they consume today. I don’t want my students to feel like anyone has to come and save them. I need them to realize that while we, historically, have been given that perception, it is up to us to break the cycle. I need them to see that, ultimately, we must learn to save ourselves.

Torres is an eighth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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