Mind Games of White Supremacy: Abrahamic Religions, Black Mental Slavery, and the Erasure of Cultural Identity.
Disclaimer: This article aims to create diversity, equality, inclusion, and mental freedom for Black and brown people and is not intended to offend or cause harm or distress.
While the representation of Jesus and other religious figures as white has been prevalent in Western Christianity, it is important to note that many churches and denominations have depictions of Jesus as Black, Asian, or Middle Eastern, among other races and ethnicities. In the same way, the Prophet Mohammed is not always shown as having light skin. This varies from culture to culture and region to region in Islam.
Also, people of colour are more likely to have poor mental health and feel like they aren’t good enough because of things like systemic racism, discrimination, and historical trauma. So, giving people of colour places to talk about their mental health and get help without being judged or stigmatised is important. It is also important to recognise and deal with the root causes of these differences in mental health outcomes, such as racism and discrimination, that affect everyone similarly. While the representation of religious figures as white may contribute to these issues, it is not the only primary cause.
Additionally, there are examples of Black depictions of Jesus in various parts of the world, including at the Vatican. In 2019, a painting titled “The Adoration of the Magi,” which depicts a Black Madonna and a Black baby Jesus, was unveiled at the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital. The hospital commissioned Kehinde Wiley, a Nigerian artist, to produce the painting. This is an example of how the Catholic Church is trying to make religious figures look more like the people they serve.
For moral and ethical instruction, Christians and Muslims have looked to Abrahamic faiths for ages. Yet, the mental health implications and the continuation of the idea that white people are superior have stirred criticism when religious leaders like Jesus and Muhammad are portrayed as white or fair-skinned. As a former devout Christian and culturally aware mental health worker who has dealt with the problems talked about in this article, and as a writer who advocates for cultural awareness, diversity, equality, and inclusion in mental health care, I think it's important to understand how racial superiority is a part of Abrahamic religions.
A study by the Pew Research Center says that Christianity is the most common religion in Africa, with about 541 million Christians in 2019. Also, with an estimated 514 million Muslims in 2019, Islam is the second most popular religion in Africa. Despite the prevalence of these religions in Africa, there has been a historical erasure of Black and Brown identities within these religions, particularly in the representation of religious figures as white.
Negative effects of white privilege on mental health: The white Jesus image is central to Western Religion, yet it has been used to uphold racism and keep Black people in a state of mental servitude. The Christian church is not alone in its use of the white Jesus image to subjugate believers’ minds. Although though he was born on the Arabian Peninsula, where most people have dark skin, the Prophet Mohammed is frequently represented in Islam with light skin. This portrayal adds to the mental enslavement of Muslims who are not white by reinforcing the belief of white superiority.
One manifestation of the white saviour complex in modern times is the widespread belief that foreign aid and charity organisations run by white people are necessary to help the world’s poor and oppressed people of colour, especially in Africa. This story has been used to support the racist notion that white people are superior and that people of colour require rescuing. In doing so, white people reinforce negative stereotypes that people of colour are inferior and in need of rescuing. This perpetuates a harmful cycle of white saviourism that undermines the agency and self-determination of communities of colour, and ultimately reinforces systems of oppression. It's crucial to challenge these narratives and elevate the voices and leadership of those who are most directly affected by these issues.
The nonprofit sector’s propagation of the white saviour narrative is insidious and sickeningly grotesque, with images of African children plagued with fly-infested faces being exploited for fundraising and marketing purposes. This kind of imagery keeps up the idea that white people are better than black people and reinforces the harmful idea that black people can't help themselves. It also strips black people of their freedom and dignity. This awful practice is condescending andvery bad for the mental health of Africans, who end up feeling helpless and dependent on the kindness of whites.
The nonprofit sector’s perpetuation of the white saviour myth is offensive and damaging to the communities they serve. It’s high time for nonprofits to recognise their privilege and power, acknowledge the harm they have caused, and take action to end systemic racism. Instead of promoting a degrading and insulting practice, nonprofits must collaborate with Black community leaders to support community-led projects. By partnering with locals and lending a hand to local initiatives, nonprofits can help Africans take charge of their future. It’s crucial for organisations dedicated to social good to abandon the white saviour complex and adopt a more respectful and egalitarian approach to providing aid. This is the only way to truly support the communities they aim to serve and create meaningful, long-lasting change.
Furthermore, the influx of refugees into Europe has also perpetuated the white saviour narrative. As more refugees come to Europe, white Europeans tend to make them out to be helpless people who need to be saved. This upholds the stereotype that white people are superior and that people of colour need white people to keep them.
The repugnant reality of the white savior complex on black people in Africa hit me like a ton of bricks on a family trip to the continent. It was impossible to ignore the emerging stark power dynamic as a family composed of a Black mother and brother, a white father, and mixed-race younger siblings. Everywhere we went, my father was hailed as a saviour, with locals looking up to him as their last hope for opportunities and resources. This perpetuated the insidious belief that white people were inherently superior and that people of colour were helpless and in need of saving. This narrative only serves to reinforce systemic racism and does irreparable damage. If we ever want true equality and justice for everyone, we need to get rid of this harmful and dangerous idea that white people are better than others.
As if the white saviour complex wasn’t enough, my experience travelling to Africa with my mixed-race younger siblings also opened my eyes to the insidious issue of colourism. It was shocking to see how my younger siblings were treated with privilege and favouritism because of their lighter skin tone, while my Black mother and I were treated differently. The blatant bias and preference for lighter skin tones highlight the deep-rooted colourism still prevalent in many societies, including those on the African continent. This further perpetuates the harmful narrative that whiteness and lighter skin tones are superior, while Blackness and darker skin tones are deemed inferior. Colourism is a form of systemic oppression that hurts people's dignity and worth just because of the colour of their skin. We must seeit for what it is and do something about it.
The white saviour narrative is not new; it has been present in movies and television shows for many years. Movies like "Tarzan" and "Sheena," in which white characters save African tribes and cultures, are good examples. These movies reinforce the idea that white people are superior to people of colour and can only save African people from themselves.
As I look back on my childhood, I am filled with a deep sense of sadness and regret when I think about how much I loved these movies. I had no idea that the white saviour narrative was affecting me on a psychological level. The character of Tarzan enthralled me, and I wanted to be just like him — brave, strong, and fearless. But I didn’t realise then that the movie’s underlying message was that white people were superior to Africans and that we needed to be saved by them.
The impact of this harmful narrative on me was immense. It created a power dynamic in which white people were seen as heroes, and people of colour were relegated to a subordinate and inferior position. I didn't realise how much damage this was doing to my mind until I got older and started to deal with the racism that is built into our society.
The character of Sheena only added to the damaging effects of the white saviour narrative. Once again, a white person was shown to save people of colour, reinforcing the idea that we are weak and need white people to save us.
When I think back on my childhood, my heart breaks for all the other kids who have to deal with these harmful stories. It is heartbreaking to think these images of white people as saviours in Africa are still being used. This creates a power structure in which white people are seen as better and people of colour are seen as weak and helpless. We need to work to eliminate these harmful stories and make a world where all cultures and people are respected and valued.
These stories can lead to feelings of self-doubt and inferiority, so it’s important to recognise and challenge them to create a society where everyone feels equal and welcome. As a therapist and specialist in cultural consciousness, I have seen firsthand the devastating and pervasive impact of the “white saviour narrative on mental health. It’s infuriating that these narratives persist and are even celebrated in popular media, perpetuating a power dynamic that reinforces white supremacy and systemic racism.
We need to not only question and dismantle these harmful stories but also actively look for and share different voices and points of view. We must demand media representation that accurately reflects the richness and diversity of our world, and we must hold those in power accountable for their hiring practices and decision-making processes. Only then can we hope to create a world that is truly equitable and just for all. Now is the time to take action, and we must be willing to put in the hard work of tearing down oppressive systems and amplifying the voices of those on the margins if we want to live in a more fair and just society.
The erasure of Black and Brown identities within Abrahamic religions is a prime example of how white superiority continues to harm people of colour. The continued worship of a white Jesus or a fair-skinned Mohammed reinforces the idea that whiteness is the norm and that Black and Brown people do not belong in these religions. This can make people feel alone and bad about themselves, hurting their mental health.
As a culturally aware therapist and public speaker, I work hard to promote diversity, equality, inclusion, and mental freedom for people of color. I think it’s important to talk about how white supremacy affects Abrahamic religions, the charity industry, and how the media portrays people of colour if we want to help their mental health and well-being. We must be willing to put in the hard work of tearing down oppressive systems and amplifying the voices of those on the margins if we want to live in a more fair and just society.
Let us work together to create a world that values and respects all cultures and people. Let us promote mental health and well-being for all and embrace the richness and diversity that make us human. Visit my website at www.bempongtalkingtherapy.com to learn more about how I can support you on your journey towards healing and empowerment.
- “The Vatican unveils a painting of a Black Madonna and Child by artist Kehinde Wiley.” CNN, 6 January 2019, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/kehinde-wiley-vatican-painting-intl/index.html. Accessed 7 March 2023.
- Pew Research Center. (2019). Religion in Africa. Retrieved from https://www.pewforum.org/2019/04/15/religion-in-africa/
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