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No more white saviours

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
31 October 2020   |   2:26 am
There is plenty of negativity in the world that it’s getting harder these days to find good news, but there is still some, as we discovered with Comic Relief’s announcement this week.

There is plenty of negativity in the world that it’s getting harder these days to find good news, but there is still some, as we discovered with Comic Relief’s announcement this week.

The UK charity announced it would stop sending celebrities to Africa after criticism that stars like Stacey Dooley were going to Africa as “white saviours”. The charity will also stop using images of starving people or critically ill children to portray the continent.

The move comes after a backlash against the charity’s tactic of sending British stars to far-flung African villages and filming their reactions.

As there are still those who do not quite grasp what is so offensive about a celebrity showcasing the reality of a deprived African village, perhaps the concept to tackle is that of the ‘white saviour.’

“A white saviour is a person of privilege and picks interest not knowing the cause and they want the solution,” explains Alaso Olivia Patience, the co-founder of the movement #nowhitesaviours

A quick Wikipedia search expands on the meaning thus: “The term white saviour, sometimes combined with saviour complex to write white saviour complex, refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner. The term has been associated with Africa, and certain characters in film and television have been critiqued as white saviour figures.”

You may recall the backlash actor and producer Louise Linton received with her memoir about her gap year in Zambia, In Congo’s Shadow, and her article for The Telegraph, “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare”, to promote the book. Many felt Linton’s memoir was a ‘white saviour’ fantasy.

Linton is of course not the first or the last of the ‘gap year white saviours’. The popular Instagram account “BarbieSavior” inspired by the backlash to Linton’s words parodied “a reckless trend” of voluntourism (volunteering and touring) in which “‘white saviours’ use the less fortunate like props in their social media profiles”.

Special Broadcasting Service’s Amal Awad said the interest in volunteering encouraged a business model that leverages a country’s existing social issues and charges tourists for volunteering to be a “saviour’.

One of the biggest issues around overseas aid is the ‘white saviour’ narrative that’s been served to Western audiences since the 1980s when it was still acceptable to see little black child with protruding bellies and stick-like limbs, posed in a stark backdrop “where nothing ever grows” with flies buzzing around his or her little face. The trouble is, this narrative and this type of imagery worked – in a far less nuanced world where discourse around the West’s colonial ills was still a marginal topic; the middle class, well-to-do, often white members of the Westerns world would shed a tear at the sight and open up their wallets.

Three years ago, I was at an event organised by an international aid charity for an audience who would have seen such images on their TVs 30-odd years ago and moved to support the work of the charity. Now in their 60s or 70s, white, middle-class, British, it would be hard to expect a more nuanced worldview from most of this audience. In their imagination, the Empire is still a benevolent patriarchal figure and the ‘natives’ in Africa still needed being ‘civilised’ and ‘saved’ by the colonial saviours.

Even so, the presentation given by an ambassador of the charity of a similar age and background to her audience was sickening for me. Speaking of her time in Ethiopia in the 80s, without a hint of irony, this lily-white British lady said, of the children making toys out of discarded drinks cans, “Our trash was literally their treasure.” This one-dimensional look at ‘Africa’ might have just about been acceptable in the 80s but in 2017, it felt archaic and so out of touch.

Then again, it was no different than British documentary maker Stacey Dooley’s ill advised
Instagram posts which attracted criticism. Dooley shared an Instagram post of herself holding a young Ugandan child on a Comic Relief trip, captioned “OBSESSSSSSSSSSED”. She faced a backlash from people who felt she was using the child as a prop. Labour MP David Lammy accused her of perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes” about Africa, adding: “The world does not need any more white saviours”.

Or in the words of Alaso Olivia Patience, “We don’t say, ‘We don’t want white people’ but we want to be the heroes of our stories in Africa.”

Comic Relief also added that its fundraising appeals would be made by local filmmakers with a “more authentic perspective.” Sir Lenny Henry, who co-founded Comic Relief, called it “a huge move” adding, “But it’s time for young black and brown film-makers to take charge and say, ‘I want to tell you my story’.

He added: “There are other ways to elicit sympathy – and maybe we’d been pushing on the same button for too long.” Maybe, finally, in the year 2020, we will finally retire archaic tropes that just didn’t age well and finally put the spotlight on African heroes, more than capable of telling their own diverse, nuanced, individual stories.