David Lammy is providing us with a lot of material recently. More accurately, the replies to his tweets (which I warned you to never read), are providing us with a lot of material.
This time, Lammy commented on presenter and documentary maker, Stacey Dooley’s trip to Uganda for Comic Relief. In response to an article on Dooleys’ travels, complete with pictures of said celebrity smiling and holding a somewhat subdued looking black child, Lammy tweeted: “The world does not need any more white saviours,” arguing that it’s important to promote marginalised African voices rather than perpetuate tired, old stereotypes.
But, as is usual when it comes to rational discussion about race, the conversation immediately turned into a perfectly choreographed display of not fucking listening and sashaying gracefully out of the way as the point moonwalked by.
If you’re unfamiliar with ‘white saviour complex’ or ‘white saviours’, these terms refer to white people helping people of colour, being lauded for their efforts in some way, and usually “learning something valuable about themselves” in the process.
It’s an unbelievably popular trope in film and TV. Think … well I was going to give some examples, but actually just think about virtually every film you’ve ever seen. Like that shit where Tom Cruise is a Samurai, or Keanu Reeves is a Samurai, or Matt Damon is another fucking Samurai*. Hollywood loves a white dude saving the day.
The typical white saviour usually gets something from their saviourism. Yes the village is saved from the Thuggees or whatever and the magic fucking pebbles are returned to the naive, backward, brown folk with their quaint little customs and funny food, but gosh darn it, our white saviour feels good about themselves for helping out (look, I love Indiana Jones, I’m not having a go, but like… seriously, come on).
In cinema, and indeed in those Comic Relief short films, we literally get to see the poor villagers literally worshipping their literal white saviour. Literally. Ed Sheeren won an goddamned award for doing that shit!
To give a more real-life example, countless universities and colleges send a groups of middle-class white kids off to deepest, darkest Africa every year to find themselves and save the Africans by putting out some fucking cones and showing them what a football is.
I don’t have the heart to tell them that Africa has produced some pretty good footballers without the help of 2nd year university students weilding neon bibs, but that’s by the by.
Now let me say this loud and clear, for you lot at the back… there is nothing specifically wrong with going out of your way to help people less fortunate than you. Keep on doing that shit.
BUT, the point is that when we’re removing agency from the groups we’re ‘saving’, when they become passive, background actors and literal props in the story of white people saving the day and learning valuable life lessons about their own perpetuated privilege… that’s a problem.
And I get it, you know. Someone goes to ‘Africa’ – not necessarily a white person, but that helps as they become a proxy for the largely white viewing public. They hug some black children and cry a bit because it’s all just so fucking sad. We all cry too – even me with my stone cold interior, because it is genuinely fucking sad. Then we donate some money and feel better about ourselves.
We’re saving Africa! HURRAH!
But Lammy is right. The stereotype of poor, downtrodden Africa is only perpetuated by these stories, and that is ultimately damaging. Africa, 54 countries, presented to us as one homgenous, poverty-stricken entity, in need of our rescue. Black voices are largely lost along the way – other than pieces to camera about how poor they are.
What do we viualise when we think about Africa? The images that spring most easily to mind are those of remote villages, barefoot kids playing football in the dirt, Timon and Pumba, giraffes, and women carrying water on their heads. And we visualise that because that’s all we ever fucking see. That’s the story we’re told, agian and again – presumably as a distraction from our own involvement in the systematic theft of Africa’s natural resources and people.
And it’s not that discussions about serious issues aren’t needed. It’s not that we shouldn’t be highlighing extreme poverty. It’s just that, as Gary fucking Barlow inevitably crescendos in the background, all we ever get to see, time and again, is white people (and Lenny Henry) talking about how white people’s money is helping to save they day. Hurrah and, indeed, huzzah!
No one here is saying that Comic Relief is intrinsically bad. No one is saying that white poeple are bad. No one is being racist. Everyone calm the fuck down.
Lammy wasn’t attacking Stacey Dooley personally for being in Africa while white, neither was he suggesting that she or anyone else goes on these sorts of trips for self-aggrandisement. He was highlighting a genuine and important issue – that the white saviour story is an old and unhelpful story, and that maybe it’s about time we started telling some new ones.