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Don’t knock white saviours

Call the Midwife's Laura Main takes a selfie with hearing impaired children at Kananelo School during a Sentebale programme visit in Kananelo, Lesotho. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Call the Midwife's Laura Main takes a selfie with hearing impaired children at Kananelo School during a Sentebale programme visit in Kananelo, Lesotho. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

March 6, 2019   4 mins

In her 1999 book, No Logo, the Canadian writer Naomi Klein complained that her generation of Left-wingers missed a trick. She came of age during the first wave of what’s now known by its enemies as “political correctness”; and for Klein’s generation the big fights were about representation and language. Who got to use the n-word? How should people with disabilities be referred to? And so on. 

These fights over representation were important ones. But while they were being had, largely unnoticed and unopposed, the ground was shifting drastically in the material realm. Globalisation meant that during the same period, companies and brands had acquired market value – and unaccountable clout – greater than some nation-states.

While their marketing bumf pumped out messages of impeccable wokeness, their shoes and T-shirts were stitched by starvation-wage children in sweatshops in the third world. These companies were able to lobby against, or use global supply chains to sidestep, laws that protected labour rights, unionisation, safety regulations and the payment of corporation tax. While we were arguing over language, in other words, poor people all over the world were getting poorer.  

The story Klein tells is one that resonates with our times in general and with one moment in particular. You’ll by now be familiar with Dooleygate, right? Stacey Dooley, a well-respected investigative documentarian propelled to mainstream superstardom by winning last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, posted a selfie posing with a Ugandan child taken while she was making a film there for Comic Relief.  

David Lammy responded to Dooley thus: 

“The world does not need any more white saviours. As I’ve said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.”

He went on to denounce the “tired tropes” of Comic Relief’s campaign, and to declare his reluctance to be involved in a “PR exercise”. Here, it seems to me, is a perfect collision of the politics of interpretation and material politics.

For, yes. A PR exercise is what it is. And that’s no bad thing. The whole point of Comic Relief is to get as many Britons as possible to donate money to help those less fortunate than themselves. Many of the less fortunate are in African countries. The best way of achieving this aim is to get these unfortunates on the telly and get newspapers to write stories about them. And the best way of achieving that aim is to get the cameras on them. We know where newspaper and TV cameras go: they follow celebrities. The TV show Drop the Dead Donkey was so-called because of the old newsroom saw to the effect that – in terms of news value – a thousand dead Africans equals 100 dead Italians equals one dead donkey in a Home Counties village fete equals one minor injury to a daytime TV personality.

Comic Relief works with what it’s got. If it takes Stacey Dooley to get a disadvantaged Ugandan child on the front page of the Daily Mail, we may lament the situation, but rather than maintain our ideological purity by declining to participate in a rotten system, we may also say: so be it. As noted White Saviour Bob Geldof put it back when he was organising Live Aid: “Give us the money. There are people dying now. So give me the money.” Or, in the crisp words of Bertolt Brecht: “Grub first: then ethics.”

We can argue back and forth, though Mr Lammy does not, about the extent to which this is colour-coded. Would Sir Lenny Henry in place of Stacey Dooley have made things different? Is it Dooley’s skin colour or her killer cha-cha-cha that put her in the frame? Is it white privilege or first-world privilege that we’re deploring?

It’s true that all this shows how invincibly and tediously the media focuses on trivia. It’s probably true, worse, that many mainstream outlets still pay more attention to white celebrities than black ones, and that they like to slot overseas children of colour into picturesque suffering-victim roles. It would be great to – in Lammy’s tellingly abstract and underpowered words – “promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate”. But Comic Relief doesn’t, I think, pretend to speak for all of Africa, and it’s not a debating society: it tends to focus on “victims” because victims are the people it’s trying to help.

This is not to say that we should all be happy with the so-called white saviour stereotype; nor that it’s either true or helpful or remotely OK to portray the continent of Africa as a monolith of third-world despair populated entirely by FGM victims, teenage warlords with vintage AKs and Toyota Hiluxes, or potbellied tots with flies around their eyes for whom the only glimmer of hope can come in the form of cuddles from well-groomed regulars on the sofa of Good Morning Britain.

That stereotype ignores the ebullient economic growth to be found on the continent, sidelines the agency of Africans, perpetuates colonial-era paternalism and so on and so forth. Hollywood movies that reproduce these ideas for no reason other than Oscar nominations and box-office profit are a particularly worthy target of opprobrium. But all of this is upstream of the immediate case in point. A photograph of one celebrity with one child is being made to bear a crushing weight of metonymy.

There are good, and complicated, arguments underpinning this silly Twitter spat. You may argue, with justice, that many of the problems to be found on the African continent are the legacy of colonialism. That opens onto a wider conversation about institutional redress.

You could make a case that charities such as Comic Relief represent a piecemeal, voluntary and privatised substitute for formal statal responsibility and reform of trading arrangements. You can argue about the role of Western overseas aid and NGOs in African politics. You can make the case, too, that photographs-of-anonymous-tots fatigue can set in in the West – if we’re seeing the same images year after year we’ll assume that nothing is changing and there’s no point in making a donation. Though, by that token, if we don’t see any images at all, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be spurred to action.

But to insist that making instrumental use of a style of image should be verboten – that we should swim upstream by changing the entire weird set of prejudices that determine Western media news values before we feel comfortable offering help to actual children in need of food or clean water or basic education – is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Indeed, given that concern over “white saviour narratives” is primarily of interest to those who create and consume Western media, it starts to look like moral narcissism. That kid on Dooley’s hip isn’t – though I risk the charge of cultural appropriation by presuming to speak for him – likely to be much concerned with being slotted into the tired old tropes of a postcolonial master narrative.

He’d probably just like… well, we haven’t heard what he’d like yet because Dooley’s film hasn’t come out yet. And because nowhere in the barrage of hot takes over this has it been reported what Comic Relief is actually doing in that part of Uganda.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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