Mar 3, 2019

The White Saviour: Imperialism's ‘Last Bitter Struggle for Life’

“I hate imperialism. I detest colonialism. And I fear the consequences of their last bitter struggle for life. We are determined, that our nation, and the world as a whole, shall not be the play thing of one small corner of the world” ― Sukarno, the first President of Indonesia
By Rowen Ball /
The White Saviour: Imperialism's ‘Last Bitter Struggle for Life’
Stacey Dooley smiles holding a Ugandan child during filming for Comic Relief

Last week I met Addi in a school in the Gambia, and her eyes shone as she told me about her work teaching underprivileged children and orphans. With over 15 years’ experience as a qualified teacher, Addi has a vision to raise up ‘the leaders of tomorrow’.

I work as a Copywriter for an international NGO, and last week I was fortunate enough to go and visit some of our projects in the Gambia. In my time there, I was struck time and time again by the strength, hard work and vision of my Gambian colleagues.

In addition to Addi, I met an incredibly loving foster mother, Mariama, who has been caring for orphaned children for 4 years, raising them as her own kids. I met an overworked nurse called Aja who told me that there’s such a lack of medicine in the hospital she works in, that sometimes the staff just pay for medicine out of their own pockets. I had an inspiring conversation with our Gambian CEO, Atabou, who spoke of his vision for the future of the organisation and the possibilities of expanding our work to neighbouring countries with the help of mobile health clinics, which could reach remote areas with vital healthcare.

The people who are changing the Gambia for the better… are Gambians. The same is true for Uganda. British people can – and should – help where we can, especially given the destructive effects of a colonialism we perpetuated. But as a white British woman, I am not the saviour in this story.

If you’ve been anywhere near Twitter in the last couple of days, you will have seen David Lammy’s tweets criticising Comic Relief’s approach to fundraising, and how photos like Stacey Dooley posted during filming with them, perpetuates harmful stereotypes and frames Stacey as a white saviour.

It’s not just about Stacey Dooley or even Comic Relief; we’ve all seen this image before. The smiley white saviour steps in to hug a vulnerable child, get upset about it and give them a can of pepsi, or something (I’m looking at you, Kendall Jenner).

When we make and share images like the ones Comic Relief often does, we are building upon the long and insidious legacy of colonialism. Colonisers used to defend imperialism under the pretence of spreading knowledge and bettering these so-called primitive people groups, all whilst violently stripping countries of natural resources, art and culture.

In 1899, British writer Richard Kipling wrote a poem entitled ‘The White Man’s Burden’, about how white Europeans had a moral responsibility to civilise and save “Your new-caught sullen people / Half devil and half child”.

When you look at images like the ones Stacey Dooley shared, you can clearly see that the legacy of the ‘white man’s burden’ attitude still lives on with their images and narratives of white saviours.

The main counter argument to Lammy’s points seems to be that Stacey Dooley is “just trying to help” and that it shouldn’t matter what colour she is, as long as she’s doing a good thing.

David Lammy is not trying to pick on Stacey Dooley or question her good intentions, nor is he trying to discredit the work of Comic Relief. He is simply trying to shift them away from centring Stacey (as a representative of white voluntourists and celebrities) as the main protagonists and saviours of the story, and instead focus on the amazing work Ugandans are doing in their own country.

Centring the white saviour is not the only issue with images like the one Stacey Dooley chose to post. If Stacey is filming with Comic Relief, that child might well be in a very vulnerable situation – since Comic Relief delivers aid and implements projects where there is need. So supposing this child is vulnerable in some way; should they really be picked up and carried around by a complete stranger?

All international NGOs should have safeguarding standards, which all employees and visitors should adhere to. Of course, if a child wants to show a visitor affection, you shouldn’t brush them aside. But part of teaching children – especially vulnerable children – about consent, should be making sure that kids feel in control of their own bodies.

At one point during my time in the Gambia, we visited a village which was very poor. All the younger kids rushed to meet us, hugging me or holding my hand. Of course, I didn’t push them away; I would just move their hand to be holding my wrist instead of my hand, or let them hug me and then gently move away. As a stranger, I needed to let the children take the lead in what they were comfortable with – rather than picking them up and potentially making them feel uncomfortable.

It goes beyond the children’s comfort in that moment, too. It’s also about teaching vulnerable children to have healthy boundaries, so that they all less likely to be taken advantage of, for example by falling victim of child trafficking – which is an issue which Ugandans are working to eliminate - or developing attachment disorders due to the influx of short-term visitors.

Asking for consent from a parent or guardian to take photos or interview children should be an essential step for anyone working or visiting another country as part of an NGO, like Stacey Dooley.

Even when consent is given by a guardian to take photos of a child or vulnerable person, it’s still our responsibility to think critically about that consent. Is the guardian just giving consent because they’re aware that you are part of the organisation that funds their project? Does the guardian feel pressurised to say yes? Does the guardian fully understand what this photo or interview will be used for?

If you’re reading this and thinking that this is political correctness gone too far… imagine how you would feel if you saw a stranger pick up your baby sister, son or granddaughter out of the blue, and just start snapping photos of them without even bothering to ask for your permission first.

I’m sure that Stacey Dooley is a lovely person with the best of intentions. But I am equally sure that there are people like Mariama, Atabou and Addi in Uganda, working hard to help make their country a better place for everyone.

Instead of a white saviour holding an anonymous African child, let’s show pictures of a dedicated, well trained teacher like Addi.

She's the real saviour in this story. 

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