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“Is the issue with me being white?”: white saviours and Britain’s colonial denial

Alexa Downie-Ngini

Editors: Molly Blackall and Ollie Creed

The Internet was recently divided as presenter and Strictly Come Dancing winner Stacey Dooley was called out by Labour MP David Lammy over a picture she posted on Instagram. The issue arose after Dooley posted a selfie holding a dark-skinned black Ugandan baby with the caption, ‘OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED.’ Lammy was quick to criticise Dooley’s post, saying that ‘the world does not need any more white saviours,’ referring also to other previous posts from her trip to Uganda with Comic Relief. Many assembled in defence of Dooley, arguing that in fact Lammy was the racist one for bringing skin colour into an entirely innocent picture. Dooley hit back at Lammy with the Twitter response: “David, is the issue with me being white? (genuine question)… because if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try and raise awareness?”

Dooley’s picture would have been no different to the pictures David Livingstone would have sent back to the ‘mother country’ following his explorations of the African interior, photos he would have used to justify ‘civilising’ the black heathens. Indeed, it follows the trend of many colonial depictions. The fact that Dooley could ask the question without the faintest hesitation: ‘is the issue with me being white?’ just reinforces how poorly the British education system has performed in teaching the population of its own imperial history.

Yes, Ms Dooley, if it’s not abundantly clear, the issue is 100% with you being white. Similarly, a hundred years ago when British explorers came to Uganda and forcibly subjugated the Ugandan people into slavery and exploited the territory for ensuing decades - the issue was with Africans being non-white. The controversy surrounding Dooley’s picture demonstrates what I assumed was a commonly known fact: that we cannot escape the history of the places we are in.

Lammy argued that his comments were not personal - and he is entirely correct. The issue is structural. In fact, Dooley is just collateral damage to a wider point about white pilgrims coming to Africa. Whilst many undoubtedly do positive things, they simultaneously succumb to the seemingly undying urge to pick up an African child and take a picture with them to post on Instagram. Gap year students are especially guilty of the same kind of self-promotion. I have lived in Africa my entire life, and yet have never surrendered to the apparent impulse of taking a picture with a poor African child. Why would I? What purpose would it serve? The thought has honestly never crossed my mind. Instead, the source of this behaviour comes from a position of white privilege, succinctly known as the ‘white saviour complex’. 

The white saviour complex refers to the West’s need to portray Africa as backwards and primitive, in need of the enlightening guidance of the white man. A Vice article regarding the Dooley-Lammy row encapsulates the problem succinctly: ‘It reinforces the view that Africans can never be the solution, that they are helpless without any agency of their own, and that sunshine and hope only comes when cradled in the warm, bright embrace of whiteness.’ The idea of ‘white saviours’ stretches back to the first Europeans who came to Africa in the name of ‘spreading Christianity,’ legitimising their mission by portraying Africans as in desperate need of salvation. Needless to say, this notion quickly turned to formal conquest and raiding for slaves and natural resources. Yet despite its history, this logic continues to perpetuate tired and outdated stereotypes about Africa. 

In 2018, residents of Kibera slum in Nairobi told Aljazeera news that they ‘are not wildlife’ in response to Western tourists visiting the slum as a means of ‘poverty porn’. In these settings, the poor black children are used as props for the benefit of the white visitor. This phenomenon is perhaps most popularly epitomised in the famous Band Aid Christmas song: ‘There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas, the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life. Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow, do they know it’s Christmas time at all?’ Do They Know It’s Christmas gained notoriety in support of Comic Relief, the same charity in which Dooley’s trip to Africa was in the name of.

The fact that this song is repeatedly played every Christmas, coupled with the sheer number of individuals who were quick to congregate to support Dooley’s ‘innocent’ photograph, reaffirms just how much Britain is in total denial of its colonial history. Indeed, the need for the West to portray Africa as a homogenous region stricken by poverty and disparate inequality reflects Britain’s inability to face up to the part it played in contributing to that poverty.

Reni Eddo-Lodge defines white privilege as ‘an absence of the negative consequences of racism’, exactly the issue exercised in Dooley’s photograph. In fact, it is the very societal structure that legitimated the domination of the little Ugandan boy’s ancestors over a hundred years ago. In light of this, the Band Aid lyrics are almost ironic to me, ‘do they know it’s Christmas time at all?’ Of course we do. We had to know it was Christmas time as missionaries forced Africans to abandon their indigenous religious beliefs in the name of Christianity centuries ago. Now new age ‘missionaries’ have come in the form of celebrities in the name of charity; and attempts to turn attention to Africa have often reinforced negative stereotypes of the Dark Continent and white guilt.

Dooley simply acted as another agent for the Eurocentric super-system when she took her Instagram picture. She displayed the systemic and institutionalised asymmetry of power which has come to plague Africa for most of its modern existence. Dooley suggesting to David Lammy that he go to Africa to raise awareness also fails to acknowledge the fact that Lammy’s picture would not have the same effect because the racialised power asymmetry would not be present.

Comic Relief’s formula is obviously successful; when it launched in 1985 it raised £15m and in 2017 it raised £82m. I am not saying that Comic Relief should necessarily stop what it’s doing - nor did Lammy. What does need to stop is the two-dimensional depiction of Africa as a pit of hopelessness and despair. If you are taking a trip to an African country, or any other country in the Global South, resist the urge to pick up a non-white child for a selfie for Instagram – because, let’s be honest, posting a picture of yourself with a child as a prop is not only bizarre but obviously isn’t for the child’s benefit.

Instead of perpetuating these colonial tropes, let’s promote the stories of Africans who are doing great things to help the continent and those who are flourishing in and of themselves. As the Skepta lyric goes “I had to tell my story because they’d rather show you black kids with flies on their faces on the television”.