Three cheers for “white saviours”

'You have to prove you have the knowledge/expertise/ experience to be allowed to step outside your own culture. To whom, I wonder, do you have to prove this?'

Samir Shah

‘This is called cultural appropriation and is the latest battleground for those bashing up white people for being white’

A colleague’s daughter is planning to spend her gap year teaching English to deprived children in India. She needs to raise over £6,000. I donate a small sum. She writes a delightful thank-you note. A well-mannered girl brought up properly. There is a problem. She’s white. If, during her time in India, she picks up one of the children and posts on Instagram, she may be denounced as a “white saviour”.

A similar thing happened to Stacey Dooley (pictured above), a BBC reporter. Articulate, empathetic and with an unaffected and warm screen presence, she has made many documentaries on topics from child soldiers to sex trafficking, won awards and gained an MBE.

But then, earlier this year, she made a film for Comic Relief in Uganda. Dooley posted a picture on Instagram of herself holding a child. All hell broke loose. David Lammy, a north London MP who never knowingly passes up a chance to proclaim his politically correct credentials, fumed: “The world does not need any more white saviours.” He added that her behaviour “perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes”. A Ugandan campaign group called No White Saviours commented on Dooley’s Instagram: “White saviourism is a symptom of white supremacy and something we all have to work together to deconstruct.” A Twitter lynch mob went into overdrive.

Comic Relief’s founder, Richard Curtis, then told a Select Committee that the charity would stop sending celebrities abroad. The Times reported that Lammy’s intervention led to an £8m drop in Comic Relief income. Based on figures from its website, that’s the equivalent of training 80,000 nurses in Uganda. Doubtless mothers and babies who will now miss out on life-saving primary health-care are duly grateful for Lammy’s laser-like focus on their needs.

This idea that, if you are white, you have no right to deal with issues affecting people from a different (non-white) culture is part of a current obsession that privileges the lived experience above all else. You have to prove you have the knowledge/expertise/experience to be allowed to step outside your own culture. To whom, I wonder, do you have to prove this?

The modish phrase in these discussions is “people of colour”. I hate this phrase. Describing people who are not white as “people of colour” is deeply negative. It implies that being “white” is the default setting and every other skin colour is a deviation.

For the moment, though, people of a colour-that-is-not-a colour-skin risk incurring the opprobrium of people of (other) colour if they dare to step outside their skin and engage with anything not to do with their own culture and ancestry. This transgression is called cultural appropriation and is the latest battleground for those wishing to beat up white people for being white.

Celebrities are a favourite target: Ariana Grande got it in the neck for a Japanese tattoo and Miley Cyrus for a rainbow-colored bindi at a gay pride rally. The targets are not just the rich and famous. Last year, Kent’s student union issued guidelines warning students not to dress up as Native Americans, and banned Mexican costumes because they could “embarrass or offend” students. All is not lost, of course. You can wear costumes that depict cave people, aliens, doctors and nurses, ancient Greeks and Romans.

White novelists are another target. They are enjoined to refrain from creating characters with attributes that they do not themselves possess (e.g. gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation). The writer Aminatta Forna challenges the idea with a reductio ad absurdum argument. In her case, fully avoiding charges of cultural appropriation would mean that her characters “would all be Scottish/Sierra Leonian women, who would be required to travel to each other’s countries (presumably Scotland and Sierra Leone), fall in love with each other, betray each other, befriend each other and occasionally shoot each other”. Hari Kunzru accepts that this doctrine could, if fully implemented, lead to stories peopled only by clones of the author; he also decries “the panicked tone of the accusations of censorship”. What is being asserted “has little to do with artistic freedom per se, and everything to do with a bitter fight to retain normative status, and the privileges that flow from it. The solution is simple, my fearful friends. Give up”.

That is exactly what many writers are doing, friends in publishing say. Fearful of a backlash, they dare not step outside their own experience. Lived experience trumps everything, even imagination.

Forna’s entertaining argument can be applied equally to white saviourism. In an attempt to recover from the debacle, Comic Relief said it had invited Lammy to make a film. Lammy said that missed the point. “Flying me, a British politician, out to speak for citizens of a continent I have never lived on is more of the same patronising fluff. Please invite an African filmmaker, celebrity [or] farmer . . . to make a film in my place”.

Surely not any African filmmaker? A Ghanaian hardly has the sensibilities of a Ugandan filmmaker—different countries, different cultures. So, a Ugandan filmmaker. But Uganda is a big place with many cultures. Any old Ugandan filmmaker won’t do. Maybe Comic Relief can find one who comes from the village of that child? And so we go down the identity politics rabbit hole .

The tragedy is that worries about white saviourism and cultural appropriation can be persuasive and compelling. The sight of first-world celebrities (black and brown as well as white) journeying to distant destinations to emote incontinently about the poverty they witness can be annoying. It is reasonable to resist marginalised peoples and cultures being seen only through the dominant lens. But after being amplified and distorted, these concerns are now a warped and racialised version of the original arguments.

As a result, people like Stacey Dooley—who genuinely care—get flak, while the far greater number who don’t give a damn escape the wrath of the righteous. Any firepower directed at these uncaring hordes is extinguished by a tsunami of indifference. Instead, putting those who care to the sword is quick, easy and signals virtue. This constant reference to colour of skin is deeply regressive. 

My colleague’s daughter’s intentions are unimpeachable. But for the proponents of white saviourism, her pigmentation trumps her virtue. We are creating a world where skin colour matters more, just when it should be mattering less.

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