Have you ever heard the term, White Saviour? It’s at times used to describe white people who set out to help non-white people in a manner that is seen as self-serving, superior and or demeaning of the people that they set out to help.
It came up in the media recently as a celebrity, Stacey Dooley went to do some work in Uganda and posted a photograph of herself with a child on Instagram. The image shows her carrying a little black boy with his finger in his mouth in an impoverished area of the country. There are no signs of his parents or adults responsible for him around and it raised a lot of questions about the appropriateness of the image and what it represents with people referring to Stacey as acting as a white saviour.
A number of people pushed back saying that Stacey, who was working with Comic Relief was trying to help. The people were in need and it didn’t matter who helped them – black or white. The most important thing is for them to get the help that they need.
On the other hand, David Lammy, who was one of the most outspoken critics explained his concerns from a historical context “A White Saviour is an old Victorian term that goes back to the days of colonialism when white man or women turned up in Africa, picked a young child from poverty and did very little about the surrounding issues.”
Afua Hirsch spoke of a history in which the British went to what they saw as the dark continent to rescue “the savages” by giving them charity while the British State looted pillaged African economies – simultaneously feeling good about helping the poor children. Damian Zane, speaks of how the past history of slavery and colonisation means that a number of Africans find the white saviour attitude “deeply patronising and offensive”
More specifically, people see a white saviour attitude as a white person trying to rescue a person/people of colour from their oppression with the white saviour feeling good if not superior. In so doing, it is at times seen as racialising morality. Its further frames people of colour as unable to solve their own problems – needing white people to solve them/save them from their problems as they are not competent to do so for themselves – ignoring the fact that within communities of colour, there are and always have been leaders working to resolve issues within communities. I’ll never forget going to Haiti a few months after the earthquake in 2010. I went to one of the tent cities where a lot of people were residing – either because their homes had been destroyed or because they were concerned about the possible impact of further aftershocks. I was introduced to one of the community leaders. He showed me around the city. He knew exactly how many men, women and children were living in the city. He showed me the gullies that they had dug to reduce the risks of flooding. I asked him what helped they needed. He said nothing as he thanked me, pointing out that the most important thing is that I had come, that the world had not forgotten about them and my visit showed that people cared.
That day I learnt as much if not more from him and his community than they would have received from me – even if I had gone with a truckload of supplies. It reminded me of when I was asked to judge for a competition of students working on projects with a social impact. One of the schools had worked on a building project in a remote part of Ghana. After they proudly spoke of what they had achieved, I asked them what they had learnt from the students in the Ghanaian school. I was left concerned when they said nothing.
It’s not that people in developing countries or deprived communities don’t need help, they most definitely do. However, there is a need to be sensitive in the approach taken and to have both a relational and collaborative approach, working on the basis that the local people best understand their problems and more often than not, the solutions to them – our role is to support them.
When I look at the images of Prince Harry during his trips to Africa, I get the impression that he understands this. I’ve never seen him in photographs with “half-naked children with flies on their faces”. He’s typically seen in photographs with well-dressed children; involved in an activity or game with them in a way that appears to be relational, suggesting a more equal partnership…. Even though he’s a prince.
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