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...because it's not always black & white
The white saviour complex is, well, complex.

Between plastic pollution, global pandemics and deadly wildfires, the narrative around lending a hand to those seemingly less fortunate has never been stronger. Who could *possibly* save us from this scorched planet? Perhaps it’s the 18-year-olds teaching English in Kenya, career folk taking ‘grown-up gap years’ or glossy mags promoting ‘voluntourism’ as the new safari. Ultimately, wanting to help is a good thing and volunteering and charity aren’t a sin. But centuries of subtle conditioning have created a ‘white saviour complex’ that’s ingrained, hard to spot, and, quite literally, complex. Why is it so dirty, though?

It’s when the narrative becomes skewed towards a privileged Westerner seeking recognition for ‘helping’ that we start to entwine white saviourism with white supremacy; the very essence of colonialism, slavery and Empire. Hollywood actor Gerard Butler recently found this out when he posted Instagram photos of his trip to Ethiopia, in which he appeared to be feeding local children from the goodness of his heart (curiously, from what looked like a dog bowl). In fact, he was promoting his latest film along the same lines. So, let’s unpack this.

It boils down to ignorance of the structures that created these situations. Teju Cole—who first theorised the ‘white saviour industrial complex’ in 2012—observed that white saviours place themselves at the centre and expect a ‘reward’ for their deeds, without acknowledging that they might have supported policies which caused the situation (poverty, dictatorships, oppression, famine etc.) And the cold, hard reality is that ‘rich’ countries still benefit financially from these structures; via raw materials, energy, human labour and so forth. So, we need to weigh the intention versus the impact. Sometimes, it smacks of religious colonialism. Missionaries used to—in some places, still do—take from historically poor and vulnerable communities in exchange for their conversion to Christianity and in recent years, we’ve noted the exposure of corrupt Western charities who just exacerbate these problems. It’s God, Queen and Cricket.

Media portrayal of these developing countries doesn’t help—because often, only half the story is told. The starving child from [insert African nation] is pictured, but there’s no mention of how that country got to where it is. For example, Haiti is still paying off a debt of independence to its former coloniser, France—which has almost entirely decimated their economy. If we want to highlight their plight, let’s focus on the people; don’t centre the white (wo)man who has gone to help. Highlight the policies that have led to this and continue to disadvantage them. Give readers the knowledge to fight against structures and challenge our politicians to rectify wrongs. This might bring lasting change—encouraging those who promote their short-lived good deeds won't.

Of course, when we take pictures of underprivileged people—as we would statues in a museum—we objectify them. We also perpetuate a dangerous web of ‘poverty porn’ which turns suffering—the pillaging of raw products, national debt, the price of emancipation etc. that’s still ongoing—into ‘likes’. The symbolism behind voyeuristic photos of brown and Black children in developing countries also speaks to a skewed balance of power. Would you visit your local primary school and post pictures of you feeding its students on social media? Probably not.

Firstly, taking photographs of minors without parents’ consent is illegal. Secondly, if you were visiting a school, you probably had good reason to; perhaps you were invited in a professional capacity or reporting on the work of their staff. So why does this logic go out the window when it comes to African, Asian or Central American countries? When did we start thinking it was helpful for a school-leaver to build homes in Botswana (often then rebuilt by actual builders) or a holidaymaker rocking up for a tour without considering what that enterprise really needs e.g. marketing skills or trained medical staff.

No White Saviors’—the Instagram account and social enterprise, led by women in Kampala, Uganda—recommends that people confront their unearned power and access when entering low-income communities and name who they meet. No more ‘a local woman’ in copy and captions. This helps amplify marginalised voices and success stories, whether teachers, non-profit workers, scientists or aspiring politicians—and it gives the power back.

While ethical storytelling is constantly evolving, perhaps we can permanently ditch the assumption that we’re ‘giving’ people a voice; they already have one and it’s more likely that we’ve not been listening. We’re in the business of putting others in the spotlight, so maybe it's time we examine who and what belongs there.

Shivani and Meera

P.S. If you missed the first two issues of our newsletter, you can read them here.

Writing Tip of the Day

If you or the picture desk have requested shots of vulnerable Black or brown communities to illustrate a feature, alarm bells should ring. Ask why that’s needed. Similarly if, in the copy, you’re inadvertently centring a privileged person who is there temporarily, rather than someone who works in the community for positive change day-in-day-out, ask yourself why.

If it all still seems legit, ask your subjects for permission. Communicate precisely why and what the images are being used for, and let them decide how and where the story is told. Or think about what you're communicating through the pictures and how you're framing the country or issue. If it's helpful, fine. If not, maybe start over...

The Sense Check

What's in a name?

'Excluding typos and spellcheck getting the better of us, why is it so annoying to have your name spelt incorrectly?’

Priyankaa Joshi

Priyankaa Joshi, journalist, content editor and creative 

“I’m someone who has always been told how ‘difficult’ and ‘different’ my name is. Common misspellings include Pryanka, Prinyakaa and Prianka. For those who can’t even be bothered to try, Priya, Pri or P seem to work best. It may seem trivial but it hurts when people can’t take the time to look at the correct spelling or copy-and-paste it from my email address.

It makes me feel like I don’t matter and reminds me that I don’t belong. Names are an integral part of our identity and it’s our job in the media to get these things right.”

Abolade Abiola

Abolade Abiola, lawyer in the City of London

“In all honesty, I don't really get annoyed when people spell my name wrong. It's something that I'm now so used to. It happened at school and it still happens. It would be exhausting to care about it in a meaningful way. I don't necessarily think there's anything in it other than general carelessness.

What I do find annoying, however, is when people assume that people don't call me by my full name. ‘No-one calls you that? How do your friends abbreviate that? What's your nickname?’ That is annoying. It demonstrates a dismissive approach to difference and suggests that it is my responsibility to make my name 'easier'.”

Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away! Please email us here and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. We also welcome any feedback or comments.

Did You Know?

There has not been a single successful prosecution for anyone who has died in British police custody, since 1969. That year, Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching in Leeds—responsible for the death of a British-Nigerian man, David Oluwale—faced charges of manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm that were later dropped to ‘assault’ during trial.

Oluwale (after taking a truncheon blow to the head during a fight with police) had been imprisoned and sectioned for ‘disorderly conduct’, later becoming homeless upon his release. The court was told that the two officers regularly sought him out, to force him from the city: notoriously writing “wog” for his nationality, on the arrest sheet. 

Oluwale’s body was found in the River Aire, two weeks after he was seen running from them. Both men were convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. There was no mention of racism throughout the trial.

Spotlight on...

Autograph is the UK’s first permanent public space focused on diversity in the visual arts, exhibiting photography that highlights issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice. The building in Shoreditch, designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but they continue to promote their work and events online. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram too.

If your industry or organisation is serious about tackling diversity and inclusion, The Other Box is an award-winning company educating businesses on bias through workshops and training. It was set up by Leyya and Roshni, two brown, female creatives, both state-school educated, second/third-generation immigrants from working-class backgrounds, as they felt the debate around diversity was too centred on gender with other marginalised groups left out.

Reading Room
BBC Four: Africa turns the page Naomi Osaka and Japan’s attitude towards racism

Tiger Hagino Reid on how the tennis star's BLM activism at the US Open helps Japan address its own racial identity.

The Guardian The importance of narrative

Afua Hirsch on why racist responses to Marcus Rashford's campaign for children come as no surprise.

The Independent Dan Hastings on British Vogue

It changed inside out and tackled politics while being true to the magazine’s essence. So why can’t others?

John Amaechi White privilege: Distilled

Psychologist, best-selling author and ex-NBA basketball player John Amaechi explains it in 2 minutes, 29 seconds.

History belongs in the past;
but understanding it is the duty of the present.”

Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India

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Unpacking Media Bias
United Kingdom

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