Lammy was right to call out our ‘white saviour’ narratives

There are many debates on Twitter. Most are stupid because, as soon as we cast a gaze on that infamous little blue bird, we revert to toddler-hood and began randomly smashing our keyboards. Yet every now and again, I find Twitter giving me a cause to do some serious reflecting and this happened recently. A Twitter storm broke out when Labour MP David Lammy criticized much loved documentarian Stacey Dooley for a series of Instagram posts shared after a Comic Relief trip to Uganda. Lammy says that the photos, of Dooley with a bewildered looking Ugandan child, were emblematic of a wider problem with comic relief’s media output. Lammy argues that this propagates a white savior narrative. He is correct to bring this to our attention. I also believe that this raises larger questions about how we conduct debate and discussion and the importance of nuance.

‘White savior’ narratives in a charity’s publicity, in this case Comic Relief, fuel a colonist attitude of the advanced European going to help the hopeless rest of the world who can’t help themselves. This is what the stalwart Comic Relief segment of sending celebrities out to countries in Africa, and all of the associated media output, plays on. It is a narrative where the celebrity has the voice and the people they have gone to help remain passive. After over 30 years of existence, Comic Relief needs to progress from this old trope. Comic Relief should give some of their very privileged access to the BBC to let people tell their own stories. The stories of how the charity helps areas of the continent could easily be told by, as Lammy notes, “the hundreds of African comedians, filmmakers, celebrities, and everyday people who live on the continent”. The solution is fairly simple, they need some new storytellers. David Lammy tweeted “I want African people to speak for themselves, not UK celebs acting as tour guides”.

These segments may be carried out with good intentions, but they are still harmful. It shows Britain’s ignorance of its history of imposing its narrative on other countries. Also, it is just lazy. It would not be difficult for Comic Relief to shake up this tired format, get people to tell their own stories, and inject some life into their media output. As a public service broad-caster the BBC should feel a moral duty to not allow for African voices to be ignored in this way. They should also feel a duty to educate the people it serves. I would feel more served by the information I would glean from stories by people telling their own stories, information they are well versed in, than I currently do from harrowing tales that pull on my heartstrings. These segments make me feel sad; of course they do, I’m not a monster. However, my ignorance and my misconceptions are not challenged. In many ways, these Comic Relief segments are safe because they do not make someone like me, a white British person, feel any discomfort at the role Britain has played or continues to play on the world stage. I am not made to learn anything about African countries that challenges stereotypes. I can just donate money, pat myself on the back, and bask in the glow of what an amazing person I am. The BBC and Comic Relief should and can easily do better than this. David Lammy has not merely criticized them but shown them, through his various tweets, the direction Comic Relief should go in.

Lammy as the MP for Tottenham is right to call out Comic Relief because his job title requires that he has a duty to represent his constituents. If he believes his constituents have grievances with Comic Relief’s media output, as he says they do, then he is only doing his job by addressing it. Given its place, on the BBC, Comic Relief shares this duty.

Many commentators found it objectionable that he targeted Stacey Dooley. Dooley has dedicated her work to bringing a voice to the unheard. She seems like a genuinely good person and there seems to be a pandemic of bad people on our screens big and small at the moment. I sympathise with the frustrated sighs of exasperated commentators thinking don’t start on one of the good ones, look at all these bad ones. However, Lammy did not level any personal attack at Dooley. She is clearly not a bad person. We are all caught up in this paradigm when it comes to charity and Lammy pointing this out is not egregious.

Lammy himself tweeted that on the ground Comic Relief do amazing work. He is merely encouraging that the face of the charity, what we see on TV and social media, to do better in doing away with these worn out harmful narratives. The claim that this could lead to fewer donations is a slippery slope.

There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case and David Lammy is not telling people what to do with their money. It is certainly not a reason to prevent a conversation from happening.

And this is what I come to finally, because despite all of Twitter’s flaws and reductive arguments, a tweet by a politician has sparked a conversation about race, agency and story-telling. After clearing away the irrelevant dust particles of some of the more ridiculous and defensive comments Lammy has received, I have found myself more informed.

From both sides of the debate I have learnt more about the economies and social issues of different countries in Africa and how they represented. The key here is something that is so often missing in public debate, and according to whoever marked it, my last philosophy essay, which is nuance and considered discussion.

I hope now the storm has died down that there will be space for the issues David Lammy has raised to remain in civilized public discourse. I hope Comic Relief does not forge blindly on when the capacity for positive change is in their fingertips.

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