“WE ARE THE SAVIOURS”: WHITE SAVIOURS AND THE MEDIA
Nikola Wrzołek gives an overview of white saviour symbolism in the modern media
"I am the saviour!" scream people in the song called “God’s Whisper”, featured on the soundtrack to the Netflix series “Dark”. The series concentrates on the story of town dwellers; a group of them believe that they can save their world and its people from future misfortunes. They are self-assured about the rightness of their deeds, even though such interference in the world order may have detrimental effects. The themes of this series combined with the powerful song is another voice in the media exposing a particular human inclination – saviourism. Saviourism is defined in sociology as a belief that some people are saviours and they are obliged to help others that, in their opinion, need to be saved. One of saviorism's variations, often discussed in the media, is the notion of white saviours.
Generally, the white saviour notion means that a white person helps a non-white person, but in a manner that can be thought of as self-serving. Such motifs appear in pop culture, particularly novels, films, or TV shows. The reasons for that are complex. From a psychological perspective, in general, people are drawn to positive things. They wish that everything would be fine. The audience or readers seek a happy ending, and particularly Hollywood films are expected to offer consolation and present upbeat stories. The white saviour theme seems to match this scheme. There is a less privileged character (e.g. a black man or woman) and a white character in a better position (e.g. a white neighbour, teacher or acquaintance). It is expected that soon the life of the non-white person will improve when the white person meets him and decides to help him. Then, viewers see achievements and failures as the less privileged character is led to a better life. If we look at some recent films, white characters are motivated by various factors. It could be recognition (in a French comedy called “With Open Arms” a politician allows a Gypsy family to stay in his house to maintain a good reputation); feeling good about yourself (In “Gran Torino”, a white man does a good deed, and helps an Asian boy); or sharing similar problems and gaining more strength as a supporter of a group (A white woman cannot pursue a career, because she is expected to be a housewife, and black women are expected to be maids in “The Help”). As the story progresses, white characters learn more about non-white people’s lives, and start to see their own lives from a new perspective. The non-white and less privileged people can gain new friends and lead better lives. That mutual benefit satisfies the audience. They may think: "Oh poor man, he has finally found happiness after what he went through" or "fortunately, we live in a great country and do not have to experience that".
That can be one of the reasons for popularity of certain reality programmes like the show “Peking Express” the format of which has been sold to many countries including France, Germany, Denmark, and Poland (“Azja Express”, “Ameryka Express”). Celebrities have to face up the sometimes grim reality of the average citizen of Asia or South America. Again, the viewers observe celebrities’ struggles, and how they help the local communities. But it is just a game show, and, in fact, the life of these communities will not improve. It sparks controversy as contestants take advantage of locals’ kindness, and go hitchhiking, eat meals, or sleep in their houses without the act of reciprocation. The main aim is to entertain the viewers, and show cultural diversity. Judging by statistics, the viewers are willing to watch it. What is the motivation of celebrities? In most cases celebrities look for an adventure as living off the beaten track appears to be more and more trendy these days.
Nevertheless, the celebrity may be also an asset in a campaign to support non-white communities. As the media follows every step, the celebrity can draw public attention to problems; famously, Live Aid. Musicians like Bob Geldof and Midge Ure were deeply moved by the reports about famine in Ethiopia; as a result, they organised the Live Aid charity concert in 1985 which now has a legendary status with its memorable performances by A list musicians including Queen, U2, or Bob Dylan. Millions of pounds were raised. It is said that this concert has put humanitarian concern at the centre of foreign policy. Moreover, it was an inspiration for future projects including Comic Relief's Red Nose Day and big budget fundraiser shows.
Nonetheless, there are masses of bad examples of celebrities’ involvement in attempting to aid non-white communities. Christina Aguilera’s stay in war-torn Rwanda and her astonishment at one child knowing the lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” sparked outrage, given how painfully unconscious she was of her own biases. The celebrity tries in vain to help with problems no one person can resolve. Another infamous example: Madonna funded the ‘Raising Malawi’ foundation, intending to build schools for local children. In fact, she changed her plans and built a few classrooms in existing buildings only, rather than the new schools promised. Journalists report that much of raised funds have been spent on architects’ salaries, and other costs of the foundation activity. Celebrities may have good intentions, but when it comes to reality they may not have the right kind knowledge about circumstances and conditions of the specific environment. People cannot rely only on their intentions and enthusiasm. Without the knowledge about the environment they work in, they cannot proceed with efficient humanitarian actions. Olivia Alaso, a founder of the ‘No White Saviours’ organisation in Uganda said that just because people cannot act in support of a cause from home, they should not come to Africa. Africa is not a playground, and acting like a saviour paints the continent and its people in a bad light as inept, primitive nations, despite this historical stereotype being disproved a countless number of times.
There is too the infamous case of British journalist Stacey Dooley, who shared her photographs with children while filming for Comic Relief in Uganda. She was accused of presenting the tired stereotype of the white saviour. According to Olivia Alaso, it does not mean that Dooley is a bad person. The notion of white saviourism is a symptom of white supremacy, so both non-white and white communities should cooperate to deconstruct it. Comic Relief has decided to move from celebrity-fronted activities to investments in local talents across the African continent to help communities. Such a change can be more authentic and inspirational as these talents grew up in the given communities. Another trend is a parody action on Instagram called ‘Savior Barbie’. Barbie dolls are photographed in various circumstances that reflect the white people’s voluntary actions in third-world countries. There are photos of neatly-dressed dolls in slums, or in dilapidated school buildings. Photos have sarcastic captions stating that, for example, ‘volunteers’ do not need education, but just a chalk and optimism to teach poor children. It is acceptable, because they are white. The action is against naïve volunteerism that may be more harmful than beneficial for developing countries. Local organisations inform that this kind of voluntary services is only short-term and ineffectual. They need competent people who can show how to create a better future, not those who just satisfy the current needs.
The white saviour notion is an incredibly popular narrative in the media. We often see campaigns when celebrities spend their time among minority communities, stressing how they are bringing exposure to issues of poverty. They are petrified by the realities of these communities, and encourage us to donate. Seeing a favourite celebrity can draw our attention to problems, but we should be convinced to help others in different ways.