According to many who speak for the left, movies like The Help, Green Book, and the newly released Captain Marvel have something in common that’s extremely problematic. Each of these movies perpetuates what some identify as the “white savior trope,” in which the noble white hero generously solves the problems of helpless minorities. But this theme also plays out in real life, and those on the left who complain about the perpetuation of this trope might want to look in the mirror.
Certainly there are troubling issues surrounding the white savior narrative, and it might be instructive for some progressives to follow their own admonition and check their privilege. An honest look at this topic might reveal that this particular theme might resonate in their own lives.
Recently, British journalist Stacey Dooley was criticized after she took a trip with Comic Relief to Uganda to participate in a campaign for a children’s charity. During the trip, Dooley committed a dire sin: She met residents and took a picture holding an African child, which she later posted on her social media. Anyone “woke” knows precisely why Dooley’s actions constitute a faux pas. If you do not understand why this is problematic, you are probably a virulent racist. A white person taking a picture with an African child in Africa is using brown people as props. Some on the left view this behavior as self-important virtue-signaling and are quick to call out those who dare to commit this transgression.
Incensed by Dooley’s picture, British Member of Parliament David Lammy took to Twitter to make sure we all knew about it. “The world does not need any more white saviours,” he wrote. “As I’ve said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate.” Dooley struck back with her own tweet: “David, is the issue with me being white? (Genuine question). Because if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try to raise awareness?” The journalist continued, stating that Comic Relief has “raised over one billion pounds since they started.”
So who is right in this exchange? The answer might surprise you.
Both Lammy and Dooley have valid points. On one level, often whites do use African children as a way to signal their virtue to friends and colleagues. But it is likely more whites travel to Africa with good intentions. Unfortunately, these individuals can sometimes do more harm than good.
For starters, they perpetuate the stereotype that the majority of African nations exist in squalor, when that just isn’t the case. Many countries on the African continent have strong economies, with thriving cities that resemble those you see in the West. The other problem is the nature of the impact some charities have on the people they wish to help. The issue is not the intentions behind the actions of Dooley and others who make these trips; the problem is whether or not their actions have a lasting positive impact on the people they purport to help. Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer to this question is “no.”
In her exchange with the MP, Dooley mentioned that she takes pictures of children of all races when she makes these trips, her evidence that she is not motivated by subconscious racism. Indeed, Comic Relief donates funds to NGOs that provide education, shelter, and resources designed to empower Africans to improve their communities. So far, there is no evidence that the organization’s operations are hurting the communities with which they interact.
Nevertheless, many of the ways in which whites work with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) might appear helpful in the short-term, but, over time, those same projects turn out to keep those they wish to help trapped in poverty. One prominent example is TOMS shoes. For every pair you buy, this shoe seller sends another pair overseas, including to various locations in Africa, for individuals who do not have access to footwear. TOMS generously has given millions of pairs of shoes to adults and children.
But viewed another way, this charitable practice stifles the growth of would-be African entrepreneurs who might want to start their own shoe-manufacturing enterprise, which would stimulate economic growth and employment in their communities. In reality, the charitable action, well-intentioned to be sure, essentially shuts down a potential free market. Individuals dependent on handouts often can be bridled in their ability to improve their own conditions.
The problem here isn’t that whites want to help; it’s how they are helping. It seems like there should be less virtue-signaling criticism of individuals like Dooley and more focus on donating time and efforts to long-term, empowering solutions for those in need.