This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I realize it's hard to see a black child smiling and resist the urge to pick them up and celebrate their joy, especially considering all the challenges that come with being young and dark in the wild. But: Do not pick up random black children. And: Do not force them into a picture with you.
It's a point that needs reinforcing because that's what British host and documentary filmmaker Stacey Dooley did for a recent post on Instagram, where she held up a black Ugandan boy with the caption: "OB.SESSSSSSSSSSSED *Heartbreak emoji*." Dooley discovered the boy while filming for Comic Relief—a segment you can easily visualize without needing to watch it.
Ext. African farm.
Camera sharp cuts to a closeup shot of a crying baby, flies orbiting his head.
Narrator: Matombi is eight years old, but he doesn't look it….
Dooley isn't the first pilgrim from the West to not promote their altruism by promoting their altruism, and certainly won't be the last. At this point, it's pretty much a rite of passage for every gap year voyager looking to justify their year off. In fact, so many people have done the same thing I almost felt sorry for her when Labour MP David Lammy called her out by name for it after pleading for an end to the white saviors complex.
The response to David Lammy stating what I thought was now accepted doctrine is a reminder that common sense is extremely uncommon. Angry white men across the country England have jumped to Dooley's defense, accusing the MP of being the racist one (!) by bringing race into it and not appreciating what a wonderful job Dooley is doing for even daring to go so far into the great jungle of Africa. Someone's uncle even tweeted: "This world needs more 'saviors', no matter their color."
And honestly, how can I argue with that? Being against superheroes is like being against sausage rolls. You'd have to be crazy! So let's be clear: Saviors are great. They save things that need saving.
But "white saviors" does not refer to that. It refers to a very specific need for the West to portray Africa as a crumbling place of red soil, flies, and kids who don't know it's Christmas time at all. It reinforces the view that Africans can never be the solution, that they are helpless without any agency of their own, and that sunshine and hope only comes when cradled in the warm, bright embrace of whiteness. It centers the celebrity over and above those whose lives they're supposedly trying to change. The young man in Dooley's post is not a prop and should not be treated as such.
Imagery is extremely important. It's something we all get wrong; VICE fucked up literally this morning. There are serious challenges facing Africa as a continent. Many of those challenges are universal because of the ramifications of colonialism and the way it divvied up the fruitful and fertile land, and forced grossly different cultures to form singular nations against their will. It's something that a majority of nations are still trying to come to terms with. In that is space for anyone of good mind and spirit to do their bit where needed, hopefully directed by people on the ground.
So if that's you, and you're wondering how to maneuver around this minefield without being called out for being racist, then go ahead, but paste this question on your bottle of Factor 50+: How would I act in a homeless shelter in London?
Would you ask everyone to stop what they were doing to pose for a photo with you as the centerpiece? Upon seeing a child going about their child-like business, would you hold them aloft like a trophy? I assume not. So resist the urge when walking around a village.
And if you do find yourself in an African country and feel the urge to post a photo of something, I highly recommend fruit. The fruit is amazing. Post photos of fruit.
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