Comic Relief: white saviours to the rescue


On 28th October, Comic Relief announced that they would not be sending celebrities to African countries to film for their show next March. This comes after the organisation faced backlash for showing the likes of Stacey Dooley and Ed Sheeran reacting to impoverished children. While this was common practice in the charity industry, producers of the show have questioned its wider implications.

We all know the routine – a tear is shed by a celebrity as their voiceover tells us a tale of a helpless African child who desperately needs our help. Then, as if by magic, we’re transported back into the flashy comic relief studios where Paddy McGuinness introduces the next act of entertainment for the evening. So the cycle repeats, and it is all broadcast for us to see from our comfy couches halfway across the world.

On the surface, this appears to be an engaging way to raise money, but deeper contradictions between the dirty, poverty-stricken images of Africa and the glossy television studios strengthen stereotypical racial binaries. In the long run, these representations of celebrity ‘white saviours’ contribute negatively to Western notions of race, reinforcing the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ binary that pervades charity advertising.

Celebrity ‘white saviours’ contribute negatively to Western notions of race

Comic Relief’s decision to eradicate this section of the well-loved show indicates a newfound change to industry standard, one which is conscious of representations of ethnicity and race in Western media. Media theorist Alvarado published an extensive study on racial stereotypes in Western mainstream media, identifying four key categories which BAME characters fall under. These were the exotic, the dangerous, the funny, and the pitied. The lack of BAME representation in TV, film and advertising speaks for itself. However, when it comes to charity advertising, the ‘pitied’ stereotype remains common.

Therefore, diverting the attention from ‘white saviour’ celebrities by using local African production companies and voices allows us to hear directly from the people who rely on Comic Relief. In essence, the people featured can be represented wholly, with their own voices – not just displayed as pitiable faces next to shiny celebrities. We can hope that their stories and talent will not be mediated by a British voiceover, and also that this will mark a shift in the way in which we think about voluntourism.

Sending celebrities to Africa for Comic Relief is a microcosm of the broader problem of voluntourism. Everyone at Durham will know at least one person who ‘found themselves’ doing charity work abroad on their gap year. While it’s certain that these people volunteered in part for the benefit of charity, volunteering is seen by many as an enriching task of generosity and self-development, as well as something to plug into a CV. Social media makes this act of selflessness incredibly easy to talk about, too – it’s hard to miss selfies with African children, often paired with somewhat condescending captions. When we look at the aforementioned racial stereotypes, it’s easy to see how this perpetuates the same narratives of BAME helplessness as charity adverts so often do.

We should think of the effects gap year schemes have on communities

Instead of using volunteering abroad as a rite of passage, we should be thinking of the broader effects these gap year schemes have on the communities they claim to help. Take volunteering as a teacher in orphanages for example; many gap year companies take payment to ship unqualified young people over to teach basic lessons in literacy and maths. Wouldn’t this money be better used to train a local teacher? One who could work at the organisation full time and provide not only a quality education for the children, but also stability.

Another large problem with voluntourism is its superficiality – many volunteers claim to connect with the people they’re helping, and are affected by their departure for many years. Gap year schemes give vulnerable young people abroad a support network of volunteers they can confide in and bond with. It’s no surprise that many of these orphans develop attachment issues – having bonded with people only for them to leave after a fortnight or two.

Therefore, it’s important to recognise that gap year schemes exploit both affluent Western teens, while damaging the lives they promise to help. Perhaps instead of going abroad to fulfil personal needs, donate the money you would have spent to a reputable charity. Or if you must, make sure you research the charity you’re volunteering for thoroughly, considering the wider implications of your work before you go. Otherwise, it’s best that, like the Comic Relief celebrities, you stay at home.

Image: Jackie via Flickr

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