Stacey Dooley, an award-winning journalist, whose documentaries explore some of the most sinister and damnable occurrences on the fringes of what we deem to be ‘normal’ society, has recently come under fire for her instagram post, holding a young Ugandan child in her arms, captioned “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED 💔”. Dooley had travelled to Uganda for a documentary for BBC’s Comic Relief.
Outraged, David Lammy – MP for Tottenham and Labour backbencher ‘telling it as it is’ – suggested that the world doesn’t need any more ‘white saviours’ who are responsible for perpetuating ‘tired and unhelpful stereotypes’.
“David, is the issue with me being white? (Genuine question) …because if that’s the case, you could always go over there and try raise awareness? Comic relief have raised over 1 billion pounds since they started. I saw projects that were saving lives with the money. Kids lives.”
On the face of it, she’s posted photos of herself with a cute kid. The caption seems to be intended to be read as the idiosyncrasy of a teenage girl ‘obsessed’ with the new Dior lipgloss that makes your mouth look like tuna-coloured glass. We also don’t know what she’s OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED with. The child, or herself?
Is the issue with with Dooley being white? Well, yes. However, this does not mean that there is a problem with ‘whiteness’, that white people aren’t allowed to be charitable or that ‘African issues’ can only be handled by black people (even if their heritage is actually rooted in the Caribbean or South America, as David Lammy’s is). The issue is with the pacification of African voices, and the failures to direct efforts of ‘awareness’ towards far more deep-rooted and impacting factors, such as the colonial debt that is still being paid to France, who hold 85% of foreign reserves from fourteen African countries in their central bank, under the control of the French finance minister, as well as the control of trade pricing being wrought from the hands of African farmers, business owners and entire governments. In a speech that went viral, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, stood beside the French president Emmanuel Macron and passionately articulated the problems around aid, stating, “We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves, in our country, in our region, in our continent on the basis of whatever support that the western world or France, or the European Union can give us. It will not work. It has not worked and it will not work.” Ghana won its independence from Britain in 1957, as a new state that was formed of both the Ashanti and Fante protectorates – then known as the Gold Coast (one can only imagine why). On the other side of Africa, Uganda, the setting for Dooley’s documentary film, has a bitter history of the regulation of trade and price setting by Britain, the EU and the US, that continues to impact their economy today.
Let me put the defence of 1 billion pounds being raised in context. 1 billion pounds is how much it costs the NHS to treat diabetes alone, is how much profit Britain makes from exporting Scotch whisky to the US alone and is the funding gap in Adult social care in Manchester city. According to a BBC article, ‘It’s a lot of cash. But today politicians regard anything less as loose change.’ Stacey Dooley’s defence starts to pale when you consider the fact that 1 billion pounds, spread across an enormous continent since Comic Relief started, is not even a drop in the ocean. And, as Afua Hirsch said on an episode of The Pledge, £1 billion is dwarfed by the amount of money extracted from the continent and its economy by western companies, to which Carole Malone shut down, saying “This is like a history lesson” – except, its ongoing today. At one point Malone, flustered at her inability to force graciousness in Hirsch, states, “If Lammy keeps talking like this, he will actually stop white people giving. Would that make you happy?” This venomous response actually insults the motives behind why a lot of white people give to charity. Unlike Carole Malone, there are white people who do understand the issue of infantilising a race of people in the media, and would not recede charity as a spiteful response to David Lammy calling out images of ‘white saviours’ as a contributor to the sickly narrative that has been used against Africans for centuries, a narrative that ‘justified’ colonialism and slavery as a mission to civilise and educate by taking on the burden of darker skinned human beings. Malone’s response also comes from a belief that without the lifeline extended to Africa from white people, Africans will suffer and starve by default.
Stacey Dooley is not responsible for the colonisation of Africa by white Europeans, nor the numerous British-owned businesses that are still exploiting the natural wealth of the continent with profits often being repatriated. It would also be unfair to brand Dooley a racist or to suggest that she holds any prejudiced views based on race. However, she is responsible for her own ignorance of experiences outside of her own existence and perceptions, despite the diverse territories she has the opportunity to explore through her work. To clarify why there is this disparity in understanding, I will use an example from one my trips to India, not as a way of lumping an entire subcontinent in with an issue concerning Africa, but as my only means of anecdotal explanation as to why it was important for Dooley to have thought of African audiences when posting her photos on social media.
In 2010, I went to the famous site of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, Rajasthan – one of five Jantar Mantars in India constructed in the 18th century which are comprised of large-scale instruments designed for astronomical measurements. Jaipur is home to the largest Jantar Mantar and also features the Vrihat Samrat yantra, a sundial that can give the local time to an accuracy of 2 seconds. This is a tourist spot for foreigners and Indians alike. I remember seeing three school-girls in their brown checked dresses, white lace-stockings and plaited hair looped to form two silky, black rings on either side of their heads. They approached a white couple with coy hesitance. Then, one of them very sweetly asked,”M’am, can we take a photo with you?” At the time I rolled my eyes in irritation at these girls who obviously couldn’t believe their good fortune to have crossed paths with fair-skinned Europeans. The couple infuriated me for obliging them. The lady kindly stooped to accommodate the girls, their heads rested on both of her shoulders. The school-girls thanked her and her partner several times, before running off giggling. The couple looked bemused and not in the slightly bit offended at essentially being walking tourist attractions of greater curiosity than the UNESCO world heritage site that they were stood on; perhaps, they were even flattered. Why? Because deep down they knew that whilst their images circulated amongst school children and their parents, they would be looked upon with fascination and awe, not of pity or heartbreak 💔.
Of course, not all Indians are interested in massaging the western ego or particularly fascinated by white skin, and the example I give is of immature school children, who also probably belong to a class of people unlikely to ever leave India to travel. Nonetheless, the power dynamics between the coloniser and colonised still linger in India, even if we believe we have done away with them here (we haven’t by the way). In Britain, the legacy of the British empire has accounted for the industrial revolution that gave us Oxford Street, tributes to the arts and culture such as the Royal Albert Hall or the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is therefore hardly surprising that 59% of the British public said that the British empire is “something to be proud of”. Meanwhile, in Commonwealth countries such as India, monuments like India Gate – based on the Arc De Triomphe – stand out like alien misfits, reminders that they were once children to a country that they were to consider their motherland, whose hardened hand of discipline has caused immeasurable suffering that is their legacy of the empire. Of the 59% that believe that the British empire was a good thing, how many have sincerely considered the reverse of the coin from the perspective of the formerly colonised?
Photo on visitlondon.com
This is why the issue of giving aid to Africa isn’t about sticking a black face on the issue, as Dooley suggests by asking Lammy if he’d rather ‘go over there and try raise awareness’. Stacey Dooley posting a photo of a young child, without a parent or guardian in sight, understandably made the Ugandan High Commissioner ‘uncomfortable’. Images such as this have often been designed and fed to the British public to manipulate the way in which we think about poverty, and the undeniable relationship it has with race, outside of any historical or academic context.We still consider the continent to be one vast, homogeneous area sharing similar tropes of starving children, arid conditions, corruption and war. Of course, these do form a part of the reality for some African nations, as they do in other parts of the world, such as Yemen, Kashmir, Myanmar or Columbia. It is no different to using images of Glasgow, where in the most deprived areas 60% of children live in poverty, to represent all of Britain, never mind Scotland. This is not to normalise violence or serious socio-economic issues, it is to demonstrate the fact that Africa has been, and still is, used to serve a purpose that does not serve its people.