The White Savior Complex: Is White Volunteer Work in Africa
Note from BW of Brazil: I’ve been covering Brazil from the perspective of race for about 20 years, nearly nine on this blog and one problem that I have is simply not having enough time to cover everything. Incidents that have some sort of racial slant are always popping off in Brazil, and there have been plenty of times when something goes down and I simply have to put it in the vault for a later time or just archive it and bring it out when another event happens that I think would make a good tie in article. Today’s story is a good example.
Back in February, yet another story caught the attention of social media world and was a hot topic for about a week. I didn’t get a chance to cover it then so let me explain what happened. On a live broadcast on the Globo TV morning news program Bom Dia São Paulo, well-known anchor Rodrigo Bocardi started conversing with a reporter on the video monitor. The reporter, Thiago Scheuer, was interviewing a young black man on the subway platform Bocardi asked if the young black man, Leonel Diaz, if he was going to “pick up balls at Clube Pinheiros”, an elite athletic club in the city of São Paulo.
The young man replied, “No, no, I’m an athlete of Pinheiros, I play water polo.” Caught off guard, Bocardi replied, “I was thinking that he was one of my partners there that help me in the matches,” said the host. The young athlete was wearing a Pinheiros shirt, thus Bocardi assumed he was a tennis ball collector. The question here was why Bocardi automatically assumed the young man, being at an elite club such as Pinheiros, must have been fetching tennis balls for people playing tennis.
Asked about the exchange later, the anchor explained himself via Twitter. “Tennis players don’t wear uniforms, but ball fetchers do: a shirt like Leonel’s, with whom I had the pleasure of talking today. When I saw him with the shirt I always see, every day, ball getters of all skin colors, I thought he was one of them.”
It wasn’t long before social network users were all over him accusing him of racism. These sorts of ideas and preconceived notions of the types of roles that young black men play in society is no secret. It would be easy someone to assume that a young black male at an elitist sports club could be fetching balls for the members. Just to put this in historical context, it was two black male athletes trying to enter an elite sports club and being barred over four decades ago that led to forming of the Movimento Negro Unificado, Brazil’s civil rights organzations and movement.
As it turns out, young Leonel is Cuban, and has been living in Brazil for seven years. His uncle, Barbaro Diaz, competed in two editions of the Olympic Games for Cuba, in 1980 and 1992, and later immigrated to Brazil, and started working as a coach in 1994. Barbaro trained the Brazilian team several times. He was the team’s coach at the 2007 Pan Games. even today, Leonel’s uncle speaks in a manner that sounds far more like Caribbean Spanish than actual Portuguese. In the 2011 Games, he worked as a technical assistant and today is a coach for the Paulistano team. I guess you never know who you might meet in a sports club.
To be fair here, I could see Bocardi’s reaction in both ways and it would be difficult to say with certainty what he meant by his comment. Is it possible that he really did mistake the athlete for one of the ballboys at the club, but it is also possible that his saw a young black guy and automatically thought he could only be a ballboy as, still today, elite social and athletic clubs are mostly frequented by middle-class white people. I can give Bocardi the benefit of the doubt in terms of the comment. What I can’t forgive is his second reaction.
Denying any racist intent, Bocardi further said “Anyone who sees prejudice in this is not being fair. Prejudice is in the eyes,” he said. “We are not going to make this a great story about the water polo boy. I went by his shirt to ask if he fetches the ball in the greatest innocence. Just like I play and I am loved by several boys who are there with me every day. There are whites, blacks, of all kinds,” he said.
Fair enough. He again stated it was an innocent mistake, that should have been the end of it. But then, apparently to “prove” he is not a racist, he changed his Twitter profile photo and placed a photo of himself surrounded by African children. Really? Needless to say, it digusts me when I see this sort of behavior. “Look, I’m posing with black people! See? How could I be racist?” Hearing him explain his comment was enough to give him the benefit of doubt, but when I see folks attempting to deflect accusations of racism by taking photos with black/African people, saying their barber is black or that they’ve “been” with black men, they always strikes me as those type of people who really see Africans and their descendents as inferior beings but knowing how societies, particularly one like Brazil, like to play this game of being appalled with racism when these sorts of attitudes are generally the norm.
Which brings me to today’s feature.
The topic of the 20th season of the ever popular Globo TV reality Big Brother Brasil (BBB) has come up a few times over the past few months. The 20th season recently ended with another black woman taking home the BRL $1.5 million in prize money. But it was the news that led up to finale between the last three participants that had the online community buzzing again. In the finale, the vote came down to two white women and a black woman, with the white women being the favorites to win it all. Sometime before the finale, people starting taking note of one of the white participant’s Instagram photos in which she was seen taking various selfies with numerous African children.
The participant in question, Rafa Kalimann, was strongly criticized on social networks due to her for posts on the volunteer work she did for an NGO operating in Africa known as “Missão África”, or Mission Africa. The young woman has a huge following in social networks with more than 10 million followers on Instagram and over 200 thousand subscribers on YouTube. As a volunteer in the NGO, she has done work in Mozambique.
So, let’s get into this. What would be the problem with Kalimann doing volunteer work in Africa? Nothing really. That’s not the problem here. The problem and I many others see here is the question of Kalimann’s intent in Africa. My thing is, when you are really doing something from the heart, you don’t seek attention for it. One exmaple that comes to mind is the case of one of my all-time favorite musicians, Prince Rogers Nelson, whose 2016 murder was just passed the four year anniversary mark last week. When Prince died, it became known that he had given financial support to several people, organizations and institutions. Being a fan for decades, I had known of a few of his humanitarian efforts already, but I learned of even more after his death on April 21, 2016.
The problem I have with folks like Kalimann is that their actions seem to be driven by a sort of “let’s help the poor Africans” narrative that we know is mostly driven by the way the global media presents Africa to the rest of the world. Rarely do we ever see or hear about its architecture, manufacturing and natural beauty, but yet we are consistently fed images of starving children, surrounded by flies, villages whose day to day routines have very little to do with technology or diamond mine workers whose labor supports multinational billion dollar companies. As such, the attitude of “Let’s go help the poor Africans” and show people that we “care”.
I have several problems with this. One, as I’ve already written, why use Africa to show what a good person you are? It makes me wonder how many people would be volunteering in Africa if there weren’t any sort of reward involved. This is not to say that they don’t exist, I’m sure they do, but it’s not for me to calculate who is truly there out of concern for other human beings and how many people are in it for some sort or personal reward, whatever that may be.
Two, it sickens me see Africans treated as if they are some sort of experiment such as when it was suggested several weeks back that a new coronavirus vaccine should be tested on Africans first. Three, I wonder how many of these people who have so much concern for Africans feel the same way about the black population in their home countries. The situation in Africa cannot be separated from the situation of its descendants around the world and both situations are largely caused Europeans and their descendants. Four, speaking of Europeans, why can’t some of these volunteers go over to European countries where you most definitely will also find poverty-striken populations, follow them around in their day to day, take photos of them and post them on their social networks?
Do you really want to help Africa? You can start by organizing people who look like you to demand that European powers, World Bank, IMF, etc. cancel all debts of all African countries. How about that? How about organizing those same people to call for African resources for Africans?, You know, the same thing Patrice Lumumba called for before he was assassinated by the aforementioned Western powers. Africa cannot help itself out of the insurmountable rut its been place if it cannot benefit from its own resources. Let me stop there and stay on point.
To cut to the chase, we don’t need any more folks coming with the “white savior complex”. Help is always welcome. Self-aggrandizement and self-promotion are not. I don’t live in Africa, but I see some of the same treatment given to Africa’s descendants around the world. In Brazil, it always amazes me how advertising companies continue to use mostly white models in their ads when they want their products or clothing to come across as hip, chic or for middle classes, but place a black person as the main model in an ad when they seek donations or financial support for the poor. Or the promotion of favela tours for foreigners visiting the country as if people living in the slums are some sort of aminals one would find in a zoo.
Am I just blowing this out of proportion? I don’t think so. One post written on topic has already been shared 13 thousand times with 11 thousand comments, many people echoing my sentiments.
Below are just two examples of what black Brazilians felt after seeing Kalimann’s photos and learning about her story.
“The White Savior Industry”
By Rodrigo Miguel
There is a multi-million dollar volunteer industry and many of the projects that attract foreigners are considered evil by black experts and activists in the countries themselves – especially those involving children.
As Michael Mumisa, a professor at Cambridge University, said, “We’re not talking about individual intentions, but about impact. The impact (of the complexo de branco salvador/savior white complex) is the continued dehumanization and colonial infantilization of more than a billion Africans.
While the author of the selfie of the time bomb in Instagram for going to help the “poor Africans” for a few weeks (and often did not help at all), local activists spend their lives working for profound change without receiving attention or support. While Instagram volunteers use an image that will benefit themselves by using children to build an empire of benefits that mostly do not go back to the children. We need to understand that poverty has complex causes and requires structural measures to overcome. Good intentions and enthusiasm are great, but they are not enough. It is worth emphasizing that it is not about demonizing specific people.
Making a trip full of good intentions is excellent, of course. But often what seems beneficial can actually have negative consequences for the local population. By joining with exposure in the media and social networks, this complex helps to reinforce stereotypes such as that Africa is a homogenous and miserable continent and that its inhabitants are incapable and need outside help.
This has to do, for example, with the fact that many people think about travelling to African countries to do voluntary work, while few people want to go and get to know their culture and natural beauties and the circuit for people with high purchasing power. Parts of the Text by @janelasabertas
What if it was forbidden for “white saviors” to post pictures next to the children?
Are there no misery and needy children in their own country?
Wouldn’t it be more effective to get involved in a local humanitarian project where you understand the political, cultural and social situation of the country?
Why does helping children in Africa need you to spend your money visiting them?
Don’t you trust any humunitary institution led by African people that you can help from afar?
Why does helping children in Africa always involve exploiting them mediatically?
Purely illustrative image: a non black, non-African woman poses next to children somewhere in Africa in order to publicize a situation on her social network.
“Opinion on Rafa Kalimann and Mission Africa”
Missions in Africa: what’s wrong with the “white savior”?
Via Gente Preta @gentepreta
For a few days, the influencer Rafa Kalimann, a BBB participant, has received criticism for the following reason: she travels to Africa on missions to help people in need. Cool? Yes, super. But then, why is she criticized? Well, because she posted pictures in Instagram surrounded by children in scenes of poverty. In some of them, she’s laughing. You can understand the criticisms, after all, they are situations of poverty, people. There is nothing beautiful about it. But you can also understand Rafa’s goodwill. And she is not the only one, quite the opposite.
The influencer is part of a phenomenon. Each year, about 1.6 million people travel to Africa to make voluntary trips. It’s not a cheap trip and the voluntary tourism “market” moves more than two # billion a year.
This type of tourist even has a name “branco salvador” meaning “white savior”. The expression is ironic and speaks of people who, on this kind of trip, are completely clueless. How? In many ways. Taking pictures of children, for example, and posting on Instagram with optimistic captions. Wearing “safari” clothes to walk in a poverty zone, glamorizing misery. There is even an Instagram profile making fun of the saviors, “Barbie Savior”. In some montages, she takes selfies in slums, in others, breastfeeds African children with Coca-Cola.
Poverty is not exotic
If you think complaining about it is an exaggeration. Imagine if someone arrives in your city and starts photographing the most screwed-up areas as if it were all exotic? Would you like this? I, a Carioca (native of Rio), don’t like it at all when I see tourists taking tours in Rio’s favelas and taking pictures of people’s homes as if all that was exotic. It’s not exotic, man, it’s people’s lives. And a hard life.
Taking pictures of children can also be very complicated. “Ah, what a bore, nothing can be done”. For that, I ask one question.
Do you take pictures of blond children in front of private schools? When these same people travel to rich countries, like Switzerland, do they take pictures of children leaving kindergarten? Do they go out hugging and photographing?
The ‘white savior’ myth extols the generosity of whiteness and the miserability of blackness
By Thais Bernardes
Charity is a noble gesture. Always. But the display of this generosity is beneficial for whom? For whom does it expose or who is it exposed to? What makes a person do charity and post their gesture of solidarity? What I bring are not judgments, but an invitation to reflect.
A week ago I posted this same text on Instagram of Notícia Preta and this was the most visible publication in the history of our profile, today with 134 thousand followers. But why does talking about the myth of the branco salvador (white savior) generate so much repercussion at this moment? Form the fact that we have a participant in a reality show who says that if she wins she will donate BRL $ 1.5 million to black and poor children in Africa? Or because branquitude (whiteness) was bothered when faced with its social hypocrisy?
Have you ever stopped to think that in these ‘generous’ photos of whiteness, we don’t know who the children are, we don’t understand the context of the situation? If you want us to know if the photo was taken with the consent of those responsible for that minor. This type of action gives us the impression that there are “poor little things” and “heroines or heroes” there. This is what we call the “complexo de branco salvador” (white savior complex). When a white man believes he can save the world’s misery (which his ancestors helped to construct) and take advantage of this situation to expose these little black bodies on social networks, they are collaborating in reinforcing stereotypes, such as that Africa is a miserable continent and that Africans are unable to survive without the help of whites. When in fact, whiteness and its systems of domination and power structure are largely responsible for social and racial inequality in the world.
DJ Alok in Africa
Seeing the African continent as a place where there is no cultural wealth and only misery is what encourages thousands of people to travel to these countries, do volunteer work and thus feel better and more generous. Helping those in need is important, but making it an advertisement or a process of spiritual and personal evolution is violent.
The voluntarism industry is very rich, but according to some experts, these projects are harmful to communities, especially those involving children. Many of them are organized by religious leaders and churches who, in addition to taking “help”, also take their religions and “present” them to those people, overcoming local traditions and cultures. White religions presented to blacks as a way of saving the body and the spirit. We’ve already seen this story, correct?
To overcome economic, political and social crises that result in extremely impoverished territories, in addition to good intentions, structural and political measures are needed. The “Branco Salvador” complex does not alter the structures directly, to the contrary, it dehumanizes and further infantilizes that population.
While “Branco Salvador” takes a selfie with a malnourished black child, without even bothering to protect the image of that minor, local activists spend their lives fighting for profound changes, often without receiving sponsorship or likes and due recognition.
Source: Notícia Preta, UOL, Facebook, Picterio