Opinion: When good intentions go bad.
Melissa Chaplin is a PhD researcher in intercultural communication at Durham University.
The following three statements are all true. The work Stacey Dooley has done to expose the evils of the fashion world is laudable. Since its conception in 1985, Comic Relief has raised over £1 billion for charity. The promotional imagery used of Dooley doing work for Comic Relief perpetuates racist, imperialist attitudes.
It is uncomfortable, particularly for progressive people, to accept the notion that something ‘well-meaning’ can be racist. Having good intentions does not, sadly, prevent one from making missteps or hurting people. It was disappointing but not surprising to see the defensiveness of many liberal white people in the face of David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, pointing out the issues with Comic Relief’s messaging.
Writing on Twitter, Labour MP Lammy said he had a problem with "British celebrities" being flown out to Africa by Comic Relief to make films which send "a distorted image" of the continent and perpetuate "an old idea from the colonial era”.
"The world does not need any more white saviours. As I've said before, this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Comic Relief has a huge platform and privilege and it is the first and major way children learn about Africa. If they only show Africans as helpless victims to be pitied, children miss the broader picture of huge progress in Africa.
"Comic Relief should be helping to establish an image of African people as equals to be respected rather than helpless victims to be pitied. It would therefore be better for people who actually live there to speak about the continent they know. Many black Brits feel deeply uncomfortable with Comic Relief's poverty porn. It's my job to represent their views however uncomfortable."
Now Lammy is being held responsible by media outlets for the drop in donations to the charity (£63 million as compared to £71.3million in 2018) which seems profoundly unfair. If indeed there is a correlation between these events, it is not the fault of the person pointing out racism but rather of those perpetuating racist messages in the first place.
Charity, and indeed fashion, campaigns do not exist in a vacuum. They are conceived, gestated, and born from our culture - a culture which is still grappling with its racist, colonial history. It is naïve and dangerous to assume that the notion of white supremacy only exists in the form of people with swastika tattoos. Racist dynamics can be far more insidious and subtle, and permeate all areas of life.
As a society, we are all too frequently guilty of viewing black people’s bodies as less deserving of protection than those of white people. This affects all manner of things: from the drastic double standard in reporting about victims of knife crime in the UK depending on their skin colour; to the fact that doctors regularly underestimate the pain of black patients; the way charities put together their advertising campaigns; and, of course, the machinations of the fashion industry.
I understand David Lammy’s frustration, because it isn’t just about Comic Relief. Rather, that is one example of the cumulative effect of constant micro aggressions faced by people of colour. It’s very easy to dismiss his valid concerns as insignificant, when you’re a white person who is never on the receiving end of the damage done by the continual reinforcement of centuries of cultural imperialism. It is not unusual to see advertising for charities on television featuring lingering shots of starving children in states of undress, sometimes receiving invasive medical intervention. Then it’s back to Bake Off or Love Island or whatever entertainment was interrupted by the suffering of other human beings. There is no one to step in and demand dignity and privacy for the subjects of this footage, and we become so accustomed to seeing it that we barely react to this routinely macabre display.
None of this is to say that I think we shouldn’t do charity work. I respect and value the contributions of many hardworking and well intentioned people in the sector, who have doubtless saved many lives through their efforts. However, none of that exempts us from thinking about the unintended consequences of our actions, and the connotations of our words.
We don’t have to look far in fashion to see that there is racism everywhere. From Dolce and Gabbana (whose ad in China showing a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks sparked outrage - compounded by Stefano Gabbana messaging poop emojis to a critic of the ad on Instagram and referring to Chinese as “ignorant dirty smelling mafia.”) to Gucci to Prada, it has ceased being a question of if there will be another scandal but rather how soon. Although some are quick to point out that these missteps were not intentional (something few people can know for certain), it must be recognised that even if they weren’t, they still revealed endemic issues in the way that the fashion industry views people of colour.
It is troubling that the focus of the conversation around Comic Relief has turned to a criticism of David Lammy, and has not focused on the charity’s own recent fashion controversy. Comic Relief t-shirts were, as recently as January this year, found to be being manufactured in inhumane conditions by staff (who are, you guessed it, mostly women of colour) in Bangladesh being paid as little as 35p an hour. This went largely unmentioned in relation to the discussion about falling donations, perhaps because so many articles referred to the clothing as ‘Spice Girls’ rather than ‘Comic Relief’ branded. I strongly suspect that the Spice Girls themselves are not overseeing the inspections in those factories, aren’t you?
There are constructive ways we can support African people that are not insulting. Donate to a seed fund for an entrepreneur. Buy from brands owned by people of colour. Buy from brands that support education and development, particularly for girls. Olori, founded by Nigerian entrepeneur Tomide Awe, is a handbag brand funding education for girls in Africa. These are practical ways that we can support people without shoving cameras in the faces of children.
As Nikki Porcher, the founder of the non-profit organisation Buy from a black woman, pointed out: ‘As a Black Woman I am constantly reminded of what little effort is being made by the people outside of my community, the Black Community. I see daily how they are profiting off Black Culture, Black History. Instead of being "inspired" by who we are and what we are doing in such a way that you must steal, invest in us. Help close the racial wealth gap. Support Black Women Business Owners. Buy from a Black Woman.’