Christmas singles and the White Saviour Complex

photo credit: via photopin cc

In light of Sir Bob Geldof’s recent re-recording of ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’, controversy around the so-called ‘white saviour complex’ continues to grow. Naturally, I thought I would add my two cents to the debate surrounding the song and the culture that produced it.

There is another side to Africa; one which thrives with educational achievement, research and the arts

Charity exists, that’s a fact – but there are good ways and bad ways to go about helping out our fellow humans. When we think about the continent of Africa, we may see images of poverty, starving children, dried up crops and shanty-towns – but there is another side to Africa; one which thrives with educational achievement, research and the arts. A stronghold for indigenous people who live for the community and look after each other – a place where our Western idealism does not always translate. This is the same for places in the Pacific. On a recent trip to Tonga, I stayed on a small island off Tongatapu by the name of Atata Island. When visiting the village (of 200 people), I saw that each dwelling had its own solar panel, and that the local school had been built by a group of Australians.

A fellow visitor to the island was a man from Italy – he was wearing a Sea Shepherd hoodie and Birkenstock sandals (actually, I was wearing Birkenstocks too), and I struck up a conversation with him about how great the island’s sustainability efforts were, noting the solar panels. He told me that the solar panels had been donated by the Japanese government in exchange for access to “explore” the surrounding waters for whales. Typical, I thought. It seems that sometimes people are incapable of giving without expecting something in return. Sometimes we give, without realising what we are taking away. In an article on Al Jazeera, a local man talked about Sir Bob Geldof’s charity efforts and said that locals are already trying to help ease the spread of Ebola, and now they will have to fight for air time with Bob’s celebrité too.

It’s also important to empower communities so that they can help themselves.

This is how I have come to view the efforts of various Christian groups, and organisations which travel to the Islands or Africa to build houses, bring resources and teach. There is a place for this, of course, but it’s also important to empower communities so that they can help themselves. Is it better for young African children to grow up aspiring to be like the white lady who once came to build a school in their village, or to see that their mum, sister, dad, cousin or friend is upskilling and paving the way for the younger generation? I personally prefer the latter, but that’s just me. (Actually there’s a really great website where you can loan locals on their own entrepreneurial endeavors here:

It’s important for indigenous people of the world to grow up in touch with their culture and identity – even more so if that particular culture is at risk of extinction – and what can help this is community learning and activities, not Westerners arriving in the nick of time to “save” the people. I look forward to a day when we don’t need charities, but sadly, I don’t think that will happen in my life-time. Even in New Zealand, we have charities such KidsCan to provide children with clothes, shoes, and food. Why, in our so-called “land of plenty”, does such a charity even have the need to exist?

I’m a strong believer in fair representation – just in case anyone misinterprets my feelings around the white saviour complex. As someone who became involved in politics because of the presence of strong women, influencing me and empowering me to feel that I could be a “political Pasifika woman”, I can see the benefits of young women having role models that look like them, and share the same culture. Already from our recent election we have better representation for Pacific people than ever before – but this is a trend that I would like to see in other places.

The recent proposal to cut funding of Pacific and Maori programmes on TVNZ is a huge step back for our Pacific people. Shows such as Tagata Pasifika and Fresh will be sorely missed if a lack of funding sweeps them under the rug. We need to see all people, from all different backgrounds and cultures, both in the House and on TV – we are a massively multi-cultural country and our broadcasting should represent this. This, however, is a topic for another day and another blog post.

I don’t believe that Sir Bob Geldof intends to harm the cause of Ebola relief in Africa – to the contrary, I’m sure his intentions are entirely honourable. However, while he may have the best of intentions, it is often the case for white saviours to be so caught-up in their own cause that they fail to step back and ask what could truly help.

About TrishTupou (2 Articles)
Trish is a NZ born ta'ahine Tonga. She currently resides in Auckland, and recently ran as the Green Party of Aotearoa's Manurewa candidate. She is passionate about race relations, identity politics, feminism and all things Pasifika. Trish has her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and English Literature, and is currently a postgrad student in the Pacific Studies department at the University of Auckland. She is interested in the harmonious power of literature that bridges the gap between Pasifika and Aotearoa identities. Can be found on Twitter at @TrishTupou

6 Comments on Christmas singles and the White Saviour Complex

  1. One Anonymous Bloke // November 24, 2014 at 10:31 am //

    IIRC he was criticised along these lines during the original Band/Live Aid campaign.

    His response at the time, that he was doing the only thing he could in the shortest time possible, simply doesn’t hold water anymore.

    Even though the prospect sickens,
    Brother here we go again…
    Tom Lehrer.


  2. Rebecca Dodson // November 24, 2014 at 10:55 am //

    I really enjoyed reading this article thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like OAB, I remember the first Live Aid.
    And loathed it, even though at that time I was a sunday-school teaching young christian woman … our church was involved in supporting missions in Zaïre, the former Belgian Congo, and I was very interested in that work, as I knew a young woman from Wellington who had gone there with her husband. There was a school & a medical mission, both staffed by Aussies & NZ’ers, with the occasional American. It was very much a ‘mission to’, rather than a ‘mission of’ the people of the North Kasai region. When the civil war broke out in the early 90’s, all foreigners, including aid workers, were ejected forcibly; as no teachers or nurses had been trained from the local people, the mission pretty much collapsed immediately. Having left that church (and faith) not long after, I have no idea if it ever recovered.
    It still makes me think, decades later, about the failure of that church to consider empowering the locals to run the clinic and schools, and about the general failure of Western aid in such situations to truly effect change.

    Africa is a huge and complex place, decolonising at a very slow rate despite ‘official’ pronouncements. Band-wagon events like Live Aid are a sop to Westerners with liberal guilt complexes – it’s so easy to give money, rather than put bodies into the zones of conflict & disease, and to just wash our (collective) hands once the ‘festive season’ has gone by & we are contemplating our first world problems of duplicate/unwanted gifts and memories of re-kindled family arguments fuelled by post-dinner drinkies. (Or is that just my extended family who do that? Scots waa haaaae, a whisky a day … )

    The cultural cringe of ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ was well-defined the first time around; this time they really should know better than to send that message into much more diverse UK & USA communities (not to mention the rest of us), but I’m certain there is an element of ‘the copyright is due to lapse, so let’s re-record it” going on there, too. It has probably not crossed their minds that muslims, jews, sikhs, hindus and others in those communities might be charitably inclined, if the song were not offensively excluding their cultural/faith identities.
    I’m not even going to address the melody; punk & ambient are my thing now, not commercial radio pop jingles. :p

    Liked by 2 people

    • One Anonymous Bloke // November 24, 2014 at 8:04 pm //

      That was one thing Geldof got right: his experience of Catholic teaching made him suspicious of any remotely religious involvement. More harm than good, that lot.


  4. Yes! Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for your insight and sharing your experiences with the church, anarkaytie! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Draco T Bastard // November 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm //

    Why, in our so-called “land of plenty”, does such a charity even have the need to exist?

    Because we’ve been giving all of our wealth to the rich. It’s how poverty always comes about.

    However, while he may have the best of intentions, it is often the case for white saviours to be so caught-up in their own cause that they fail to step back and ask what could truly help.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    It does seem to be cultural conditioning that us pākehā have that we have it all perfect and that we therefore must bring everyone else to our enlightened ways and we don’t even consider that other people are just as enlightened as we are if not more so.


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