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BEG: Celebrity activism emblematic of white savior complex

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The act of using widely-known and important figures in society to advance a political agenda has been used since the turn of the twentieth century. Celebrities choose to become the face of a certain cause to help those less fortunate.

Often, these causes are attached to specific, underprivileged locations that do not have the same economic access as we do. From Christina Aguilera in Rwanda to Madonna in Malawi, celebrity activism abroad is hardly rare.

The help and outreach given to these programs by these international figures is an amazing idea, but at times, there are detrimental effects from the motivations and skewed images created.

The problem is when these celebrities come into a completely different culture and environment than their own and try to push their own agenda without taking into account the many factors that affect these countries. It creates an inspiring PR image for the celebrity and allows them to feel worthy about themselves without truly analyzing the effects of their presence in these countries.

For example, when Madonna arrived in Malawi, she allegedly demanded special treatment, bullied state officials and did little to contribute to the schools she set out to help. Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, even said that Madonna “just came unannounced and proceeded to villages and made poor people dance for her.”

Of course, Madonna’s intentions were probably not to break down the Malawi school system, but the difference between intent and impact must be recognized. When a white celebrity is pictured surrounded by African children smiling up at them, their trip amounts to Americanizing and pushing Western ideologies onto those of a completely different culture. The intentions are pure but the impact is damaging long term.

Because of instances like these, celebrities solidify the idea of a white savior complex. The white savior complex is a common trope that portrays a white person as rescuing a group of oppressed people of color. It allows the white savior to be the exceptional and uplifting hero of the less fortunate. Those less fortunate are forced into a box. Not only are the oppressed people stuck with a label, but the country itself is only known to the rest of the world for its negative qualities.

This distorts the image of those the white celebrities are trying to help by making themselves the main character and oversimplifying the reality of what is occurring in these places. To have a skewed truth about these people constantly struggling and in need of help from the western world perpetuates the stereotypes. A lot of local people help these countries, so the perception about the requirement for a white savior needs to be abolished.

A campaign launched by SAIH, a project of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund, fights the stereotypes and informs volunteers on how to be ethical while still aiding the countries in need. They have even created a checklist to see what situations allow people to avoid the clichés before they go to help abroad.

The awareness of actions and the impact of these actions is a general rule to avoid coming across as a white savior. People must be informed about the culture and locations they work at to adapt their goals to fit the norms of those unfamiliar to them. There is much more to these people and countries than what we see celebrities posting online.

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