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President Gupta Accepts Racist Christmas Challenge

Every year at Christmas, a bunch of celebrities get together to ponder whether or not the predominantly Christian continent of Africa is aware that it is the annual celebration of Christ’s birth*. More accurately, they get together to question whether their stereotypical Africa – the hopeless, starving, disease-ridden continent of uneducated people suffering from malaria, AIDS and most recently, Ebola, know that is, and has been since late October, the Coca-Cola season of consumerism, decadence, and capitalist dreams.

UBC President Arvind Gupta recently accepted Bob Geldof’s challenge to help fight Ebola with BandAid30. While the challenge of eradicating Ebola may be a hard one, eradicating negative stereotypes about Africa seems even more difficult. Gupta donated around $18 to the overall $1.5 million raised for the Africa-saving initiative; he also bought into possibly the single most out-dated, offensive and racist song of 2014 (which is a tall order after Iggy Azalea and Katy Perry’s contributions).

Either this group of incredibly disappointing celebrities (we bet you can find at least one of your faves among them) genuinely believe that the 54 countries of Africa are a “world of dread and fear”* where the Christmas bells clang “chimes of doom”, or they are ridden with the worst and most destructive disease of all: the white saviour complex. Just like Leigh Anne “I Adopted a Black Kid So I’m Not Racist” Tuohy, who recently accosted two black teenagers who were behaving “suspiciously” (aka being black in public) and then posted a photo on social media proclaiming her own heroism, white people feel the need to step in for, speak over, police, “protect”, correct and “save” black people and other non-whites.

This complex is most prevalent when white girls visit Africa, participate in voluntourism, return with profile pictures in which they are donning local beaded necklaces, surrounded by adoring little black orphans and wait for comments from their equally narrow-minded friends to shower them in glory. “You’ve changed those children’s lives”, “They love you”, “You’re amazing, Becky, so selfless!” But helping poor people in Africa is a good thing, right? Wrong, or at least in this way. At best, with language barriers, lack of relevant skills and no knowledge of local geography or practises, voluntourists are pretty much useless to local people. At worst, they reproduce negative stereotypes about Africa, assert Western/white dominance, replace local workers, create unsustainable power relations, and perpetuate racist narratives.

Okay, sure, maybe you agree that dehumanising Africans through charity appeals and decades-old tired and banal caricatural stereotypes is pretty terrible. And perhaps, if you’ve thought about it, you’ve also noticed how racist and degrading the lyrics are. But it’s not so bad if the money the song raises is actually going to ‘help end Ebola’, right? Again, wrong. It’s not even clear what groups the $1.5 million raised thus far are going to. BandAid30’s website says that money “will be donated to the intervention and prevention of the spread of Ebola” but specifies nothing beyond this. On top of this, how can we trust that any cures or vaccines will reach people in West Africa? The handful of people who have been cured after contracting Ebola have been American or European, which alludes to the fact that money supposedly going to Ebola research may not be reaching the poor, hopeless orphans of Liberia the BandAid song trills on about.

We’re not saying this is KONY 2012, but come on, it’d be nice if white saviours took a break every now and then from their benevolent racism. And it’s not even like singing about Ebola is a striking new idea. Some African musicians had already done it before and did a much better job, because you know, there isn’t that whole racist, neocolonial helping imperative element to it. As for ending the spread of this disease in the three west African countries (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia — yeah, not all of Africa) where it’s emerged? Pretty sure they can do without most Western interventions, as the prevention of it by a rad group of local healthcare workers in Nigeria demonstrates.

Trust us, we’re not the only ones grimacing about this latest ploy of the “let’s save Africa” brigade; there are others ranting about it here, here, here and here.

So we ask the hard-hitting question: Did President Gupta really think that singing off-key would make us forget about his recent decision to increase student fees?

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*Full lyrics:

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

[One Direction:]

It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid

[Ed Sheeran:]

At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade

[Rita Ora:]

And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy

[Sam Smith:]

Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time

[Paloma Faith:]

But say a prayer and pray for the other ones

[Emeli Sandé:]

At Christmas time it’s hard but while you’re having fun

[Guy Garvey:]

There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear

[Dan Smith:]

Where a kiss of love can kill you

[Angelique Kidjo:]

Where there’s death in every tear

[Chris Martin:]

And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom

[Bono:]

Well, tonight we’re reaching out and touching you

[Seal:]

Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa

[Ellie Goulding:]

A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight

[Sinéad O’Connor:]

Why is comfort to be feared, why is to touch to be scared?

[Bono:]

How can they know it’s Christmas time at all?

[One Direction:]

Here’s to you

[Olly Murs:]

Raise a glass to everyone

[Bastille:]

Here’s to them

[Sam Smith:]

And all there is to come

[Rita Ora:]

Can they know it’s Christmas time at all?

[All:]

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Heal the world

Let them know it’s Christmas time again

Source: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bandaid30/dotheyknowitschristmas.html

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  • Brent

    there’s also tons of posters advertising voluntourism trips in the dorms. really UBC?

    • Tom

      Didn’t one of their editors go on a voluntourism trip to africa? A white, female editor? ….Awkwaaaaard.

      • evelyn cranston

        hi, if you’re referring to me, yea i did two short voluntourism trips to mexico and one long team exchange program (canada world youth) to ghana, west africa. going on those trips were choices i made before i finished high school, and were really pivotal in my un-learning of white saviour complexes, ideas of development, cultural exchange etc. there are entire industries geared towards encouraging people like me to take these trips and ‘make a difference’, so its not an uncommon experience. what matters is what a person does with that experience and knowledge after returning. those trips gave me a starting point to engage critically with their premise and structure. its not awkward- you didnt catch me in a secret scandal or whatever. the fact that i did them is not incompatible with the idea that i can be critical of them – its actually a large part of why i am engaged with this type of work the talon is doing. if you want to talk more, send me a pm on fb. thnx for reading!

        • Tom

          I’m not trying to point out some scandal. IMO your fellow staff threw you under the bus.

          I guess the one thing that sticks out for me is why don’t you give others the benefit of the doubt that they got as much out of their trips as you did? A lot of people have quite different public and private lives. So while on facebook might things seem superficial, maybe there’s a deeper story to be told if you were to ask.

          • evelyn cranston

            i don’t feel like that – i agree with the authors. i did lots of stereotypical voluntourism stuff, my point was that the learning came after returning and reflecting, and call-outs, esp from POC, like the ones above were really crucial in those learning stages. if you want to keep this going, pls pm on fb, i don’t rly enjoy conversations with anons tbh.

  • Viet

    1. Are you aware that Band aid, as a charity foundation, has to submit its annual financial filing and report to the government and actually make it publicly available? (the 2013 version can be found here: http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Accounts/Ends99/0000292199_AC_20131130_E_C.pdf ) If you want to look at the “impact” of the aid being made, look here.

    2. Fair enough, I’m not a big fan of aid myself (I’m a bigger believer in businesses that are made in Less developed nations using investments from abroad as an initial capital.) So I’m fine with the critique being made here.

    3. Are you aware that Ebola is a disease that is only affecting several nations in Western Africa, that there really aren’t any benefit in NOT transporting the vaccine developed to Western Africa after it is approved? That’s the whole point. It’s not like HIV/AIDS when the drugs being developed solve the North American and European strain and not the African one. Ebola is extremely confined and the ONLY use of the vaccine is to use it in the affected nations. The only reason why those American and European survived was because they (in most cases) developed the symptoms AFTER they got back to where they were from – and thus had access to much much better healthcare condition than others. Have you really done your research into Ebola?

    4. Have you considered how the lyrics say Western Africa before you comment on how the artists think Africa is an area as a whole?

    • The Talon UBC

      Hi Viet,

      1. Yes, we are aware of how charities work but specifying allocation of money still does not warrant racist, neoliberal, white dominance of other nations let alone 3 minutes of out-of-tune stereotyping. Essentially, countries like Guinea may request financial aid from the West for epidemics like Ebola, but this action cannot be analyzed without context. The legacy of colonial rule through capitalist economics has resulted in unfair global power dynamics and (perceived) Western superiority. The issue here is a morbid cycle of African nations seeking help from the West because the West has purposely created a system where these nations cannot be politically and financially independent. Perhaps we could have looked further into where the money goes specifically. But all we would have found is further evidence of this power dynamic being exploited. From the 2013 report you have linked, “building schools” – to implement the superiority of Western education? “Building wells” – to create unsustainable infrastructure requiring local people to constantly be indebted to the West?

      2. While we seem to agree that aid should be critiqued, we agree less on the fact that trade liberalization improves a nation’s well being, related to the fact of an unequal global economic order, as discussed above. Unless, of course, one examines just economic growth, a huge and very problematic oversight of neoclassical/mainstream economics (as there are many other social and political milieu that should be up for examination).

      3. Ok, so perhaps we are not Ebola experts – why should we be? We are commenting largely on the media portrayal of this whole situation as the foundation of this article. We look at the TV and see 3 or 4 white doctors and aid workers being speedily evacuated from West African Nations, quarantined and cured in days, all while over 5000 black West Africans have died because the cures developed in America have remained in America and been used on white people. We understand there’s a lot of politics and other factors going on here that may prohibit direct transportation of the cure/vaccine to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but nonetheless the news still tells us that white lives are more important than black ones. Over and over again.

      3. The remark about clarifying that Ebola is only occurring in West African nations was not in response to the 2014 version of the lyrics of this song, but was a comment on the discourse surrounding Ebola in Western media, where again the entire continent has been homogenized in relation to this disease. And really, though, the song has no saving grace — since its inception in the 80’s, its been part and parcel of the ‘Africa is a country’ rhetoric. Anyway, the region of West Africa has EIGHTEEN countries and over 300 million people, so talking about that region homogeneously is still problematic.

      Best,
      Cicely & Urooba

      • Steve

        1. That is a lot of words considering Viet’s point was not addressed in the slightest – his criticism was clearly regarding the statement:

        “It’s not even clear what groups the $1.5 million raised thus far are going to. BandAid30’s website says that money ‘will be donated to the intervention and prevention of the spread of Ebola’ but specifies nothing beyond this”.

        He made absolutely no comment about whether what Band-Aid has done is “good” or “bad”, just that one of your points in the article is useless.

        2. I’m not an economics expert so no comment.

        3. Health care in the US is far superior to those in the affected African countries, and is a major reason why the US successfully eradicated several cases while it has been fairly devastating in a few countries in West Africa. The only “cure” used in the US was a new experimental drug, and its success required a level of intensive care that a country like Liberia can’t provide with their facilities. Again, the benefits for the US in working towards a cure are extremely marginal at best (and likely part of why there aren’t more resources being used towards it in the first place).

        4.

        “The remark about clarifying that Ebola is only occurring in West African nations was not in response to the 2014 version of the lyrics of this song, but was a comment on the discourse surrounding Ebola in Western media, where again the entire continent has been homogenized in relation to this disease.”

        That really wasn’t clear – I, probably like others, thought that an article titled “President Gupta Accepts Racist Christmas Challenge” was just about the racist Christmas challenge accepted by president Gupta, rather than another blog about how the media portrays the ebola outbreak in West Africa in general, or especially more of same statements about the white saviour complex and homogenization of Africa in general.

        Also, I honestly question how valid that criticism even is (re homogenization of Africa wrt ebola) – a search on google news for “2014 ebola outbreak in west africa” yields 4.26 million results, whereas a search for “2014 ebola outbreak in africa” only yields 1.48 million (and I am sure there is quite a bit of intersection between the more general one and the more specific one). I glanced at several which just had “Africa” in the title, and all but one of them mentioned “West Africa” or the specific nations pretty early on. The one I encountered that mentioned it further down is a Chinese news source, and thus not western media. I am sure there are plenty of examples, but I question whether that is predominant in the mainstream western media discourse surrounding the epidemic.

        As another reason this isn’t clear – in the beginning, you mention that the celebrities are pondering “the predominately Christian continent of Africa”. The countries the song is likely concerned about are Guinea (8% Christian, population of 10.6 million), Liberia (85% Christian, population of 4.1 million), and Sierra Leone (27% Christian, population of 6.2 million). West Africa in general (including countries this isn’t meant to be about, but I’ll humor your accusation of them “talking about that region homogeneously”) is 70% Islam. Not close to “predominately Christian”.

        “talking about that region homogeneously is still problematic”

        I disagree that just because “West Africa” is used instead of “Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal”, or even “Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea” means they are talking about that region homogeneously. Good luck working that into the rhyme scheme and flow of a pop song. In your very article and comment you use the term “West Africa”, it is a convenient shorthand that contains the subset of all countries effected by Ebola. The nations have different demographics, different religions, different cultures, and different languages. Something they do have in common is geographical location, so that is how they are encompassed by a single term.

        I am sure they are aware that it is in fact Christmas, and the song leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth. But not all general criticisms of western attitudes towards much of Africa are applicable as criticisms of this particular song and situation. This article is all over the place and adds absolutely nothing to discourse regarding Ebola OR Western perception of Africa in general.

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