Ellen Degeneres and the error of well-meaning white saviors

Recently, Ellen Degeneres and her wife Portia De Rossi were in Rwanda for the former’s Gorilla Fund project. The talk show host met with Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame in support of her foundation, the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund. They were building a permanent home for endangered gorillas of Rwanda by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

As De Rossi had revealed during her wife’s birthday, this is something Degeneres had been really passionate about and, as expected, a slew of photos and videos sharing their experiences in Rwanda followed this visit, which included a mountain gorilla excursion with the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund. There was one in which the couple held each other romantically as they stared into the hazy horizon, one where she poses with her wife against elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, one where they fed the giraffes, and finally the tribute photo thanking all those she met on her trip, which just so happens to be the typical photo-op of a white person amidst several children in a rural setting.

Chinua Achebe once quoted a proverb, which says, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” There’s a common one-dimensional narrative of Africa in global media. It is the Africa of charity ads, exotic animals, and videos of flies hovering lazily around a child’s face which still permeate the narrative of what acclaimed author Chimamanda Adichie calls, ‘the single story’—an inaccurate depiction of the realities of a person or place most likely told from the point of view of the one with the most power. And it appears Degeneres was feeding this narrative. There have, indeed, been groundbreaking efforts to change the tired narrative of a homogenous Africa and complete the picture, through stories that highlight the positives, balancing out the global image of the continent as being disease-ridden, poverty-stricken and backward. Apparently, this is not enough.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with Degeneres’s photo. She did meet those children on her trip and she probably had a great time with them, but as Teju Cole wrote, “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”

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What Ellen lacks, like many other well meaning white people, is the understanding and awareness of the power of representation in the grander scheme of things. While Degeneres may have only intended to express how life-changing the trip was as it was clearly emotional and held so much meaning for her, Africans around the world would now have the reinforced stereotypes that we all live in mud houses and ride elephants to an open air school surrounded by trees added to our already full plate.

In what I suppose was her attempt to show great people and community while being a free, loving, unprejudiced spirit, Degeneres completely was unaware (or completely ignored?) the nuances and subtleties that characterize a continent which she will probably be more involved with than ever before. DeGeneres is simply the latest white celebrity to take part in this practice criticised as ‘poverty porn’ for which she has, quite understandably, come under attack.

Poverty porn is a phrase associated with the use of graphic images of people starving, suffering from disease or living in wartime in order to elicit an emotional empathetic response from the viewer. The responses this time were divided, and some gave the typical response of how Degeneres is “oh so kind” while thanking her for “helping out”. But there were others who stated their disapproval of the depiction even as more camped out in the comment section of the photograph with the consensus that Degeneres should have known better.

But there’s a disturbing side to this too as some seemed to carry on with a rhetoric that she should have either helped out the children in some way or taken pictures of the richer neighbourhoods of Rwanda. Showing one side of the story again, would simply begin another strain of ‘the single story’, one which America suffers from and which for some of us is the fact that America may not be the land of dreams they sold to us after all.

The pendulum always seems to swing between extremes: The desire to be fascinated by the exotic nature of Africa and all it brings, or the picture of extreme poverty designed to bring overwhelming gratitude and significance to the do-gooder, all without revelling in the normalcy of daily life that also surrounds these extremes. It is almost as if the continent cannot be afforded the complexities that surround others.

Children with no observable symptoms of nutritional deficiencies were described as poor, clearly another symptom of colonisation which seems to equate cement blocks with civilisation without the realisation that the exact methods of using mud house and clay pots were better for the people and the environment in which they were used, and that true civilisation is taking all of that into context, rather than the civilisation which creates problems from wrong solutions by introducing heat seeking buildings which now need to be cooled down with devices that go on to raise the temperature of the surrounding environment.

Richness comes in the quality of life and it is entirely possible they have cleaner air than that of any urban African city, do not come across rats such as those on the subway stations of NewYork, and do not sit in traffic for hours like those found in China. That enough is richness to be envied. And while there are actual problems of governance, infrastructure, law and order, there is also a need for the redefinition of the terms poor and rich in its use in language and society. It is a slight on those children to label them poor simply because they are seen to live differently than others.

No matter how much she may want to, however, Degeneres, and any other white person, cannot just hang out with new friends wherever they live and whatever their financial, ethnic, religious, race, sex, color, family dynamics in another case of ‘I don’t see colour’.  An awareness of the message being projected is paramount as her platform can either continue the work so many others have started, or continue to reinforce stereotypes. There is no inbetween no matter how honest one’s intentions. It does not matter if you just want to have a good time or if you sincerely want to make a difference.

“Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected,” says Teju Cole. “It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference … we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”