Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Thoughts on Kony 2012 and White Saviours vs. Allies by Alex Snider

I watched the Kony 2012 video this morning and I have to say the White saviour, colonial overtones made me extremely uncomfortable. Not to mention the lack of any consultation or even reference to any of the Ugandan groups who have been actively fighting against Kony for years. Even the way Invisible Children denies granting the two (!) Ugandan politicians further identification in the video. What party are they from? What role in government do they play? Why was there no mention of the president? Or of any other adult Ugandans? Why weren't Ugandans given the opportunity to speak for themselves? Why were they instead treated as props for the self-aggrandizing filmmaker and his friends? Merely showing images of nameless mutilated children, flashing them before the audience's eyes reduces and erases the children's humanity. This type of stomach-turning pity-porn is no way to bring attention to a cause. This is no way to treat those you wish to help. 

I could go on about the problems with the video: the lack of Ugandan culture; the weird inclusion of the narrator's very young son and how the video placed him at the centre of the narrative as the ideal future; the fact that it took nearly 9 minutes for Joseph Kony and the LRA to even be mentioned; the pro-military stance; and the basis that no one else could possibly have heard or cared about the LRA before Invisible Children ever before. The video is the very definition of the White Man's Burden.

As a White person, as a person with a lot of privilege (even though I'm a woman, go figure!) I recognize the desire to use that inherent power and influence to effect change so it's not to say that Invisible Children's intentions are ill. But with that power, that desire for change comes responsibility. Motivations have to be questioned, the roles we take have to be examined, our voices must not ever take precedent over the voices of those we are wanting to help. Are we doing the talking or the listening?

There is a distinct difference between being an ally and being a saviour. An ally works with and often takes a backseat role to the group they're working with. While a saviour isn't working with the people. From By Their Strange Fruit: "The 'white savior complex' is the perception that white folk often have that they are the benevolent benefactors of helpless 'others'."

Given the choice between ally and saviour, which would you choose? Watching Kony 2012, which do you think they chose?

Salome Lemma at Unmuted has an amazing post looking at the campaign:

[T]he Invisible Children narrative on Uganda is one that paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will, or power. It calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering. Well, this is a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of child and youth advocates who have been fighting to address the very issues at the heart of IC’s work. Want evidence? In addition to the organizations I list above, also look at Art for Children, Friends of Orphans, and Children Chance International. It doesn’t quiet match the victim narrative, does it? I understand that IC is a US-based organization working to change US policy. But, it doesn’t absolve it from the responsibility of telling a more complete story, one that shows the challenges and trials along side the strength, resilience, and transformational work of affected communities.
Revival of the White savior: if you have watched the Invisible Children video and followed the organization’s work in the past, you will note a certain messianic/savior undertone to it all. “I will do anything I can to stop him,” declares the founder in the video. It’s quite individualistic and reeks of the dated colonial views of Africa and Africans as helpless beings who need to be saved and civilized. Where in that video do you see the agency of Ugandans? Where in that Video do you see Jacob open his eyes wide at the mere possibility of his own strength, as Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters describes here? Can we point out the problem with having one child speak on the desires, dreams, and hopes of a whole nation? I don’t even want to mention the paternalistic tone with which Jacob and Uganda (when did it become part of central Africa by the way?) are described, not excluding the condescending use of subtitles for someone who is clearly speaking English 
Please, read the entire article (also, follow her on Twitter as she tweets about #stopkony and Invisible Children). It is so fantastic, she perfectly nails all of the colonial aspects of the video as well as the more problematic reasons behind why campaigns like this do not work.


  1. "not excluding the condescending use of subtitles for someone who is clearly speaking English". I guess they should have tried less hard to get people's attention.

  2. Yes, bitch about "white savior" syndrome while children are being kidnapped. Way to politicize a good deed, asshole.

  3. You're totally right. The issue involving military intervention, the US government, the ICC and destabilizing Northern Uganda has no business being politicized! Gonna go repost the video and save Africa now!

  4. You know what? While you're right that Jason Russell seems like a complete self-aggrandizing douche, and the "we will solve your problems for you" attitude recalls the colonialist state of mind, you should pick your enemies better. This isn't the mid 1800's and Invisible Children is not the the British East India Company. We're all still on the same side. Let's not forget, at the end of the day, the goal of Kony 2012 is to deliver Joseph Kony to the ICC. There's nothing equivocal about that, so stop being so self-righteously academic about the issue.