Kony 2012 & The White Savior Industrial Complex

I’m a bit late to the Kony 2012 party and I’m now feeling very uneasy about Invisible Children’s narrow-minded solution to ending child soldiering in Uganda – just arrest Joseph Kony by December!

Much has been written in the past two weeks about Invisible Children’s lack of transparency and video producer Jason Russell’s recent health problems (read Rhyme et Reason’s post on the topic). What I haven’t read about until today is the campaign’s most glaring and problematic aspect – it perfectly illustrates the White Savior Industrial Complex, as brilliantly explained by Teju Cole, a writer for The Atlantic. (Cole wrote the piece defending a series of tweets he wrote after watching the Kony 2012 video).

The White Savior Industrial Complex centers around white people or people of privilege who enter a country, community or cultural context that is not their own with the sincere and misguided conviction that they are “doing good” for the people they want to “help.” These do-gooders often ignore, gloss over or are ignorant of the complexity of situations or problems they want to solve. They also don’t examine their own locations and privilege (race, sex/gender, nationality, class) and how that impacts their relationships with the communities they want to “help.” (Examples of the White Savior Industrial Complex are also abundant in international women’s rights campaigns. Anyone remember Western feminists’ crusade to “save” Afghan women from the Taliban by advocating for U.S. military intervention?)


Teju Cole@tejucole

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

In the case of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, Cole writes that the first principle in “making a difference” is doing no harm. Second, it’s imperative that the people we help should be included and consulted. Cole also writes,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa toThe Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. 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.”

What struck me most about Russell’s narrative about Joseph Kony and child soldiering (which is not exclusive to Uganda) is the utter simplicity and childlike enthusiasm of the campaign’s goals. If I understood the video correctly, it goes something like this:

  1. Make Joseph Kony’s name famous in the U.S. by leveraging social media, individual actions and targeting celebrity culture and influential policy makers.
  2. Put pressure on lawmakers to keep American military advisors in Uganda so that they can help find and arrest Kony.
  3. Kony’s arrest = an end to child soldiering in Uganda 
  4. Children return to their families in a joyous reunion.
What’s missing from Russell’s narrative of the problem (child soldiering in Uganda) are the international and national political, economic and social factors that create and contribute to it in the first place. Abducting boys and girls to serve in a resistance army in Uganda doesn’t happen in a vaccuum as Invisible Children presents it. What are local Ugandan activists doing on the ground about the problem and where are their voices? What do they see as the solution and what do they need from Westerners? The viewer only has Russell’s white savior idea of “making a difference,” which sounds increasingly self-serving.
I’d also like for more Americans to be aware of international issues and to be more engaged, but I’m afraid that Kony 2012 and its White Savior mentality will only do more harm than good. Only time will tell what the video’s impact will be. After all, we’re the ones sitting at a comfortable distance and won’t feel the blowback of a misguided white man’s crusade.

(This post first appeared on Rhyme et Reason.)


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