Saturday, March 10, 2012

The White Man's Burden and the #Kony2012 Campaign [UPDATE]

By Carlos M. Camacho

Courtesy of Jonathan Ooi

If you have been on Twitter, Facebook, or perhaps Tumblr and other forms of social media you have no doubt heard about the Invisible Children organization's KONY 2012 plan to increase awareness to "Stop Joseph Kony". You may have also read a recent blog post by fellow Rogue Scholar,
Shingi Mavima. There has been a huge response both in support/defense of the Stop Kony Campaign and in its criticism. Behind the criticism and whether one approves or not, there is much going on behind the scenes (for some).  

There is no problem with spreading awareness about an issue and the case of KONY 2012 is surely interesting. There are several questions to be asked. Why now when Kony has been committing crimes for years? Why blow it up on Twitter and the rest of social media now when the the crimes committed by Kony have been increasing in numbers for years? A question that hit me repeatedly as I watched the video is: why is a white man trying to save Africa and by extension the African people? The number of people of visible color in the video were limited. While Jacob, one young Uganda man featured in the video does have time to share his story [including how he watched his brother die and wished to die himself], it is very limited in comparison to Jason Russel a co-founder of the Invisible Children and lead talking head in the video. 

Now I'm sure some readers might be thinking that I'm making up a race problem. Others might think that it doesn't matter who is doing it as long as it gets done. I think it is very interesting to think about these issues nonetheless. 
"Now go in and put all the weight of your influence into hanging on permanently to the whole Philippines. America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears" -Rudyard Kipling to Roosevelt
The idea behind the "White Man's Burden" is that the white man is responsible for saving the helpless people of color from themselves. We see it in many ways and this campaign is a huge example of the white man trying to save the Black man from himself and in this particular case, the continent of Africa by sending troops in. Several people have been talking about this touch on issues of race or how American this is. Blattman, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Economics at Yale and blogger,  touched on it in 2009 when Invisible Children had their Abduct Yourself campaign. It was problematic then and it is even more so now.

Why does it matter that a white man is mobilizing people, a majority of whom are white to stop a Black man? How do the words sound in your head as you read them? It is racist and ethnocentric to assume that Jason Russel as a white man or that we as Americans know everything and have the right to tell people how to live and work because we think we know better. Further, why are we working to stop the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) with such force? Why is that of all the internet campaigns this showed up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds via younger family members, some who tend to not be politically active, and family in my home? Is it because there is an ocean that separates us from Africa and the problems and politics of being informed on the issue? Is it because stopping poverty and human trafficking in the US is too left wing/right wing an issue? Is it because talking racism with a Black President is a waste of time?

I am not against the LRA being stopped and seeing an end to the indoctrination of child soldiers and an end to many of the problems caused by these sorts of conflicts. That does not mean that as Americans we can continue to "save" people which may be to their detriment rather than helping them. It still rubs me wrong that a white man is trying to save the Black man and I am not alone. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist says, “It simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda and makes out a narrative that is often hard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict.” She adds: “If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

This is the point. It matters that social media is spreading the message out about Kony. For better or worse, people know Kony is out there and can look for more information about him and the LRA. It matters that white people and Americans are speaking for other people because it causes problems and further contributes to a problematic Africa discourse but also portrays whites as saviors of the Black masses in Africa, though it could be applied to similar situations in Latin America, the Middle East and beyond. It matters that by listening to this white man and spreading his mission and his work we are sidelining people like Jacob and Rosebell and infantilizing a people.  The Invisible Children got us talking, for better or worse, but what matters is how the discourse continues and what actions or inaction comes next.

[UPDATE 3/14/12] The #Kony2012 campaign has been getting flack from several groups including groups located in and working in Uganda. Al Jazeera reported in the days leading up to a screening of the 30 minute film (put together by the Invisible Children) in Uganda and caught some of the reactions. Please watch and let the voice of the people affected be heard. 

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