Kony 2012 and the White Savior Complex

The work that I do is complicated, and I don’t always feel good about it.  I have been struggling with issues like whether White folks should profit from diversity and inclusion work, and I have been trying to figure out where I fit in all of this.

Part of what makes this work complicated is that I get a lot of positive attention for the work that I do.  As a man who speaks out against sexual violence, I am lauded.  As a White person who speaks out against racism, I get a lot of pats on the back.  I regularly have young people tell me that my words and my actions have inspired them and changed their lives.  That’s enough to make my ego the size of a house . . .

So I have to check myself.  I have to ground myself in the reality that the work I do must be done in concert with activists of Color, with women, with Queer activists, and others.  I must remind myself that women have no choice but to do work to end sexual violence very day, and they don’t get accolades (in fact, they are often called “femi-nazis“).  People of Color must combat racism every day, and they are often rewarded with accusations of “playing the race card.”

I’ve got to be careful, or I could get a complex.

Perhaps I can ride in on my White Steed of Privilege and “use my privilege” to end racism on behalf of people of color and end sexism on behalf of women and ensure that every building is accessible for the differently-abled and end hate crimes and save all the African babies, and then I can ride off into the consensual sunset!

And that complex is the exact problem that often arises when people of privilege attempt to work “on behalf of” those who are “invisible” or “don’t have a voice.”  This kind of complex is created in a vacuum where there is little or no accountability to and relationships with the communities affected by the problem in question (racism, sexism, heterosexism, what have you).

I like to call this complex the White Savior Complex (though I definitely didn’t coin the term, and you could easily substitute White for any other position of privilege – “Straight Savior Complex”).  White people who are in no real way accountable to those they are trying to save attempt to ride in on their privilege and save the day, often making things worse for those they are trying to serve.

I see this complex everywhere:

– White teachers who want to “save the poor brown kids”

– White “voluntourists” who want to “use their time abroad to do some real good” and help build a school while they spend a week in Guatemala

– White college kids who want to create a video that tugs at the heart strings to get people to donate a bunch of money to raise awareness to a vague cause about an African rebel who steals children and makes them child soldiers

“Wait, I think I’ve seen something about that last one on Facebook!”

Enter Kony 2012.

Kony 2012 is an effort by Invisible Children to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, a Ugandan paramilitary and commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that is known for committing terrible atrocities against civilian populations in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic.  The Kony 2012 campaign aims to make 2012 the year that Joseph Kony is captured and tried for war crimes that he has undoubtedly committed in his commanding of the brutal paramilitary army.

The main vehicle that the Kony 2012 campaign is using in their effort is the now infamous Kony 2012 viral video:

55 million views and counting

I first watched the video yesterday after seeing about 400 posts on Facebook about it, and it definitely hit me emotionally.  How could anyone watch the video and not want to take action!?

After I sorted through the emotions that the video is deigned to bring up, I found a bit of discomfort, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I started to look for some critical voices.

After wading through a lot of supportive material in my Google search, I found this (an absolute must read for anyone who supports Kony 2012):

It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor. Incredibly, with the exception of the adolescent northern Ugandan victim, Jacob, the voices of northern Ugandans go almost completely unheard.

That’s it!  The video does a fantastic job of describing what some White Westerners believe is the problem, and the video exploits the voices and images of Northern Ugandans to that end, but in reality, this is a White man’s initiative.

Now, I can already hear the criticisms, “But what about Jacob!?”  “Invisible Children is NOT just White people.”  “They’re trying to do something good!  Why can’t you just shut up and stop being such a hater!?”

You’re right . . . Invisible Children is likely more than just White people, but it is founded, run, and largely supported by White Americans.  As an international aide organization that is run from the United States and run by White people, it is exactly like those “flies-on-the-eyes-of-the-nameless-African-child-donate-now” commercials: they exploit the suffering of the people the purport to help in order to galvanize support.

The problem with the White Savior Complex is two-fold:

    • It tends to oversimplify problems in order for White people to feel good about putting their energy into misdirected efforts.  In the case of Kony 2012, the problem of the LRA and their atrocities is wildly complicated compared to what the above video presents.  For instance, Invisible Children pushes for a military solution (led by the Ugandan military) that would kill or capture Joseph Kony.  Unfortunately, though, that may not be the best approach to the problem of the LRA.  First, it assumes that the Ugandan Army is a group we should support, but just like the LRA, the Ugandan Army is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed against the people of Northern Uganda.  Second, many of the people of Northern Uganda support peace talks and a solution (known as the Justice and Reconciliation Project) where any member of the LRA that lays down arms and renounces the army will receive immunity from prosecution.  They largely support this because it is often their children who stand to be killed through a military intervention.

Invisible Children assumes that the Ugandan Army, a group also under investigation by the ICC for atrocities committed against civilians, is a group we should support.

    • It tends to help White folks feel good about their efforts while, at minimum, doing nothing to help and, far too often, actively hurting the people affected by the problem at hand.  In the case of Joseph Kony, it is easy for White folks like the founders of Invisible Children to feel good about the work they are doing to capture of kill Kony.  They boast that they’ve almost single-handedly gotten this issue onto the Obama Administration’s agenda!  However, efforts to kill or capture Kony in the past have led to violent reprisal killings against civilians by the LRA, which actually makes the situation worse for the people affected by this war.  Kony has shown an interest in Peace Talks, which would end the atrocities without the undoubted bloodshed caused by a military intervention (like the one proposed by Invisible Children), but to call for his capture like Invisible Children does only will hurt the chance of Peace Talks.  Further, Invisible Children likes to boast that they build schools, provide jobs, and provide other direct services to the people they hope to help.  However, of the $8.6 million the organization spent last year, only 32% went to direct services!  The rest went to things like $90k/year salaries to the White people at the top of the organization, cool stickers and posters, and “awareness campaigns.”

Of the $8.6 million that Invisible Children raised last year, only 32% went to direct services!

Now, are these two problems problems only of the White Savior Complex?  No . . . definitely not, and perhaps a better term in this case could even be the Western Savior Complex, but the point stands: when people with privilege set out to help those they see as “invisible,” their efforts are unfortunately often misguided, misinformed, and harm-causing.

If we want to help, we have to be careful not to oversimplify complex realities in order to look for the easiest solution.  Instead, we should support the work of organizations that recognize and accountably work within the complex reality created by the problem.

Oxfam does tremendous work (with more than 76% of their funding going to direct services) to support the people in Northern Uganda and the surrounding area and to work for peace.

Conciliation Resources works to find just, equitable, and peaceful solutions to the conflict in the region and does incredible work to support the survivors of the war.  Conciliation Resources has been praised for “its profound understanding of conflict dynamics, its work to include marginalised groups, and also its strategy of forming local partnerships and maintaining neutrality.”

The International Rescue Committee has been working in the region for a long time, forming partnerships and offering resources to support those affected by the conflict.

If you want to support the work of those who manage to do important work in the region without reducing it to simple catch phrases and White Savior work, consider supporting these organizations.

Now, let me be clear.  What Invisible Children is doing is not all bad.  In fact, writing this blog creates a dilemma for me because I want to support young people to engage with issues of international peace and justice, and few things (if any) have ever brought the attentions of young people to an international peace and justice issue on such a large scale.  Raising awareness is good, but I want to encourage informed awareness and awareness that does not encourage White Savior Complexes (or Western Savior Complexes) in thousands of young people.  I am sure the folks at Invisible Children have good intentions, but to that I say, “To hell with good intentions.”

I want to support young people to engage with issues of international peace and justice, and I few things (if any) have ever brought the attentions of young people to an international peace and justice issue on such a large scale. Raising awareness is good, but I want to encourage informed awareness and awareness that does not encourage White Savior Complexes (or Western Savior Complexes) in thousands of young people.

So if the Kony 2012 campaign has touched you, and you want to do something to help end the atrocities committed in this war, support one of the three organizations above.  Lobby congress (and the culture makers and policy makers highlighted by Invisible Children) to support just and sustainable peace processes that won’t encourage revenge and more war.

And if you want to inform yourself about the conflict and the other side of Kony 2012, READ THESE RESOURCES!  No, they aren’t oversimplified, heart-string tugging videos, but they can help you to better understand the complexities of the problem and solutions at hand.

Taking Kony2012 Down a Notch” by Mark Kersten

Kony 2012, Conflict Minerals, and the Problems with Simple Advocacy About Complex Issues” from Tomorrow’s Economy

Kony 2012: Making the Invisible Visible” from Demand Nothing

Kony 2012: Why I’m Opposed to the Campaign” by Grant Oyston


11 thoughts on “Kony 2012 and the White Savior Complex

  1. Brilliant!!
    Thanks for writing this man.

  2. There’s an article in “The Atlantic” that echoes your points.

    I am very sympathetic to the plight of the Ugandan people terrorized by this conflict. However, as I watched this film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that buried in the subconscious of the filmmaker was the thought, “this is gonna make me famous!”. I feel terrible thinking this, but I’m being honest.

  3. “informed awareness”


  4. you may want to look at IC’s responses to these claims: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html
    i say enough of the “white people have no right to make things better” argument. i believe that if we see injustice, then we need to do all we can to respond– to tend the constricted strands of the interdependent web. we people of planet Earth are in desperate need of teaching self-care, sympathy and empathy and working around the clock to lat-out deconstruct patriarchy. we need to get to shared power — as HUMANS, regardless of plumbing, skin color, etc. that is not to say that what people have historically suffered is not important. or what people suffer now. it is all important. it is time for all hands on deck, across the boards. i suffered childhood sexual assaults almost daily, for 3 years of my life. today, as a sexual assault victim advocate, i am thrilled to have any and every person who wants to work to prevent the normalization of institutionalized sexism and sexual violence working to do so — man, woman, able -bodied, trans-sexual, purple, green or white. even if they have never suffered the impact of sexual assault. i wrote a play on modern slavery, based on a book called DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, written by a white man. Slaves come in every color. there are 27 million of them on the planet — 100,000 of them in the US. The play, (and all of my work) is created with the intention of educating, motivating and offering audiences tools for change. i do it to make a difference, because i have to. it is, straight up, moral reasoning and “felt thought”. i cannot and will not sit idly by, because i believe that to do so is to be complicit, period. is the fact that a monologue i my play tells the story of a child soldier of the LRA a problem? additionally, i am working with men on creating a new masculinity — a new version of strong that is nourishing, relational, and emotionally responsive — you know — men and women as allies? eve ensler has started V men. she is , like am i happy to have any warm willing and able mind engaged in telling the truth and giving voice to the bones (bones archtypically represent that which cannot be destroyed). if someone’s ego gets in the way, then we should take that apart, show that person to her of himself and encourage a mature, evolved response. if someone is self-aggrandizing, a more comprehensive approach is needed. if someone is being greedy or dishonest, that should be addressed and exposed. and if someone is accused and answers each and every claim as as substantively as IC has, then that response needs to be put out there. as a human being who lives in a very broken body yet works incessantly to make things better in every way possible, i resent you calling off people who are not suffering specific injustices directly. ever put on a sweater with a twisted sleeve? what tugs on the web tugs on us all, and we all have a responsibility to respond, as able (response-ability). we humans are prone to putting everything in categories. it is important when we are little (this is my mother — this is not. this is my home — this is not…) however, we need to become selectively permeable membranes, in order to inform and help one another — to co-create and collaborate on ways to tend each and every strand of the web. WE NEED US ALL! p.s. you may want to look at how many times kony has come to peace talks and gone back to violent, mindless slaughter, torture and terror. there are going to be ongoing problems until we rehabilitate or take out of circulation those committing atrocities. an army of children fueled by snorting gunpowder and cocaine, taught to dissociate and socialized to become killing machines will not correct itself with the capture of it’s leader, but it is a start.

    • A few points in response to your critique.

      They do a great job of responding to many of the concerns in your point above, but they still do not respond to what I see as the most important of the critiques. They claim that their efforts are Ugandan-run, yet they do not recognize that a majority of Ugandans when polled do not support a military solution to the problem (as explicated in my link about the Justice and Reconciliation Project). How can you consider yourself a credible partner in the work if you are ignoring the wishes of the majority of those affected by the violence?

      The vast majority of your critique seems to center on the idea that “white people have no right to make things better.” Did you read the piece? I said nothing of the sort. What your critique seems to imply is that you read the first few lines, read the title, and then started off into an angry response. What I say is that White people have a responsibility to check their privilege when they are trying to help. Awareness is not enough: Informed Awareness is necessary. I encourage readers to support three organizations that are doing accountable, non-White-Savior-oriented work: Oxfam, Conciliation Resources, and the International Rescue Committee. I encourage people to engage. I encourage people to connect. I encourage people to get involved. However, I cannot abide the over-simplified, hyped up bandwagon created by the people at Invisible Children. Their record since their inception has been spotty at best, and they manipulate White guilt in order to create the White Savior Complex in order to raise money. In the end, who are the three people at the top of the organization who make all of the final decisions and who make $80,000 per year? White Men.

      • Give Well staff and anyone else who hppeans to scroll to the bottom of the page. You lost me as an organization I can trust to give valuable advice on evaluating nonprofits because of this article. If you and your organization understood anything about nonprofits is that there is an organization for just about everything and for the most part each has a legitimate reason to be focussed on their particular mission. To say that we shouldn’t care about warlords like Kony but instead only be focused on Malaria is ridiculous. You can’t compare the two. Both are needed. Some people will gravitate to wanting to help victims of violence, others will want to help the sick. Both are needed. So, the way this story is written leads me to believe you as a company don’t understand the way nonprofits function and that is you main job. Therefore I’d advise anyone interested in learning more about nonprofits, their financial data or program effectiveness look to the more credible Charity Navigator and Guide star. They at least know what they are talking about.

  5. Jaimie,
    I hear you, and I did read every word you wrote. I think that the term “white savior” is an issue for me. I am in favor of lifting one another up and addressing injustice, as an “all humans who have their eyes open, possess a heart, and have integrity: on deck!” sort of situation.

    I have become more than a little disgusted with Invisible Children, having looked further into it — thanks to you, and other critics. (this happened before the founder’s glorious San Diego street show). Clearly, the organizations you list have integrity — unlike IC. I am more than a little resentful of efforts, such as IC’s, to fly evangelicalism under the radar. It is now clear to me that there is a lot of ego and power at work in the organization — along with what I believe to be religious addiction. I am a believer that if the world is to survive, we need lo get to moral reasoning, void of a supernatural sky cop… and yes, three white men raking in such large salaries is totally disgusting – profits from tee shirts, etc. should have primarily gone into helping the children, not into U.S. citizens’ pockets. I agree that IC has rolled out an oversimplified, hyped-up bandwagon (having subsequently, shot out its own tires)… I guess what initially drew me to IC was my feeling that awareness-raising and education are the places to start and media, social media and poster/graffiti campaigns are very effective vehicles. Such campaigns should, however, be launch pads, immediately offering people more information and inspiring action — get people’s attention, educate/substantiate, then encourage them to pick up tools.

    Without context and detail one can’t really see, and clearly, I was not looking thoroughly enough! I still say that when it comes to social justice, each one of us needs to contribute, to the best of our ability, in the most effective ways possible, regardless of our color, and do so with full self-awareness and self-honesty.

    Thanks for your reply, and for the good work you do tending the web. Let us continue and get more and more people to give voice to the bones… and may we all get beyond race and gender some day (never forgetting, just finally seeing that we are all a human family and realizing that sympathy and empathy are key and that we need to work here, on this planet to create shared power.)
    a girl can dream, can’t she?

  6. […] 4. At the beginning of March, the internet was abuzz.  All anyone could talk about was some dude named Joseph Kony who was stealing children in “Africa” and using them as child soldiers.  A lot of self-righteous White people got pretty excited about stopping Kony, so they liked a status.  They even slapped a sticker on a stop sign and bought a new t-shirt.  My response to the Kony 2012 phenomenon? Kony 2012 and the White Savior Complex. […]

  7. I needed to thank you for this good read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it.
    I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post…

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