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.
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.
- 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.”
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.
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.”
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