Reading “Kony 2012”

Like a good number of twenty-something’s with a bleeding heart, I reposted the above video yesterday to my facebook news feed. The video, which has gone viral in the most absolute sense a video can, has brought a hefty dose of controversy with it. Even my post brought some, as a couple of friends began arguing the merit of government (re: United States) intervention in a foreign affair (re: Uganda and the countries of central/east Africa). What I didn’t realize as this was going on, was that an even heftier body of critique was being thrown at the video. While much of it revolves around the non-transparency of the Invisible Children organization (the makers of the video), even more of it highlights the complex governmental problems of the region and how one poster plastering campaign won’t fix these problems.

And for that I have to agree.

However, that’s not the issue that’s giving me pause. I do think there is still awareness that can, and should, be made of the LRA and Joseph Kony. What is giving me pause is the underlying structure in the video itself. Watch the video, if you haven’t. Watch it again. What do you notice? There is very little auto-representation in the video. The faces of Invisible Children, of those who are helping to right the wrongs committed by the LRA, are the faces of white Americans. While Jacob, the Ugandan boy who is now a young man, features in the video, he is not the protagonist. The protagonist isn’t even Joseph Kony. Rather, it is director Joseph Russell and his young son Gavin, who feature as the teacher and the ignorant, but willing to learn student. They are both white, and from the appearance given, distinctly of the middle class. It is ultimately Gavin, who is smart enough to understand that Kony is a bad man, that is the link between the viewer and the video. Gavin understands that Kony needs to be stopped. He even says that he wants to be, “just like you” to his dad when he grows up. And if young Gavin can be this way, then why not you, the viewer? Unfortunately, this leads directly into the major critique that I haven’t been able to shake. That is, the “White Savior complex.”

The history between Western Europe, America, and Africa is complicated to say the least. We all know about slavery in the United States. What often gets lost in this knowledge is that Africa has always been viewed as “other;” in need of saving or dominance. Take your pick, the themes have been played out many times. Dominance to support slavery, and salvation to support missionary work, where the mystic “heathen” Africans need to brought to the light. Considering the present culture of the United States and it’s moves towards secularism, this has been translated into things like “Africa is hurting, and we need to help.” It is, despite all good intentions, a reification of the notion that “black/African=bad, white/American(European)=good.” No where is this more clear than where the U.S. sends troops to “help” the Ugandan army. It’s shown, in the narrative of the film, as the spot where things get better. Ultimately, it will be the viral poster/social media campaign that will bring Kony down, and this of course is going to come from the largely white, Western world. I can’t shake that this neo-colonialist view is embedded deep in the structure of the video. I don’t think, however, that this is intentional. It is simply a result of the discourses that have been at play for a long time in the relationship between Africa and the West.

Is the campaign to make Kony famous invalid then? This is where I don’t have an answer. Every fiber of my being was fighting to not view the video in this way. To not speak ill of a good intentioned act. Unfortunately, I can’t just suppress those feelings, because the video is good at getting an affective response from the viewer. What I can say is this; if the action simply ends when Kony is captured (or killed), then this white savior complex will simply be reinforced. Instead, those of us who feel moved to participate in this campaign, should ask the hard questions and do the research necessary to say, “he’s gone, what next?” It’s clear from the few blogs and articles I read critiquing the video that the issue now is not so much Kony, but the complex politics of this region of Africa. Perhaps the next step should not be to ask “what we as Americans can do,” but “how can we help the peoples of this country help themselves.” And then we should get out of the way. Because the people of African don’t need a “white savior,” and “we” need to stop promoting the idea that “we” can save them.


Rachel Held Evan’s has put together a good list of resources, and much of what I talk about came from this list.


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