On Kony 2012 and the White Savior Industrial Complex

I had an unfinished piece in my blog editor for several weeks about cultural appropriation as it pertains to weddings. It’s something that I feel … conflicted about, but every time I went to write, I got stuck in the morass of complexities.

Eventually I deleted the post.

I feel somewhat similarly about the whole Kony 2012 youtubepalooza and the resulting backlash. It’s like I have something to say, but don’t know what to say. This shit is complicated yo.

But in any case, I’ll give it a go. Bear with me.

So, let’s start with Kony 2012. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Invisible Children … they oversimplified a complex issue, they support military action combatting violence with violence, they ignore the atrocities that are being potentially committed right now in the name of getting Joseph Kony, and that’s not even going into the whole weird public mastrubation thing or this deeply weird video that Invisible Children put out in 2006.

So look.  I wasn’t clear enough in my Mike Daisey post about my criticisms of Daisey. I’m going to be clear now: there are a ton of fair critiques of Invisible Children.

But (because there always has to be a but) I find the whole White Savior Industrial Complex critique to be pretty damn unfair.

According to the White Savior Industrial Complex critique, white people are guilty of thinking they are the saviors of the third world. They are guilty of meddling in affairs of which they know nothing. According to tweets by Teju Cole, “the White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Cole further adds:

“This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.”


“Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.”


“I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

Now to a certain extent, I get what Cole is saying. As a fellow privileged non-white person, I understand what it is to be the recipient of well meaning white person condescension. I have heard plenty of people who know nothing at all about India wax lyrical and eloquent about everything from arranged marriages to the caste system to bridal burnings. And it’s frustrating.

On the other hand, I recognize a few things:

One is this: as a privileged Indian-American who comes from privileged Indian middle class families, I am not the owner of the truth about India either. I don’t believe that any one person in this world owns this truth. But if anyone does, it is certainly not me.

The second is this: There are plenty of non-Indians out there, white people even, who  have studied India more than me, who care about India, who have made it their lives’ work to ameliorate some of the problems in India.

And thirdly: That people care about my country, that people wish to save the world even, is not sentimentality akin to a hippo, wounded or otherwise.

Cole admits to much of this: he acknowledges that white people aren’t the only people with privilege in the world; he accepts his complicity in what he terms “transnational practices of oppressive practices;” he even concedes that he alone does not own the truth and that other middle class Africans disagree with him.  And yet, he gives off the impression that while it’s okay for other Africans to disagree with him, it’s not okay for white people to.

And while he says he understands the “internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can” he has little to say to the well meaning white person that may ask, “How can I help?”

For Cole the answer is to look at American foreign policy and see the horror that we hath wrought. But as an American, Cole must understand that this view of America is almost as reductive as the views of Africa that he has criticized.

The reality is that individual Americans have little influence on American foreign policy. Cole argues otherwise since Americans vote, but, this is honestly ludicrous. The Iraq War was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Barack Obama, who was nominated for President in 2008 in part due to his opposition to the Iraq War, has been a fairly hawkish president in practice. Individual Americans may believe that detainees in Guantanamo should be sent home. They may be horrified by the use of drones and the killing of American citizens without due process. They may care deeply about the 1.5 million Iraqis who died in the American “war of choice.”

But they don’t know what to do about that.

So instead, Americans watch a video about a terrible man who is apparently building an army of children. Because they care, these Americans ask, “How can I help?” And because Jason Russell of Invisible Children, for all his sins, fundamentally gets this deep desire to just do something, he provides these Americans with actual things they can do.

And the things that Invisible Children suggests are simple.

And reductive.

But they take the time to actually answer the question, “What can I do to help?”

And until the Teju Coles of the world actually figure out how to answer that question in a constructive way that doesn’t involve self-flagellation for the sins of one’s government, well, the “wounded hippo” will continue to follow the Jason Russells of the world.

It’s unfortunate, but there it is.

“How can I help?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, and I don’t fault Cole for not having one. But I do fault him from side stepping the question and then slapping the white industrial savior complex label on anyone who attempts an answer.

5 responses to “On Kony 2012 and the White Savior Industrial Complex

  1. I get what you’re saying and agree to a large extent. I guess that what sits wrong with me is anything that lets people pat themselves on the back for saving the world by posting a YouTube link. in other words, I can’t say “well at least they’re trying” because really they’re not. They want to be absolved of some sort of guilt. At least they have empathy or compassion, yes. But they’re not really trying to effect meaningful change. As for the how, I totally agree we have no real influence over foreign policy. But we have tons of domestic problems that anybody who wants to take the time can find a way to engage with. If we are unsure how to save the world, start small! But that’s just my overtired two cents 🙂

  2. Melissa, I agree with you that the Incredible Children campaign let’s people complacently click a link and feel virtuous. COMPLETELY.

    But what is Teju Coles answer if not just that Americans should feel guilty and berate themselves over the failings of their government?

    And while I completely agree that there are ways in which we can help out more concretely at home, I do want to point out that 1) that do-goodery is often also chalked up to white guilt even when it is local since many disadvantaged communities are non-white. 2) Just because I contribute to my local community does not make me not want to help my global community. In the absence of constructive ways to help, people will fall back on posting YouTube links because that’s all they can think to do.

  3. I still can’t bring myself to watch the Invisible Children video, so I heard all the backlash before I’d even been sucked in by the video in the first place. But I agree that it’s always easier to criticize people than to provide real solutions. I know this post is about the White Savior Complex, which I honestly don’t think about that much because sea turtles and albatrosses can’t write criticisms of me and my Human Savior Complex, but this does remind me of the woman who wrote a scathing article about a little campaign in London to get restaurants to stop giving out plastic straws. She went off on it because she felt that straws were a ridiculously small issue compared to all the other environmental issues out there. But did she bother to give people other things to do to help? No. She just wanted to criticize. Bugs the shit out of me, honestly.

  4. I don’t want to get into an argument over Teju Cole. The most imrnptaot point is that non-Western people have agency and that was the lesson of last years Arab Spring. Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. The Iraq war is a reminder of what happens when the West decides to intervene in situations or societies in which it has little knowledge of.Yes, sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing if you are not willing to take the time to understand the World around you. The Kony video simplified an extremely complex situation. That is what Africans, Ugandans and people who have an understanding of the subtleties of life in Africa are alarmed about.You have also understand that it is not all about you . The West didn’t intervene in Rwanda but Rwanda managed to build something out of the ruins of a genocide. Somaliland and Puntland enjoy relative peace and Vietnam would have been better off without US intervention.Africans are pleading for you to listen to their voices, to consider that they also are human. That American college kids don’t really have all the answers to the World. If you cannot grasp that, then the World has serious problems.

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