KONY 2012: Worthwhile Charity or White Man's Burden?

5 years ago

The 30-minute documentary by advocacy group Invisible Children has over 76 million hits on YouTube. For social and political activists like me (well, when I was younger, anyway) the fact that over 76 million people have watched this video shows an impressive reach -- despite its mixed message. In case you haven’t heard, the documentary portrays the history of the group and the young man who inspired them, Jacob Acaye, a then thirteen-year old Ugandan boy whose brother was murdered. The film’s call to action urges people to participate in encouraging the American government in tracking down Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who, for over two decades, wreaked havoc in Northern Uganda.

If there is a public outcry to find and arrest a man who is alleged to be responsible for mass murder, brainwashing children to become child solders, and basically wreaking havoc on the Ugandan people, I applaud it. But I also applaud the numerous critical articles on the validity of the documentary and what its intent really means.

Advocating for those is commendable. But white folks getting involved in a non-white part of the world can be problematic -- and I'm seeing a lot of criticism of KONY 2012 itself. It's the latest in a troubling, paternalistic pattern of privileged white people discussing causes in Africa and other continents commonly perceived as "disenfranchised" because of race, gender or socio-economic status. The Ugandans of KONY 2012 do not have the access or opportunity to tell their own story; their voices are only legitimized and heard after being filtered through a white point of view.

KONY 2012’s film producer Jason Russell used his five year-old white son as an anchor for the documentary; explaining Kony's acts and the situation in Uganda to the child is a key narrative device. I find it kind of insulting to the viewer -- we can sympathise with a white kid, but not with an African kid? It moves the emphasis away from the African children who have been -- and possibly will be -- victimized. And we should note that it's Russell's son, not his daughter, further representing the continuation of white male patriarchy in the world.

There were criticism that the film quoted only three Ugandans, two of them politicians, and that it spent more time showing the filmmaker's five-year-old son being told about Joseph Kony than explaining the root causes of the conflict. It also doen’t help in providing constructive assistance to those who really need it. Chris Blattman, a professor at Yale University (who is White) says:

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.

Many critics have said Kony’s story has been massaged to shock people sitting in La-Z-Boys in the comfort of their homes, giving the impression that Kony is still in Uganda, terrorizing and torturing young boys and raping young girls. In fact, the LRA was evicted from Uganda in 2006, and while facets still remain, the recovery rate has greatly improved since Kony left the country. There are claims in the documentary that if people do not donate to the cause the American government will not have the resources to keep the troops that President Obama deployed in 2010 to assist the Ugandan military (who also have a shady past) in the country. But is there a timeline for Obama to pull the advisors and troops? Why the urgency, and why the April 20th date?

Jezebel was one of the first websites to extensively question the legitimacy of the documentary. Writer Katie Baker questioned the financials of the organization, such as Invisible Children's ties with extreme right Christian groups:

But one wonders what kind of "special thanks" Invisible Children has given to the National Christian Foundation, which has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the nonprofit over the past few years. The National Christian Foundation is the largest, most active funder of the Far Christian Right, and states on its website that they "make certain every dollar that comes to us is ultimately distributed according to our Christian mission" and that they only fund nonprofits "enable followers of Christ to give wisely to advance His



Still other people are giving Kony 2012 the side-eye because of its Yankee-centric viewpoint that seems to target youth to contribute to plaster their cities - legally and illegally (and most importantly, donate money), and minimal representation of African activists. I contacted my little sister, Andrea, a refugee studies graduate and a legal coordinator who works at the Montreal City Mission, organization that offers legal information and serves as a rights advocate for refugee claimants in Montreal, Quebec. She is a bit skeptical of the campaign and says that in order for Invisible Children to make the most impact, the North-American-centric view makes sense.

“American politicians might not actually care about child soldiers in Uganda, but they do care about getting the support of the electorate, so the more people (including new voters - which the kids involved in this campaign are) who witness them taking action, the better for them - regardless of their actual intentions, hopefully some good can come of it.”


There are numerous campaigns, some with a strong online presence, that have not created the buzz that Invisible Children has been able to get within a week of being on YouTube and Vimeo. What is the key to their success? Andrea mentioned that her organization has a campaign against the Canadian conservative government’s Omnibus Immigration Bill , which includes provisions allowing the government to detain refuges for one year, based on the manner in which they land in Canada -- with no review of the reasons for their detention. Getting the public’s attention and support on matters within our country is an exercise in frustration. Is it because it isn’t sexy enough or that it centers around immigrants coming to North America -- immigrants who could potentially "take" North American jobs? Is it easier to romanticize the plight of people who are far, far away?

AfriPOP! brings up the question:

How 'bout we save those Invisible Children in Detroit, South Central LA, Youngstown Ohio, Brooklyn and Atlanta?? How 'bout we clean up our OWN back yard before we go into Uganda (and not SYRIA? Where people are being slain as we read this piece) There are senseless murders, political oppression and tyrants in the good ole US of A - free the people of THIS country and the rest of the world can come next.



But if we send money we'll feel better about ourselves and go on without having to actually be engaged with the situation!!

While African-American focused websites have reported on Kony in the past, the documentary has caused a number of bloggers to comment on the popularity of Russell's YouTube video, as constrasted with the lack of interest when Black websites first reported on the LRA. FromClutch Magazine:

You’ve seen it before. Worthy causes only become noteworthy once white folks step in to champion it, never mind the black and brown people who have worked in the trenches to bring many of our world’s social ills to light. Somehow, people only sit up and take notice once a predominately white org or white celeb take up the case. Why is that?


Boing-Boing’s Xeni Jardin gathered the perspective of sixteen African writers, journalists and activists who took offense to the lack of perspective of native Ugandans, which may perpetrate the stereotype of African people as weak, uneducated and poor victims, unable to survive without handouts from the western world. As Dinaw Mengestu writes at Warscapes, Kony 2012 might succeed at shaving down a complicated narrative to make the issue more palatable for a general audience, but:

….it’s a distortion, or at worse, a self-serving omission of the extensive efforts made over the past decade by the UN, US, Ugandan and South Sudanese governments, and numerous religious and civil organizations across Uganda, to bring Kony to justice.


What do you think about KONY 2012? It’s an important cause….so should we ignore the criticism and just support it?

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

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