“The White Savior Industrial Complex”

My brother shared this article by novelist Teju Cole on Facebook. It was a further reflection on a series of tweets (and the reaction to them) by Cole about the internet film KONY 2012. Jeff Goldberg gave some examples of the complex at work here.

Some of the tweets by Cole:

3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

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

5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

Here’s one extended quote:

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. This subsidy was widely seen as one of the few blessings of the country’s otherwise catastrophic oil wealth. But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. The protests went on for days, at considerable personal risk to the protesters. Several young people were shot dead, and the movement was eventually doused when union leaders capitulated and the army deployed on the streets. The movement did not “succeed” in conventional terms. But something important had changed in the political consciousness of the Nigerian populace. For me and for a number of people I know, the protests gave us an opportunity to be proud of Nigeria, many of us for the first time in our lives.

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. After all, there is no simple demand to be made and — since corruption is endemic — no single villain to topple. There is certainly no “bridge character,” Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda and he is no longer the threat he was, but he is a convenient villain for those who need a convenient villain. What Africa needs more pressingly than Kony’s indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice. This is the scaffolding from which infrastructure, security, healthcare, and education can be built. How do we encourage voices like those of the Nigerian masses who marched this January, or those who are engaged in the struggle to develop Ugandan democracy?

I don’t agree with everything in the article (even that protesting to maintain oil subsidies is necessarily  the wisest course of action), but it’s an interesting read.


One comment

  1. It’s strange to me how I agree with Cole’s general point, given that he packs it with such bitter sarcastic hyperboles, conflates justice and charity, and misapplies race, economics, motivations, etc.

    What seems to be lacking from Cole’s article is practical solutions. His praise of Nigerian (not Ugandan) protests seems to come the closest, but the substance of the protests is a secondary concern… which bears an ironic similarity to his critique of Americans (or rather, white people) placing enthusiasm above their actual results.

    But at least they are locals rather than foreigners who are enthusiastic. And that, I think, is at the heart of Cole’s ideological issues. I get the sense that he is an American liberal slowly coming to terms with both the greater value and responsibility of liberty. Perhaps he’s in transition.

    I wonder if America in general isn’t also in a transition as we reevaluate the morality of intervention and the application of charity, particularly by the government.

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