white privilege and the impulse to help: some thoughts on #Kony2012

You’ve probably already seen links to the online film Kony 2012.  The 30-minute documentary produced by Invisible Children has gone viral, and #KONY2012 has been trending on twitter for days.  Of course, as with anything that garners immediate and national publicity, there has been some criticism as well.  Several people have asked for my thoughts on the matter, and I thought I’d weigh in.  But first, here’s the video.  You really should watch it if you haven’t yet.

 

I first became aware of Invisible Children in 2005, when I was given a screener DVD of their first documentary by a mutual friend of the filmmakers.  I had a couple friends who were on staff with Invisible Children . . . I knew it was a group of recently-graduated college students who were out to change the world.  I watched the film and I was deeply moved.  I had never heard of the LRA, despite the fact that they’d been terrorizing Uganda for 20-some years at that point.  My heart was broken for the generation of children who were recovering in Uganda, trying to move forward with their lives after months or years of being brutally raped or forced to kill in the name of Joseph Kony.  My first impulse after learning about these atrocities was to try to help in some way.

My biggest goal, after seeing the film, was to somehow use my counseling skills to help rehabilitate returned children in Uganda.  I knew that PTSD had to be rampant, and I felt like my training as a therapist could be put to good use.  For a couple years, I helped facilitate trips to Uganda, in a partnership with my church and a church in Northern Uganda.  I was supposed to go on three of those trips, and each time some major life crisis resulted in me having to cancel my trip.  A miscarriage, a car accident, another miscarriage . . . every attempt at going to Uganda was thwarted.  Soon enough, Jafta came into our lives, and more kids shortly thereafter.  My desire to help the Acholi people was put on the back-burner, and as we began the adoption process from Haiti, I began feeling that Haiti was the place where I was supposed to direct this impulse to help that was stirred by the story told in Invisible Children.  Being in Port-Au-Prince during the earthquake and adopting our Haitian son only solidified that I wanted to focus my advocacy there.

This is why I think storytelling is so very important.  Blinders were taken off my eyes after I saw the first film nearly ten years ago.  Since that time, I have felt a heavy responsibility to educate myself on what is going on in the world.  Learning about the Acholi people was the tip of the iceburg . . .and it motivated me to immerse myself in world news to learn more about global injustice.  I tell my story about how Invisible Children inspired me not to illustrate how I then connected to the children in the film . . . obviously there was another path I was to take.  But I truly believe that seeing that film softened my heart to global issues, and made me more compassionate and interested in the world around me.

One of the major criticisms levied at the filmmakers of #Kony2012 is that they are a bunch of privileged, white Southern California kids who are trying to “save” Africans from Joseph Kony.  And, well . . . . they are.  These guys are charismatic and creative.  They’re driven and good-looking and yes, obnoxiously hipster . . . but all of these things are what paved a way for them to have a huge platform in social media.  They have managed to give an international voice to the Acholi people, who have been terrorized for 25 years..   Would it have been preferable for a Ugandan filmmaker with connections, resources, and an astute understanding of social media to produce this film?  Sure.  Should we have continued another decade or two of people living in fear of an international madman while waiting for that to happen?  I don’t think so.  Unfortunately, the young men of Northern Uganda spent their college years living in fear of abduction, rather than attending film school and cutting their teeth at internships that taught them the ins and outs of social media.  They didn’t have that privilege.

kony 2012

I get that there’s a rub that it takes hip, young white people to get other young white people to care about global issues. I agree that it’s annoying that the fimmakers used a white child in the film to garner empathy for the children of African with an “all kids are important” analogy.  But do I think they did that because they are ethnocentric?  No.  I think the filmmakers understand the unfortunate reality that so often, children in Africa are written off because they don’t look like the majority’s own children. I agree that it’s frustrating that so often, stories of minority hardships are only given credibility and interest when told by majority voices.  I see all of these things as problematic, and as markers of systemic racism.  At the same time, until the system is remedied, it may mean that those who hold the privilege use their voices to act as allies, and it may mean that those with more privilege volunteer their time, resources, and influence to give voice to others.

The concept of white privilege does not exist to evoke guilt in white people.  There are major benefits to acknowledging white privilege.  In doing so, we are able to lay some of that privilege down, we are able to be more inclusive and less ethnocentric, but we are also able to use the privilege we have to advocate for others.  I think it’s disgusting to squander privilege by doing nothing. Should we bask in blind privilege while being apathetic and ignorant to the rest of the world, for fear of someone chastising us for our privilege if we try to help someone less fortunate?  Ridiculous.  White privilege exists, whether someone is making a documentary about the Acholi people or working a corporate job in ad sales.  Frankly, I’m a little sick of it being levied as an insult for anyone who dares to advocate for people of another race or culture.

My friend Jen Hatmaker echoes similar sentiments in a post about #Kony2012 today, saying,

“When it is all said and done, when my grandchildren read about Joseph Kony and eleven-year-old sex slaves in Haiti and children sleeping on the streets in Ethiopia and foster kids in their fifteen home, and they say, “What did you do about all these tragedies?”


I am not going to say, “Well, I didn’t want to be labeled a white supremacist, so I wrote mean blogs about folks who threw their hat in the ring.”
I am not going to say, “It was complicated. So I didn’t do anything.”
I am not going to say, “People were extremely critical back then. It was PR suicide to engage difficult issues. I remained troubled but silent on the sidelines. I cared in my mind.”

I suppose I identify with this criticism because I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of it, as a blogger who tries to advocate for social justice on a regular basis.  In October I wrote a post about the connection between slavery and chocolate and it was republished at several other websites.  While clearly many people appreciated the information, I couldn’t believe how many commenters took offense at my message.  I was criticized for having a messiah complex, for being a “white savior”, for being preachy, for being a hypocrite, for not caring for children in the US, and most frequently, for being a “bleeding-heart liberal”.  It was astounding to me that a post that was meant to bring injustice to light was actually a catalyst for so many people to take issue with me personally, as someone trying to give information, instead of being outraged at the grave human rights issues I was presenting.  So when I see people jumping on the bandwagon to criticize Invisible Children on account of their race or age or socio-economic status, I’m annoyed.

That being said, there are some legitimate concerns being raised, related to the organization’s financials, mission, and methodology.  I think that the organization has done a really good job of addressing most of those concerns in their recent video.

 

I think we could debate all day about whether or not their choice to focus on advocacy vs. aid is the best use of resources, but the bottom line is, they are filmmakers and this is how they’ve been moved to act.   Some people are criticizing them for not implementing a more cohesive recovery plan.  Others are criticizing them for stepping out of the role to implement aid programs at all.  And you know what all of this banter reminds me of?  It’s as if a bunch of people were standing around a burning apartment building.  Some people are working on stopping the fire.  Others are working on attending to the people who’ve been pulled out.  But what if the majority of people are just standing around, criticizing the people who are trying to help for starting on the wrong job, instead of getting in and helping out, too? 

I’m also frustrated by the reactions that seem to want to denigrate their efforts in favor of different forms activism.  In my opinion, tweets like “What about the invisible children in America?” are attempts to derail the conversation, not an actual bid for activism towards US children.  If your heart has been stirred to advocate for a different people group, then do it.  It doesn’t need to be in contrast or comparison with how Invisible Children chooses to advocate. Again, are you going to walk up to a fireman in the middle of a mission and ask, “What about the houses being burglarized?” 

Invisible Children has never existed to swoop in and solve all of the problems they outline in their films,.  Nor has their mission ever been some kind of neo-colonialist, “white man’s burden” effort to Westernize the Acholi people.  Their mission is raising awareness about the LRA.  They have partnered with some key Ugandans who have mobilized to help rehabilitate child soldiers.  One such person is Jolly Okot, who was featured in the documentary War Dance for the work she does with Acholi children.  This is such a good movie, and if you’ve been moved by Kony 2012, I definitely recommend watching it to see how some of the children are finding redemption through the arts.  Jolly is now the in-country director for Invisible Children.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Jolly and she’s an incredible person with a deep passion for helping the Acholi people maintain their cultural pride and traditions. 

Granted, there are aspects of this documentary that I don’t care for.  But I’m not the audience. This film was made to be a short, motivational introduction to the issue, to appeal to those previously uninitiated to global issues of social justice.  Is it oversimplified?  Of course it is. It’s a 30-minute spot created for social media. Yes, it’s absolutely sensationalist. That’s why it’s being shared all over social media outlets instead of an in-depth Al Jazeera documentary on the same subject.  It’s slick, flashy, and maybe a bit cheesy, but I don’t think it’s manipulative or stretching the truth.  The filmmakers were very clear that Kony is no longer in Uganda and that he is now wreaking havoc in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.  Their goal was to create a film that was moving, that told a story, and that people would be compelled to share.  And they were really, really successful.

A lot of the writers who have been openly critical seem to want to illustrate their previous knowledge of Kony and all the details the film left out.  Of course there is more to the story, but again this is an introduction to the issue.  The reality is, most Americans don’t know or care about Kony’s LRA.  Just last year, Rush Limbaugh made completely ignorant statements about the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) with the salacious and patently untrue headline Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians:

"Lord's Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them. That's what the lingo means, 'to help regional forces remove from the battlefield,' meaning capture or kill. So that's a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and -- (interruption) no, I'm not kidding. Jacob Tapper just reported it. Now, are we gonna help the Egyptians wipe out the Christians?"

Case in point: last week, the world was abuzz over Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a prostitute, and YES.  That was disgusting. But several months ago he defended a madman responsible for raping, kidnapping, killing and mutilation, and I did not see a single facebook post or tweet in outrage over it.  So do I think the world needs an education about Joseph Kony?  Indeed, I do.

The one criticism of the recent Kony 2012 film that I do share is that I’m not 100% sure about increasing U.S. government efforts to militarize Africa.  Honestly, I’ve very conflicted on this one, and not just in relation to Uganda.  I do believe there comes a time when human atrocity is so great that the global community needs to step in. History has given us many examples, and I don’t think any of us would look back and wish that we hadn’t helped in squelching Hitler’s reign of terror.  I think that Joseph Kony should absolutely be captured and punished for his crimes, but at the same time I see a film like Restrepo and have major reservations about sending our young armed forces into any war situation.  I have the same feelings about Syria right now.  I will say that I have massive frustration towards the US tendency to only care about social justice when we have something to gain.  Our decision to remain uninvolved during the last two decades of Kony’s reign in Uganda, while sending troops to oil-rich countries for lesser evils is quite disconcerting, and I appreciate that this film is bringing that to light.  At the same time, I don’t know if the answer is sending our troops, or aiding the corrupt Ugandan army.  What I do know is that I’m probably not the person qualified to be making those strategic decisions.  Still, I think that people being informed about Kony is important, and I think calling for the powers-that-be to put energy into his capture is warranted.

All that to say, I am glad to see the buzz that #Kony2012 has created.  My hope is that it will stir people to become more educated on all issues of social justice.  If you were touched by the film, I hope you will consider becoming informed on what is happening in Sudan, in Syria, in Malaysia, in Greece, and here in the US.

Also, if you want more information on what the LRA is currently up to, check out these articles:

The Christmas Massacres -  LRA attacks on Civilians in Northern Congo

Trail of Death - LRA Atrocities in Northeastern Congo

It’s far from over.

I believe that the impulse to help in the face of tragedy is a good impulse – I think wisdom and research are important, but I don’t think a burning desire to help should be squelched by fear of being called out for white privilege or liberalism. I know many people felt an impulse to help in the immediacy just following the earthquake in Haiti, and Kony 2012 is creating that similar passion in people.  However, I would encourage you to watch Kony 2012, get mad at the injustice, and then ask yourself:

What do I have, and how and where should it be used?

Maybe the capture of Joseph Kony won’t be your mission.  Maybe it will be women’s rights or family preservation or orphan care or human trafficking or access to education.  But maybe, like me, a film made by Invisible Children will inspire you into figuring out what cause you will take up, and what gifts you have to help others.

EDITED TO ADD: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out two really amazing organizations that are bringing jobs and opportunities to people in Northern Uganda: check out 31 Bits and Krochet Kids.


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