Kony 2012: Whiteness, Social Media and Africa

There is a viral video spreading across social media platforms called Kony 2012 created by an organization known as Invisible Children. Just released on Monday, March 5, the video has already passed 75 million views on YouTube. This is a phenomenal reach for a video on the long side (30 minutes) about Joseph Kony a Ugandan war lord, that until now American audiences had demonstrated little interest in. The viral video has been amplified through reports at major, mainstream news outlets in the U.S. A week into its existence, the video campaign has even been spoofed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

There have also been some scathing critiques and reactions against the #StopKony campaign.  Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post, “Unpacking Kony 2012″ that details many of the problems with the video, including that the film gives Ugandans little agency in determining their own destiny.  Sarah Wanenchak wonders whether any viral video will necessarily be as overslimplified as this one is. For those that are interested in the mechanics of how this organization was able to pull off this viral campaign, there’s some fascinating data at SocialFlow (the key: pre-existing networks established with Christian youth).

What none of these excellent analyses examine, however, is the role of whiteness in the Kony 2012 phenomenon, and I want to focus on that aspect here because I think it’s central to the viral video’s appeal.

Sarah Wanenchak identifies the central, symbolic moment in the video:

“What is perhaps the film’s most revealing moment occurs quite early, when the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the situation – in a child’s terms. The child responds, ‘Stop him.’ Which is really the entire film in two words, on essentially the level of complexity at which it is delivered.”

That moment is captured in this digital still photo from that scene:

 

Obscured in this image is the photograph of Joseph Kony (just out of frame to the left). The image that’s visible is Jacob Acaye, a former child soldier in Uganda. The adult hand holding the top of the photograph is the boy’s father and the filmmaker, Jason Russell.  Throughout the film, we meet Jacob several times, and he is described as “a friend” by Jason and his well-coached son. In some ways, Jacob drives the action of the film as it is the promise that Jason Russell makes to him (to “make it stop”) that propels the rest of the video.

It’s this moment, and the image here, that carry the central message of the film, and it has much to say about “whiteness.”  It is, in effect, a white savior film with social media added in. This film is, (as Richard Dyer argues about another film) “organized around a rigid binarism: with white standing for modernity, reason, order, stability and black standing for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence” (1988:49).

The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voice over narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa. This is a deeply ironic claim given the importance of mobile technology throughout the continent, often at rates that out-pace the U.S.

The absurdity of this is playfully skewered in the “First Day on the Internet Kid” meme (“Share Kony Video, I Fixed Africa”). Yet, the more serious implications here are the ways that this kind of white racial frame is rooted in colonialism. The notion that Jason Russell – a white, heterosexual, American man – is going to “stop”and “fix” the problems in Uganda ignores the work already happening there in favor of a white-led campaign advocating military intervention.  One of the moments the video portrays as a victory #StopKony campaign is the order by President Obama to send troops to Uganda. The iconography of (predominantly white) U.S. troops with “boots on the ground” in Africa, flying an American flag conjures the very essence of colonialism and whiteness.

The Kony 2012 video’s binarism is, in the broadest sense, racist but not in the narrower sense of operating within a notion of intrinsic, unalterable, biological differences between groups of people (Dyer 1988:51). There is also a strong theme of evolutionism in the video as well, that the, good, liberal whites portrayed in the video are charting a path of progress that is potentially open to all. The video takes pains to draw a distinction between the “bad African,” Joseph Kony, to save the “good African,” Jacob Acaye, who we learn aspires to be a lawyer (as in the image above). Jacob, unlike Joseph Kony, is portrayed as reasonable, rational, humane, and liberal. White viewers are invited to root for (if not identify with) Jacob Acaye, and in so doing, the film positions itself as ‘white savior’ of this young man and the other children he represents.

Kony 2012 is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order, and now social media against the supposed chaos and violence of Africa.

 

Comments

  1. Joe

    Sharp and original media analysis not seen across the web…. Kudos for great deep media analysis, Jessie. And the bloody US imperialism in the Middle East needs some outside “saviors” too….

  2. cordoba blue

    When I viewed this I did not see “black standing for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence.” I saw this warlord Kony standing for chaos and violence. If the gist is to let Africa solve their own genocide, then this can all too easily be accomplished. Just ignore the plight of African children.
    Africa is similar to any other continent in that humans will always illustrate their inhumanity toward each other if given enough time. If one group of humans, green, blue, purple or orange, decides to aid their fellow humans, should we really be arguing about race? If genocide can be terminated, should we be asking, “Yes, but it’s white people helping blacks. That’s condescending. So let’s just let these children die. Better to allow mass death than appear condescending”.
    The Tutsi people came up with a final solution to the Hutu problem in Africa in April 1994. The mass killing was comparable, in time span, to the Holocaust of the Jews during WWII.Then the Hutus retaliated.
    Who is claiming that genocide is exclsively the province of Africans? NOBODY. The point is it happens on every continent. Should people outside that continent refuse to help their fellow humans? Should we just keep buying cars and playing video games because if we help it might be construed as “condescending”. By whom?
    If you were an African who witnessed his brother’s throat cut, would you refuse the help of white Americans because, “No. I don’t need your help. It looks like you’re being patronizing. Like a white savior movie. I saw Dances With Wolves too by the way, so it’s not like I’m not a movie critic myself. In fact, I’ll pass on the benevolence and just allow myself to die also.”
    Please read the following and then ask yourself if starting a campaign to raise world recognition of such atrocities is truly about race or just human beings helping other humans. If we get caught up with semantics when horrors like this are happening, what does that say about our ultimate goal? Isn’t the point of ENDING RACISM to become HUMANE?
    During the Hutu-Tutsi Holocaust testimonies from survivors confirm that rape was extremely widespread and that thousands of women were individually raped, gang-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery (either collectively or through forced “marriage”) or sexually mutilated.
    These crimes were frequently part of a pattern in which Tutsi women were raped after they had witnessed the torture and killings of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes. According to witnesses, many women were killed immediately after being raped.
    Other women managed to survive, only to be told that they were being allowed to live so that they would “die of sadness.” Often women were subjected to sexual slavery and held collectively by a militia group or were singled out by one militia man, at checkpoints or other sites where people were being maimed or slaughtered, and held for personal sexual service.
    The militiamen would force women to submit sexually with threats that they would be killed if they refused. These forced “marriages,” as this form of sexual slavery is often called in Rwanda, lasted for anywhere from a few days to the duration of the genocide, and in some cases longer. Rapes were sometimes followed by sexual mutilation, including mutilation of the vagina and pelvic area with machetes, knives, sticks, boiling water, and in one case, acid. [Human Rights Watch, Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath [Human Rights Watch, 1996].]
    Rwanda may in fact stand as the paradigmatic example of “genocidal rape,” owing to the fact that many of the Tutsi women who were gang-raped have subsequently tested positive for the HIV virus. According to the UK Guardian, “rape was a weapon of genocide as brutal as the machete.” “I was raped by so many interahamwe and soldiers that I lost count,” said one survivor, Olive Uwera. “I was in hospital for a year afterwards. A few months after my child was born the doctors told me I was HIV-positive.”
    Tests conducted on the 25,000 Tutsi women members of the Widows of Genocide organisation (Avega) showed that “two-thirds were found to be HIV-positive. … Soon there will be tens of thousands of children who have lost their fathers to the machete and their mothers to Aids.” [See Chris McGreal, "A Pearl in Rwanda's Genocide Horror", The Guardian [UK], December 5, 2001.
    People living in the middle class world of America today have never witnessed or experienced tragedy on this level. How can we be arrogant enough to claim it’s a conflict of racial philosophy to attempt to reduce this degree of suffering? This is not about academic philosophy.
    It’s about watching your brother’s limbs cut off one by one, and then being raped 64 times in the mud by 64 different men. It was perpetrated against whites by whites during the Holocaust. It was perpetrated by whites against blacks during American slavery. It has happened previously in history. It will happen again. However, with tele-communication globalization of our planet, perhaps we can intervene in the 21st Century.To me this was the gist of the video.

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