Archive for 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.
The New York Times Opinionator online site has a very interesting commentary by law professor Daniel j. Sharfstein (Vanderbilt) on how some relatively well-off men in the slaveholding South were able to move from being “black” under the later very common one drop of blood rule (that is, some African ancestry) to being treated as “white” because they had some property, including sometimes property in enslaved African Americans, and connections and had done well in the pre-Civil War South.
Sharfstein makes this point about the historical data he has analyzed on a Confederate officer named Randall Lee Gibson in Louisiana who strongly supported the Confederacy, secession, and slavery:
The son of a wealthy sugar planter and valedictorian of Yale’s Class of 1853, Gibson had long supported secession. Conflict was inevitable, he believed, not because of states’ rights or the propriety or necessity of slavery. Rather, a war would be fought over the inexorable gulf between whites and blacks, or what he called “the most enlightened race” and “the most degraded of all the races of men.”
The great, sad, and sick irony about Colonel Gibson’s extremely racist view of the racial hierarchy and white supremacy was that he himself was the descendant of a free black man named Gideon Gibson who came to the South Carolina colony in the 1730s. Because he had married a white woman and had been a landowner in another colony, Gideon Gibson was granted substantial land in expanding South Carolina and eventually became a well-off planter and slaveholder there. This worked out because before the Civil War, as Sharfstein notes,
Most Southern states followed a one-quarter or one-eighth rule: anyone with a black grandparent or great-grandparent was legally black, and those with more remote ancestry were legally white.
As the Gibson’s descendants moved west and thrived in Louisiana, their African origins got “watered down” by more marriages and interactions with whites, and forgotten or hidden, and soon the descendant of a black man, Randall Gibson, became a raving white supremacist and Confederate Officer. This probably happened dozens if not hundreds of times over slavery’s centuries.
This is a clear example not only of how “race” is socially and societally constructed, but also of how powerful the age-old white racial frame is.
Even those whose ancestry is linked outside Europe to Africa can most certainly buy into and operate out of the white racial frame. What Sharfstein and commentators I have seen so far on this story do not do, is to call out the role of elite white men and the broader U.S. racist system and its imposed white racial frame as the reasons why Colonel Randall Lee Gibson felt the need to inferiorize black people and superiorize white people so aggressively. And to conform to the racial oppressor class so aggressively.
The U.S. racist system is so powerful that it dominates all who come within its sphere, including the minds of Americans of color, and counter-framing and resistance to whites’ systemic racism are very difficult for any person, and thus are only rarely attempted in a big way – in part because one can certainly die in this large-scale resistance and counter framing.
The New York Times has a very revealing story on President Obama’s trip to Brazil, and even calls out his colorblind racial framing.
The Brazilian officials frequently pointed to the similarities in the racial history and realities of the two countries, including the new Brazilian president, the first woman to hold that position, Dilma Rousseff:
The people in the United States and in Brazil, Ms. Rousseff said, had “dared to take at the highest level someone of African descent and a woman, demonstrating that the basis of democracy allows to overcome the largest barriers to build societies that will be more generous and live more in harmony.”
A former radical guerrilla fighting oppression in Brazil (and imprisoned and tortured), Rousseff later at a luncheon further spoke about how both countries
have the largest black populations outside Africa and “a long track record of the struggle of the minorities.” Lifting her glass, she said, “I propose that we should raise a toast to you and to the dream of Martin Luther King, the same dream of Brazilians and Americans, the dream of freedom, the dream of hope.”
Yet President Obama did not even once note such similarities or discuss racial breakthroughs or the persisting high levels of racial oppression in both countries, something even the usually colorblind Times reporting noted:
Mr. Obama, characteristically, did not overtly address his race, or race in general, in several joint appearances with Ms. Rousseff on Saturday.
Apparently, once again this pathbreaking US president fears talking about US racism, as he did in the Dr. Wright case, out of fear of alienating potential white voters. The power of the colorblind variant of the old white racial frame, again in 2011.
The numerous contacts that Greeks, Romans and other Europeans had with people of African origin have been portrayed in art for thousands of years. The objective of “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of The Root, is to capture and catalog that interaction for all of us to enjoy. Four of 10 projected volumes . . . are now available.
After tracing his maternal ancestry in 2005 through genealogical DNA testing, or personal genomics, and finding his ancestral links to the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone, actor Isaiah Washington attested to his “rebirth” saying he believes that “DNA will finally become the tool to bridge the gap between our brothers and sisters who have been lost.” Earlier this year, now “DNA-branded” [see note at end on this term] as Sierra Leonean, Washington was sworn in as a citizen of that country. Citizenship by way of mitochondrial DNA.
But what about the role of DNA for our brothers and sisters who have been stranded or detained abroad? Enter “the lips case”.
On May 21st 2009, Somali-born Canadian citizen Suaad Hagi Mohamud attempted to board a flight out of Nairobi to return home to Toronto, after a three-week visit to Kenya. Upon inspecting her passport, Dutch KLM airline authorities claimed that her lips looked different than that observed in her four-year-old passport photo, branded her an “imposter” and not the rightful holder of the passport that she presented. Mohamud was detained overnight in the airport. Two Canadian High Commission officials met with her the following morning, told her “you are not Suaad” and confiscated her passport. Mohamud was held in the airport for four days until she was released on a bond, tasked with proving her identity within a two-week time frame.
Canadian High Commission officials did not accept Suaad’s ID cards and she was charged with using a false passport, impersonating a Canadian and with being in Kenya illegally. Subsequently she was jailed by Kenyan authorities from June 3rd to June 11th, facing possible deportation to Somalia. While Mohamud was in limbo in Kenya, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon was quoted on July 24th as saying, “there is no tangible proof” that Mohamud is Canadian and that “all Canadians who hold passports generally have a picture that is identical in their passport to what they claim to be.”
It wasn’t until Mohamud requested DNA testing through a motion filed before the Canadian Federal Court by her attorney in Toronto, and then had that test conducted on August 10th 2009 that charges against her were dropped. Mohamud’s DNA was compared to that of her Canadian born son, confirming her identity with a probability of 99.99%. She was issued an emergency passport and she boarded a plane to Amsterdam to make her way home to Toronto arriving on August 15th. This DNA verification not only proved who she said she was, but, apparently, determined her citizenship status as well. This case raises the question of “who can be abandoned by the state and by what technological means? and “will this case be used to argue for even more surveillance by way of a genomic encoded passport?”
The Mohamud case reveals that although identification documents function as a key technology in the contemporary management of state sanctioned human mobility, the discretionary power exercised by the customs inspector, and increasingly by the airline official as proxy customs inspector, is a power that makes it plain that, as David Lyon puts it, “all technologies are human activities.” (Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance) Meaning, that these technologies of border control (passports, biometrics, airport pre-boarding passenger screening zones) are developed within, put to use and often replicate existing socio-spatial inequalities. (See this deadly example too)
For Mohamud, DNA testing was a technology of hope that allowed her to challenge her abandonment or “racial purging” by the state. The answer to whether Mohamud’s abandonment was racially charged is found in an interview with the CBC where Mohamud contested that
The Canadian High Commission wouldn’t be treating me the way they treat me. If I’m a white person, I wouldn’t be there in one day. I wouldn’t have missed the flight.
Mohamud has since filed a 2.6 million dollar lawsuit against the Canadian government.
Note: Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins uses the term “DNA-branded” in discussing the “freak” show that is ‘Whose Your Daddy?’ episodes of The Maury Povich Show and The Montel Williams Show, where potential fathers are subject to paternity testing and if DNA-branded as father they are subject to the requisite lecture on responsibility by the hosts.
Simone is now tweeting surveillance stories and links at @wewatchwatchers
Two weeks ago, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation released its 3rd index of governance ranking all African countries on four dimensions: safety and rule of law; human development; participation and human rights; and sustainable economic development. The index is funded and developed by a Sudanese-born British communications mogul. Mo Ibrahim has an interest in encouraging good governance in Africa and has also established the prize for achievement in African leadership. When I reviewed this year’s release, I was not so surprised at countries such as Sudan (47 out of 53 countries in Africa), the Democratic Republic of Congo (51) and Somalia (53).
In my review of the indicators used for the index, I wondered about the usefulness of the index as a proxy for tracking inter-communal violence generally. I searched for an indicator on social distance – the metaphorical and geographic indicator of ethnic relations and inter-communal violence. I also wondered about the impact of such an index. Do African leaders care about how their leadership is ranked on governance? Do they make policy decisions based on their ranking?
Sudan and DR Congo are two of the three largest countries in Africa; Somalia, of course, is experiencing the longest civil war in any country; that civil war has been raging for over two decades now – with no end in sight as African Union troops, with funding from the U.S. try to keep the peace and prevent the Islamist extremists from taking over the country. The Islamist extremists have taken responsibility for bombings in Uganda in July 2010 that killed 74 people, including an American. These extremists cannot allow any other world view as they lay to waste the future of the youth. There are reports of the same group sowing discontent among the immigrant Somali population in Nairobi, Kenya.
In DR Congo, over 5 million have died in the civil war; this has been a brutal war that is still raging in the heartland of Africa; where marauding soldiers rape and kill at will. The extra judicial killings in Sudan are estimated at over 300,000 in the Darfur region. In about 3 months, the Sudanese in the South will vote on whether to secede to form a separate country. The social distance between the groups there will take some time to bridge. (See here).
Killings in Darfur
Perhaps what we need is an index based on the per capita human suffering due to these brutal ethnic or religious conflicts; the index would be a predictive one based not on secondary data, but on surveys of sampled populations. The index would have a positive correlation with the indicator on social distance based on group identity. Perhaps we could use this model to explain the haunting case of Somalia – Somalia basically has one ethnic group, with several clans; it has one main religion, Islam. And yet, the country has not been governable for the past 20 years. It has managed to destroy the lives of generations its people.
Suffering in Somalia
Over at huffingtonpost, there is a good summary of former Republican Senator Al D’Amato’s (R-NY) strongly worded reaction to racist comments being made by a GOP strategist, Jack Burkman, on Fox’s heavily biased Business Network:
The blowup came during a discussion on Thursday’s edition of “Money Rocks” about whether or not to privatize the US Postal Service. …. Burkman launched the discussion by saying, “most of these guys working in the Post Office should be driving cabs, and I think we should stop importing labor from Nigeria and Ethiopia. That’s the skill level.”
D’Amato first just chided him for name calling, and another guest attorney Tamara Holder commented that
Making all these somewhat racist statements about Nigeria is a spinning of sorts…this has to do with government waste.
After Burkman defended his illiterate and racist commentary, again attacking Post Office workers, D’Amato, got angry:
You are a nasty racist …..that’s a bunch of bullshit and you should be ashamed of yourself and have your mouth washed out…Wait a minute…shut up. I listened to your racist bullshit.
One does not hear Fox’s often racist commentaries called out on Fox “news” network itself. Note too here the way in which some prominent white analysts also have a racist framing of immigrants from Africa. Not only is this framing defamatory and racist in singling out and stereotyping African immigrants over many other immigrants, but it also demonstrates ignorance about the recent African immigrant population. African immigrants today generally come in with relatively high levels of education and skills, often near or above the median levels of the native-born U.S. population. This image of unskilled Africans is yet again part of the white racist framing in this society – framing that is seldom systematically challenged in mainstream media.