Kony 2012 and the 'White Savior Industrial Complex:' An Unfair Critique of Activism

Nigerian writer Teju Cole posted seven tweets earlier this month cautioning activists against viewing the words as “nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” He draws attention to the “white savior,” who does not seek justice but wants “a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” These tweets spawned much discussion about the impact of Western activism in developing countries. 

Cole continued the discussion in an article arguing that those who want to “make a difference” do not think “constellationally” (i.e., understand the complexity) about the causes they defend. He makes a valid point — blind activism is dangerous, and activists must seek to educate themselves about the multiple structures of power at play in the causes they defend. But his dismissal of “fresh-faced young Americans” is not only unfair, but also traps activists into despair and inaction. He is implying that the world’s problems are too multifaceted to fully understand, let alone try to change.

Throwing one’s hands up causes a far bigger problem than “Western activism.” It leads to complacency. If activists become consumed by the process of understanding every single dimension of a problem, they will become paralyzed by its magnitude instead of doing something to alleviate it. I am not arguing that enthusiasm without diligent research is the answer to the world’s problems, but trying to indefinitely increase knowledge should not become an excuse for doing nothing at all. 

It is easy to criticize the efforts of others trying to do good. Invisible Children created Kony2012, the viral video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony that inspired Cole’s tweets, to raise awareness. The video gave rise to an unprecedented volume of criticism, some of it justified. Invisible Children’s response to the criticism was satisfactory to some skeptics and unsatisfactory to others, but no one can deny that more people know about Kony today than before the video was released on March 5.

Regardless of whether one supports Invisible Children, increased awareness of injustice makes the world a more hopeful place. Is a model of activism rooted in awareness enough to solve all the world’s injustices? Of course not — awareness can and should lead to more questions and a quest for deeper understanding. And ultimately, a deeper understanding should translate into action that seeks to alter the injustice that activists are fighting against.

But to focus on what Invisible Children got wrong or the dangers of Nicholas Kristof's model of “advocacy-by-journalism” is to discredit the efforts of those who want to make the world a place of less acute suffering. Dismissing an attempt to help just because it comes from a place of white privilege is antithetical to the spirit of activism and encourages complacency. Is the alternative I’m white and privileged so why should I care about the rest of the world that so many adopt preferable?

Western activists should constantly reflect on the impact of their work and seek ways to ensure that their activism resonates with those they are advocating for. Cole is right in urging activists to consult those who are being helped over the matters that concern them, but there is a point at which activists must not only consult but also start doing. 

Change has to start somewhere, and activists (even if they are “white” and “privileged”) deserve praise for trying and constructive criticism so that their future work will be more effective. No one ever changed the world by saying, I can’t, it’s too difficult. Enthusiasm alone will not bring about sustainable, long-term change, but it is a fundamental beginning for making a difference.