I had an unfinished piece in my blog editor for several weeks about cultural appropriation as it pertains to weddings. It’s something that I feel … conflicted about, but every time I went to write, I got stuck in the morass of complexities.
Eventually I deleted the post.
I feel somewhat similarly about the whole Kony 2012 youtubepalooza and the resulting backlash. It’s like I have something to say, but don’t know what to say. This shit is complicated yo.
But in any case, I’ll give it a go. Bear with me.
So, let’s start with Kony 2012. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Invisible Children … they oversimplified a complex issue, they support military action combatting violence with violence, they ignore the atrocities that are being potentially committed right now in the name of getting Joseph Kony, and that’s not even going into the whole weird public mastrubation thing or this deeply weird video that Invisible Children put out in 2006.
So look. I wasn’t clear enough in my Mike Daisey post about my criticisms of Daisey. I’m going to be clear now: there are a ton of fair critiques of Invisible Children.
But (because there always has to be a but) I find the whole White Savior Industrial Complex critique to be pretty damn unfair.
According to the White Savior Industrial Complex critique, white people are guilty of thinking they are the saviors of the third world. They are guilty of meddling in affairs of which they know nothing. According to tweets by Teju Cole, “the White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Cole further adds:
“This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.”
“Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.”
“I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
Now to a certain extent, I get what Cole is saying. As a fellow privileged non-white person, I understand what it is to be the recipient of well meaning white person condescension. I have heard plenty of people who know nothing at all about India wax lyrical and eloquent about everything from arranged marriages to the caste system to bridal burnings. And it’s frustrating.
On the other hand, I recognize a few things:
One is this: as a privileged Indian-American who comes from privileged Indian middle class families, I am not the owner of the truth about India either. I don’t believe that any one person in this world owns this truth. But if anyone does, it is certainly not me.
The second is this: There are plenty of non-Indians out there, white people even, who have studied India more than me, who care about India, who have made it their lives’ work to ameliorate some of the problems in India.
And thirdly: That people care about my country, that people wish to save the world even, is not sentimentality akin to a hippo, wounded or otherwise.
Cole admits to much of this: he acknowledges that white people aren’t the only people with privilege in the world; he accepts his complicity in what he terms “transnational practices of oppressive practices;” he even concedes that he alone does not own the truth and that other middle class Africans disagree with him. And yet, he gives off the impression that while it’s okay for other Africans to disagree with him, it’s not okay for white people to.
And while he says he understands the “internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can” he has little to say to the well meaning white person that may ask, “How can I help?”
For Cole the answer is to look at American foreign policy and see the horror that we hath wrought. But as an American, Cole must understand that this view of America is almost as reductive as the views of Africa that he has criticized.
The reality is that individual Americans have little influence on American foreign policy. Cole argues otherwise since Americans vote, but, this is honestly ludicrous. The Iraq War was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Barack Obama, who was nominated for President in 2008 in part due to his opposition to the Iraq War, has been a fairly hawkish president in practice. Individual Americans may believe that detainees in Guantanamo should be sent home. They may be horrified by the use of drones and the killing of American citizens without due process. They may care deeply about the 1.5 million Iraqis who died in the American “war of choice.”
But they don’t know what to do about that.
So instead, Americans watch a video about a terrible man who is apparently building an army of children. Because they care, these Americans ask, “How can I help?” And because Jason Russell of Invisible Children, for all his sins, fundamentally gets this deep desire to just do something, he provides these Americans with actual things they can do.
And the things that Invisible Children suggests are simple.
But they take the time to actually answer the question, “What can I do to help?”
And until the Teju Coles of the world actually figure out how to answer that question in a constructive way that doesn’t involve self-flagellation for the sins of one’s government, well, the “wounded hippo” will continue to follow the Jason Russells of the world.
It’s unfortunate, but there it is.
“How can I help?”
It’s not an easy question to answer, and I don’t fault Cole for not having one. But I do fault him from side stepping the question and then slapping the white industrial savior complex label on anyone who attempts an answer.