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March 15, 2012

Race, Colonization + KONY2012

By David Ng

By now, I’m sure you have heard about the debates going around KONY2012. The rhetoric is largely: “Is Invisible Children credible?”, “Are the facts accurate?”, and “Who is benefiting from the campaign?”

And while all these questions are important, I want to focus here on a part of the debate that hasn’t gotten that much publicity: race.

One of the major things that struck me while watching KONY2012 is the way that black Africans are constructed in the film. It opens with the birth of the filmmaker's child, showing us the ideal western privileged family—beautiful and white. The sequence deliberately suggests the filmmaker's values, and the feelings of protection he has for his family, mirrors that of his target audience. By starting this way, he is asking us to identify with his worldview, and trust that we can accept his judgments as we would our own. This idyllic "American Dream" family is almost immediately juxtaposed with a grim and alien world of "others." He introduces these people to us in the frame of our worst fears: poor, naked, starving children, and their "helpless" black African parents. Is there a worse nightmare for a child or parent to imagine themselves in? Love, then shock, is a recipe that filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock perfected years ago for effectively captivating an audience.

At one point you even hear him saying – as he looks at about 50 emaciated black people in a refugee encampment: “If this happened in the USA, it would be all over the cover of Newsweek!” This is the problem in regards to racism: how black people are constructed, particularly in relation to whites, as a lesser people. These Ugandans, natives to a world of lawless chaos, are trapped in the crossfire of a decades old war they could never end or hope to escape. They have no ability to create a society like we have, and we should not expect them to! To do so would be unrealistic. After all they are practically "savages;" primitive people so tragically uncivilized and uneducated that they never have been, and (without our stewardship) never could be. This throwaway trope is one of the few Western habits actually older than colonialism.

When I use the “R” word (racism) in regards to KONY2012, there is usually a hostile reaction towards me. Knee-jerk defensive suggestions that I am going “too far” and that the filmmakers “mean well.” Absolutely, I’m sure Invisible Children has the best intentions to make Uganda a better and safer place. However, when we silence the agency of people we speak for – that is, when we imply that people are useless, helpless, and need our help – we stand over them from a privileged position that keeps their voices out of the conversation. Their input becomes secondary to our shallow, uninformed opinions, well meaning or not. As we all have heard and experienced in our own lives: the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

What also strikes me is the willful blindness we have towards the injustice and violence that pervades our own culture. One of the recurring responses from activists in the West that I’ve personally encountered is: "Invisible Children supports the Ugandan government who rapes women!" Yes, the Ugandan army has been using rape as a weapon of war, abhorrently and without question. However, ALL militaries use rape as a weapon of war – the US army, the Canadian army – even UN "peacekeepers" use rape as a weapon of war. My point here is that even activist critiques of KONY2012 have repurposed the construction of black Africans, as if only the Ugandan government uses rape and our militaries in the West do not. Not true! It is a pervasive element of all our cultures, especially when war is unleashed, and to simply bring up rape to justify a feeling of superiority does nothing to end the practice. Rape is often the conversation that no one seems to wants to have, unless they want to demonize someone else.

I want to suggest that if we seek to help people, listening to their needs must be the first step. When we speak for people, we edge towards the dangers of racial construction, which silence and marginalize the voices of those we want to help. International solidarity around these issues is very important. Without question, Kony is a very bad man that needs to be brought to justice. However, we can do this without the fictionalizing and effectively silencing of the victims. Racist constructions of the people whom we seek to have solidarity with lead to mistakes that can cause as much, if not more harm, than our intended good.

By David Ng and Jennifer Slattery

Tag(s): Activism & Protests, Feminism

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On March 21, 2012 at 02:37 PM Zeus wrote:
Thank yall so much for the encouragement. I elrlay believe that giving to others and sharing your life with the poor are the most rewarding endeavors that this life can give. However, this work is incredibly challenging and requires a lot of perseverance especially in Africa. I have had five years of setbacks and struggles that continue today but somehow, we always make it through. I was never one to give my life to anyone, which is why I had little experience with the poor in the US, but found myself in a village in East Africa five years ago and could not ignore the need for the children and women who struggle daily to survive. I think each person is given opportunities in life where their eyes are open to the needs of others and can either choose to respond to them or ignore them. Somehow, I responded in Africa that day after ignoring the need for so long before, and now this work has become my life.Thanks for your questions. I will try to respond to as many as I can but feel free to email me at .Blessings,Brittany Merrill

On March 21, 2012 at 03:30 PM Sumit wrote:
As someone who okewrd with Brittany on that first summer in Uganda, and who has walked beside her at times in this journey, I want to commend her. Brittany mentioned being shaken out of her complacency It's been incredible to watch her fight through her own doubt and complacency in that first summer, to hope and pray for her as she fought through the complacency of others back in America, and to see her life take root as she invested herself in the lives of others. She pours our her life for those who can do nothing for her in return, and it's a beautiful thing. And the best thing is, I know she'd be doing it whether she got any attention from CNN or not!Great work Britto, and keep fighting the good fight.

On March 21, 2012 at 08:43 PM Anna wrote:
I have been hearing about Brittany and her work in Uganda for a long time, but I never rielazed the extent of her efforts until I saw the CNN piece. It's amazing to me that a young American woman is brave enough to take this on, especially in such a far away and needy place. Brittany has been an inspiration to my college daughter and now I must say she is an inspiration to me. She has changed the lives of these children on so many levels. I am so impressed.And thank you CNN for bringing these stories to us.

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David Ng is a Hello Cool World veteran with experience going back a decade. David first worked with us when he was just 14 years old as a participant in the youth advisory group for the sexual health education program Condomania. Now an accomplished videographer passionate about the issues of gender and power, he is currently on sabbatical in South Africa while he pursues a Masters in Gender Studies with a focus on international developme


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