Teju Cole on "The White Savior Industrial Complex"

In The Atlantic today, a must-read piece by Teju Cole on some of the cultural issues raised by Kony 2012, and reactions to it in the media-blog-Twitter-opinion-sphere.

I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than "making a difference." There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.

Read "The White Savior Industrial Complex" at the Atlantic.


  1. If you look at the Gates Foundation, it’s pretty clear that the “White Savior” model does have potential.  Seems to help if the guy at the top is a nerd instead of an egomaniac.

    1. Seems to help if the guy at the top earned his way there.

      The board members for IC, initially, were the parents of the people doing ‘the work’. That says everything that needs to be said about ‘buy in’.

    1. That’s a frustratingly inaccurate summation that implies not reading the article, or even part of it…

    2.  Considering how difficult it was for white people to mind their own fucking business when they were planting flags and colonizing others, then yeah, mind your own fucking business.

    3. The lesson is, in part, that which ST:TNG’s Q would repeat, over and over, to Captain Picard:  Sometimes, people have to make their own mistakes.

      (Rather than the mistakes non-Africans keep imposing on them.)

  2. Fer cryin’ out loud, Teju’s my professor! I’m on BoingBoing to NOT think about homework!

  3. I think the criticism of the Kony video, though it may have kernels of truth, is misplaced energy. Like it or hate it, you have to respect that this is one of the most successful activist campaigns of all time. The situation is complex, but Kony is actually monstrous and because of this video the US is putting more resources toward stopping him. IC is a creepy organization, but Kony is actually monstrous, etc. White Man’s Burden/Savior Complex is a problem, but…etc. Can we talk more about how to improve the nascent international justice system to detain and prosecute the worst people on earth, and less about the ways that somebody who did something good should have done it better?

    1. Sigh.

      You should do some catching up before spouting off like that. You’d look less, shall we say, in a kindlier manner . . . naive.

        1. Why should I help someone who can’t be bothered to do some simple reading around before expressing such a forceful, extensive, yet clueless opinion? My last name isn’t Google.

          1. Sure, but “Sigh” comes off as self-congratulatory bullshit, like “Sigh. If only you knew as much as I know”.  Are you suggesting that the article is a useful summary?  Should he google “Kony” and read the first thing that comes up?  Wikipedia?  Invisible Children is the loudest voice on the issue currently, so and endorsement of their position, or a link, or saying something of substance about your own position would do a lot more to advance the discussion.

    2.  That video also seemed to imply that no effort is being done to find Kony, and that somehow a group like IC with no international resources, infrastructure, etc will be able to do more merely by making people aware. Should we even mention the others excactly like Kony inother countries as well as within Uganda? I don’t remember if the video did, so you can bet most people who want to help will just say “well got him, all child soldiers are saved” once he is caught.

  4. I’m sorry, but if there is to be a theory that claims that altruism ultimately springs from selfishness, I claim priority.

  5. Speaking from firsthand experience as a white savior, the job isn’t easy. Making epic viral videos can be tedious and frustrating, especially when dealing with lip-synching, choreographed dance routines, international banner drops with typos, and non-professional children who keep flubbing their lines. All the grants and donations must be there on screen or people will think they’re getting ripped off. There’s also travel expenses for film shoots in Africa, soundtrack production, stocking and shipping the Action Packs, and awkward interviews in response to skeptics. Add dehydration, malnutrition, exhaustion and self medication, and you too might end up running and screaming naked down the street. But in the end I remind myself it’s for a difficult but worthy cause: advocating for military intervention in another oil rich country to get Kony.

  6. So Invisible Children is whatever. Got it. There is no problem. I mean, if you acknowledge there’s a problem and try to help, you’ll just be accused of racially motivated cultural imperialism. So f*** ’em. In fact, I’m so disenchanted with this whole debacle that I now support the works of Joseph Kony and suspect we should aid him in his endeavors.

    To be sure, there are many people in Africa that probably want intervention from the white man concerning this matter. Maybe he doesn’t have 30,000 child soldiers…that’s just how many he’s approximately kidnapped…so no big deal, right? What should we do? Well, most people don’t seem to be in the business of offering solutions, but they’re sure good at discouraging people who would like to do good. It’s all in the name of appearing cultured and intelligent, but the fact is I’d rather side with the unrealistic white savior complex people who are attempting to do something than with the scoffers who contribute to nothing and no one.

  7. I still have a good chuckle when pedagogs spit a catchy quip like “white savior industrial complex.”
    Maybe us “whites” (I think he means Americans but whatever) should stay the fuck out of Africa and work on solving other problems we created like, oh say, dismantling the “Military Industrial Complex.”

    Well, at least everyone knows Joseph Kony now… and that there are a lot of fucked up unsolvable problems in Africa – just like America… At least IC isn’t doing it to spread any sort of religion… right?

  8. It’s so easy to develop a smart-ass persona that engages in all the snarky pleasure of poking holes in the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of the people behind various social efforts. Yeah, we get it… you’re brilliant and insightful, with a wicked wit. And oh, by the way,  just as self-serving as the people you’re skewering. Sometimes it takes people a while to get to the real nugget: NOTHING is ever done, by anyone, with entirely pure motives. Get over it, and yourself. There’s value in valid criticism, but there’s no value in ONLY criticizing. Do the hard part and filter the bad and keep the good; they’re almost always intertwined.

  9. The only thing that pisses me off more than individuals subsuming their identities in the various groups they find it profitable to identify with is the zeal and downright surprising intelligence with which they defend their position and descry any attempt to point out the inconsistencies with that kind of approach to life.
    Aren’t y’all stupid fucking idiots for ‘not rocking the boat’? Haven’t you completely compromised your ability to think evenhandedly and critically about the tremendous usurpment of your identity by the psychopathic crowd?
    Where the hell do you get off, suddenly possessing the wherewithal to string two god-damn sentences together in defense of your abandonment of the wherewithal to think for yourself?
    I mean, come on! At least continue to be the dumb ass you’ve so fervently labeled yourself as when challenged about it.
    Fair’s fair.

    1. exactly. The biggest problem I have with other people being hypocrites is their unneccesary shame about it, and the clinging to obvious idiocy that it foments. 

  10. This is still a thing? I thought we all agreed that nobody gave a shit anymore and we moved on to the next crisis.

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