The Burden’s White Man
There is a dandy feature at the Atlantic today, The White Savior Industrial Complex. It is written by Teju Cole, who is becoming a legend in the twitterverse. It was a seven part tweetpoem, written after the viral plague of KONY2012, that starts off the story.
1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex. 2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. 3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm. 4- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah. 5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege. 6- Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that. 7- 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.
The media sensation this week is Trayvon Martin. Angry mobs are demanding justice. 5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege. (Are all white people caucasians?) The backwards police in Florida just don’t get it. The enlightened folk of America are going to straighten them out. The Jesus worshipers are demanding what they call justice. The word forgiveness is seldom heard.
There is a sentence in Mr. Cole’s story. “What Africa needs more pressingly than Kony’s indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice.” Substitute America for Africa, and Zimmerman for Kony.
We live in a society that benefits from the suffering of others. A person who speaks about helping these suffering people should be aware of this. As Mr. Cole says: “I write all this from multiple positions. I write as an African, a black man living in America. I am every day subject to the many microaggressions of American racism. I also write this as an American, enjoying the many privileges that the American passport affords and that residence in this country makes possible. I involve myself in this critique of privilege: my own privileges of class, gender, and sexuality are insufficiently examined. My cell phone was likely manufactured by poorly treated workers in a Chinese factory. The coltan in the phone can probably be traced to the conflict-riven Congo. I don’t fool myself that I am not implicated in these transnational networks of oppressive practices.”
Mr. Cole speaks about Nigeria. Much of the oil we power our automobiles with comes from Nigeria. The people of that country are. mostly, poor. The waters they used to fish have been poisoned by oil spills. The world does not pay much environmental attention to the oil wells in Nigeria.
Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. This subsidy was widely seen as one of the few blessings of the country’s otherwise catastrophic oil wealth. But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. The protests went on for days, at considerable personal risk to the protesters. Several young people were shot dead, and the movement was eventually doused when union leaders capitulated and the army deployed on the streets. The movement did not “succeed” in conventional terms. But something important had changed in the political consciousness of the Nigerian populace. For me and for a number of people I know, the protests gave us an opportunity to be proud of Nigeria…
This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. After all, there is no simple demand to be made and — since corruption is endemic — no single villain to topple. There is certainly no “bridge character,” Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight…
If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself. The fact of the matter is that Nigeria is one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S., and American policy is interested first and foremost in the flow of that oil. The American government did not see fit to support the Nigeria protests. (Though the State Department issued a supportive statement — “our view on that is that the Nigerian people have the right to peaceful protest, we want to see them protest peacefully, and we’re also urging the Nigerian security services to respect the right of popular protest and conduct themselves professionally in dealing with the strikes” — it reeked of boilerplate rhetoric and, unsurprisingly, nothing tangible came of it.) This was as expected; under the banner of “American interests,” the oil comes first. Under that same banner, the livelihood of corn farmers in Mexico has been destroyed by NAFTA. Haitian rice farmers have suffered appalling losses due to Haiti being flooded with subsidized American rice. A nightmare has been playing out in Honduras in the past three years: an American-backed coup and American militarization of that country have contributed to a conflict in which hundreds of activists and journalists have already been murdered. The Egyptian military, which is now suppressing the country’s once-hopeful movement for democracy and killing dozens of activists in the process, subsists on $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid. This is a litany that will be familiar to some. To others, it will be news. But, familiar or not, it has a bearing on our notions of innocence and our right to “help.”
The White Savior Industrial Complex should be read. Be forewarned … too much food for thought can lead to mental indigestion.