The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.
Amidst the negative reactions to Invisible Hands´ Kony 2012 viral human rights campaign video, there appears to be little mention of how the marketing strategies employed by Jason Russell – cofounder and figurehead of Invisible Hands – perpetuate narratives of racial victimization and third world dependency. However, Jamilah King of Colorlines, “the daily news site where race matters”, enlightens viewers of how organizations such as Invisible Hands, despite their contributions to the correction of global injustices, often compromise the perspective of the disenfranchised and ultimately reinforce the negative racial dichotomies between Westerns and the “Others”.
These “Others”, these victims, do not see themselves nor their realities accurately portrayed in the 30 minute campaign video. Tavia Nyong’o, associate professor of performance studies at New York University proposes that the video is “propaganda for the western viewer”. She has a point. What struck me most odd about the video was that it was told through a narrative between a white middle aged father and his adorable five-year old son. Yes it was cute, but it didn’t really sit right with me. It didn’t sit that well with others either. More importantly, it didn’t sit well with the Ugandans that this video was supposed to represent.
Al Jazeera, testing public opinion in Uganda, provides footage of locals expressing their thoughts on the campaign. One man, an ex-LRA child soldier, emphasizes that if “people in those countries care about us they won’t wear t-shirts with Joseph Kony for any reason” while another man says that they Ugandans wanted viewers to see “their local people who were killed” and not the “old white man”. Displeased with the message and promotional tactics that this video incites, it is not hard to imagine that Ugandans and other POC associate this video with a reaffirmation of the white savior complex.
Despite Invisible Hands’ intentions, the simplification of political and economic realities in Uganda reflects poorly the role that white people ought to play in international relief and humanitarian aid. King quotes Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, “I understand the need to simplify so that people can make sense of what’s going on…but I think this is one of those cases where what seems like simplification to get this information to spread may actually have some really tough political implications.”
Extrapolating the conversations that this video’s proponents and critics are putting out, it is useful for social justice advocates here in the States and abroad to carefully analyze how they frame and market certain issues. In situations where the observer-reporter is alien, especially here in the States where racism is systemic and often inconspicuous, it is imperative that all involved in the representation of marginalized or disenfranchised peoples have are conscious of the role they have in telling a story that is not directly about themselves. Questions such as; “How does my involvement in their story reflect their reality and vice versa?” and “What would a less privileged person say about how I portray others, but also of how I portray myself?” should be a constant reminder to those advocating social justice where they stand in this world.
In a return to Kony, Invisible Hands, and the popular viral video, it is evident that the campaign tactics used to do good and help others were not only insensitive to those they sought to help, but they could have also been implemented at a more appropriate time. What can be gleaned from this campaign is the sheer power that social media and creative marketing strategies offer social justice advocates. The Kony 2012 video and the subsequent backlash provides a model, or at least some insight, as to how future campaigns can create sensible, sensitive, and self-aware narratives and marketing strategies to make life more equal, equitable, and bearable for all.
For more substantive information please follow the links imbedded in the text above and check out Justice in Conflict’s thoughts on the matter.
Carlos Morla was a Civil Rights Intern at Community Change Inc. and currently works in new media marketing which has inspired him to pursue a career in small business entrepreneurship and technology for development. His interest are in race relations, marketing, and international development.