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KONY 2012, the Future of 21st Century Activism, & Remnants of Problematic Privilege

Earlier this week I saw a name that repeatedly surfaced on my facebook timeline. The status updates kept referencing a video titled “Kony 2012.” I figured it was the next FB fad and would pass within a day or two. At the time I didn’t realize that this Kony movement was the next online manifestation of an on-the-ground social justice and organizing effort. This movement’s goal is to stop Joseph Kony, a man that the LA Times categorizes as “the head of a small but infamous militia that has terrorized northern Uganda with killings, kidnappings, mutilations and torture.” What you learn from the youtube video is that Kony has kidnaped kids and turns them into child soldiers, this has impacted more than 30,000 youth in Uganda over the past 30 years.  I want to take a step back and talk about the problematic nature of the video. In doing so, I think it is important to have a larger conversation about the role privilege (and sometimes ignorance) when larger movements of international solidarity occur.

What do videos like, The Help, KONY 2012, The Blindside, Freedom Writers, ect all have in common?  They are what mostly privilege black elites (No shade, but its true) like to call “white savior moments.” These stories all have a common stream of consciousness that basically say things like: rich white people can save black people (and the world) from all the carnage and impacts of marginalization. Furthermore it strips all agency from those who are already pathologized by implicating that “those black people” cannot and will not ever be able to save themselves without help from “the privileged.” These stories are highlighted and portrayed in multiple mediums: Hollywood, traditional news networks and in new media. They seem to all love the white savior story. Kony 2012 reeks of this very same message.

White savior moments should be challenged, called out, and identified for their problematic nature, right when they happen, however, I do not think the youth that are suffering in Uganda care too much about the medium of getting their message out. And while the “saving ourselves” message is important and should be highlighted more, lets not pretend rallying American citizens to care about people outside of themselves is a bad thing. We should acknowledge the contradiction in thinking that people need Americans (or any other privileged group to save them), but at the end of the day the “Making Joseph Kony famous movement” is bigger than the remnants of problematic people with privilege (who are running the Invisible Children organization). Additoinally, if you are a person with privilege, own it, don’t hide from it, the best thing you can do is use your privilege to assist those who are marginalized.

Awareness is a powerful tool. If we look back into history we can see that the civil rights movement was able to make visible the evils of the South—through photos and videos— that pushed the movement further along and helped as an organizing tool to end Jim Crow. If we look back into history we can see that when people became more aware of the HIV/AIDS it lessened stigmatization and helped allocate time, money and resources to the issue so that now HIV/AIDS is not the ‘death sentence’ that it once was in the 80’s. If we look back into history we can see that when people become aware of something—not just people with money, power & privilege, but everyday individuals that care about the humanity around them—they have the opportunity to take action, make invisible stories visible, and begin to start transformative movements. This is why I enjoyed the video so much.

I want to be clear, it is difficult for me to swallow the remnants of problematic privilege—and we still need to call out those who are acting in this nature and highlighting white savior stories— however, the Kony 2012 movement is bigger than the ignorance of white and America privilege. It is about international solidarity, expanding our universe of obligation, and being an up-stander once we are aware an issue is happening. Even if the validity of the video is called into question—which it has been—I think what the movement symbolizes is still important.

I would even say that what Kony 2012 symbolizes is more important than this one 30 minute video calling for action…It’s really about an emerging new generation of activism. It’s a defining moment of how we will protect those who are most vulnerable and those who remain invisible. It’s a rare historic paradigm shift that reveals how organizing, social justice, and collective action will continue to evolve for generations to come.


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