Kony 2012: Whiteness, Social Media and Africa

kony 2012There is a viral video spreading across social media platforms called Kony 2012 created by an organization known as Invisible Children. Just released on Monday, March 5, the video has already passed 75 million views on YouTube. This is a phenomenal reach for a video on the long side (30 minutes) about Joseph Kony a Ugandan war lord, that until now American audiences had demonstrated little interest in. The viral video has been amplified through reports at major, mainstream news outlets in the U.S. A week into its existence, the video campaign has even been spoofed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

There have also been some scathing critiques and reactions against the #StopKony campaign.  Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post, “Unpacking Kony 2012″ that details many of the problems with the video, including that the film gives Ugandans little agency in determining their own destiny.  Sarah Wanenchak wonders whether any viral video will necessarily be as overslimplified as this one is. For those that are interested in the mechanics of how this organization was able to pull off this viral campaign, there’s some fascinating data at SocialFlow (the key: pre-existing networks established with Christian youth).

What none of these excellent analyses examine, however, is the role of whiteness in the Kony 2012 phenomenon, and I want to focus on that aspect here because I think it’s central to the viral video’s appeal.

Sarah Wanenchak identifies the central, symbolic moment in the video:

“What is perhaps the film’s most revealing moment occurs quite early, when the director shows his five-year-old son a picture of Kony and the survivor Jacob and explains the situation – in a child’s terms. The child responds, ‘Stop him.’ Which is really the entire film in two words, on essentially the level of complexity at which it is delivered.”

That moment is captured in this digital still photo from that scene:

Obscured in this image is the photograph of Joseph Kony (just out of frame to the left). The image that’s visible is Jacob Acaye, a former child soldier in Uganda. The adult hand holding the top of the photograph is the boy’s father and the filmmaker, Jason Russell.  Throughout the film, we meet Jacob several times, and he is described as “a friend” by Jason and his well-coached son. In some ways, Jacob drives the action of the film as it is the promise that Jason Russell makes to him (to “make it stop”) that propels the rest of the video.

It’s this moment, and the image here, that carry the central message of the film, and it has much to say about “whiteness.”  It is, in effect, a white savior film with social media added in. This film is, (as Richard Dyer argues about another film) “organized around a rigid binarism: with white standing for modernity, reason, order, stability and black standing for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence” (1988:49).

The added dimension of social media also gets coded as constitutive of whiteness. As the voiceover narration in the video observes, “we’re living in a new world, a Facebook world.” And, this new world is going to “stop” the atrocities of the “old, primitive” world. You see this throughout the video in the large crowd shots of the young people involved in the ‘Invisible Children’ campaign, who are almost universally white, are presented as the image of the ‘new, Facebook world’ intent on saving Africa. This is a deeply ironic claim given the importance of mobile technology throughout the continent, often at rates that out-pace the U.S.

The absurdity of this is playfully skewered in the “First Day on the Internet Kid” meme (“Share Kony Video, I Fixed Africa”). Yet, the more serious implications here are the ways that this kind of white racial frame is rooted in colonialism. The notion that Jason Russell – a white, heterosexual, American man – is going to “stop”and “fix” the problems in Uganda ignores the work already happening there in favor of a white-led campaign advocating military intervention.  One of the moments the video portrays as a victory #StopKony campaign is the order by President Obama to send troops to Uganda. The iconography of (predominantly white) U.S. troops with “boots on the ground” in Africa, flying an American flag conjures the very essence of colonialism and whiteness.

The Kony 2012 video’s binarism is, in the broadest sense, racist but not in the narrower sense of operating within a notion of intrinsic, unalterable, biological differences between groups of people (Dyer 1988:51). There is also a strong theme of evolutionism in the video as well, that the, good, liberal whites portrayed in the video are charting a path of progress that is potentially open to all.

The video takes pains to draw a distinction between the “bad African,” Joseph Kony, to save the “good African,” Jacob Acaye, who we learn aspires to be a lawyer (as in the image above).

jessie daniels

Jacob, unlike Joseph Kony, is portrayed as reasonable, rational, humane, and liberal. White viewers are invited to root for (if not identify with) Jacob Acaye, and in so doing, the film positions itself as ‘white savior’ of this young man and the other children he represents.

Kony 2012 is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order, and now social media against the supposed chaos and violence of Africa.

Jessie Daniels
Racism Review 


  1. jackster12 says

    Jessie, you write well. But you’re over-thinking this. 

    Sure, the video simplified a complex issue (all good marketing — fundraising included — succeeds by cutting to the core, by the way). And sure, ‘white guilt’ is a real phenomenon and probably played a role. 

    But this isn’t some Facebook-form of colonialism. It’s just an excessively earnest and perhaps slightly naive and self-absorbed guy trying to do what he thinks is right. Whether he succeeds or is justified is reasonable to ask. 

    But let’s not go overboard with the analysis… 

  2. dak says

    Just because they recognize that racism exists does not mean that they aren’t pedaling it.  I can’t think of a more top-down western approach than encouraging American military intervention. Their own actions are contrary to their statements on their website.

    • FriscoMac says

      This is a strange charge to make of an organization that is multi-racial and primarily Ugandan and Congolese within Africa itself. Once again I see projection out of the critic’s mind weaving these thought forms, not any verifiable reality. Your framing of Invisible Children’s request for American military aid as “top-down military intervention” is like saying that the demand of Travvon Martin’s family and friends for an FBI investigation of their son’s murder is some sort of arrogant “top-down police intervention”. This is a simple plea for help in Florida because local authorities aren’t getting the job done.

      In similar fashion, the IC is asking for American support, to, in reality, give more backbone to and instill more professionalism in the forces on the ground that should be dealing with this. And guess what? This has already paid off because the African Union, goaded by, perhaps embarrassed by the massive global response to Kony 2012, and representing the countries most affected by Kony, has just announced that they are forming a cohesive, joint military force to put an end to the LRA once and for all. In the past they have only sporadically and chaotically attempted this. This time there is a real and serious public commitment. Africans solving an African problem, but with the assistance of America because they do need the professional assets we can bring them. This is a very positive development in ending the scourge of the LRA.

  3. dak says

    well reasoned and articulated. You hit the nail on the head on an issue few people in this country want to acknowledge– that colonialism and white supremacy still exist today.

  4. Mac McKinney says

    This is an earlier version of my above comment. I erroneously thought this version did not get processed and thus wrote an expanded version later on.

  5. JoeWeinstein says

    Article’s conclusion:  “Kony 2012 is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order, and now social media against the supposed chaos and violence of Africa.”

    This conclusion is a misleading (indeed nauseatingly so) half truth, thanks to the author’s gratuitous insertion of the adjectives ‘white’ and ‘supposed’.  The chaos and violence are not only ‘supposed’ but REAL.  The values of reason and order are not only white but indeed UNIVERSAL (and – as the author notes just two paragraphs earlier – are shown to be so in the video.) 
    The real issue posed by the video is not what secondary message the video allegedly ‘endorses’.   The issue is why has it taken years and years to spur even the semblance of USA action vs Kony – and none at all vs other African genocides (other than the one supposedly threatened by Gaddafi, and certainly excluding the one now threatened against the Copts in the new ‘democratic’ Egypt).  And meanwhile our peace-prize-winning president has thousands of troops in Afghanistan well after their alleged target Osama was dispatched. 

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