Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > Uncategorised > The wounded hippo

The wounded hippo

Friday 14 October 2022, by siawi3





The wounded hippo

By Kathryn Mathers

In a US confronting its own anti-black racism, sentimental imaginings of Africa do little but uphold the white savior industrial complex.

Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Image credit John Lucia via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

I am a white South African anthropologist studying and researching the US—writing, thinking and teaching about Americanness, especially as it mobilizes Africa as a site for its redemption. I have heeded the warning in Teju Cole’s tweet from his 2012 series on the White Savior Industrial Complex to “deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly,” since beginning to observe American travelers to southern Africa at the turn of the millennium. My positionality, as an outsider writing about the US from both within and from the periphery, is essential to how I respond to and understand the mediated visions and revisions of Africa in the US. I see the sentiment and the effects of imaginings of Africa and Africans in the US as dangerous and unpredictable, just like a hippo—even when not wounded.

In my new book Popular Culture and White Saviorism (Routledge 2022), I want to understand what Africa means, at this critical juncture, to Americanness. In an earlier ethnography of American travelers to southern Africa, I suggested that Africa becomes necessary to the meaning of being American through an erasure of African specificity. I still argue that. Despite almost two decades of pop cultural reflection, criticism, and viral social media about what it means to go to Africa to save or celebrate it, the continent and its people remain a space for Americans to find and save themselves.

As I consider the meaning of Americanness today, Americans face another reckoning, one that is animated by violence from within rather than without. This reckoning was heightened or framed perhaps by a global pandemic, which refracted events that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, as have so many violations of Black bodies in the US over these last few decades. When George Floyd was choked to death on camera by police officers in 2020, Americans could not look away and were forced to watch as more and more such acts became forcibly visible to them. The US and especially American whiteness are being held accountable, much as American privilege was forced to look at itself post 9/11. The ways they are looking to Africa seem different on some levels, but other ways are all too familiar.

There is, in fact, a remarkable consistency over the last two decades in how Africa is represented and framed as space that needs saving, and yet, this exists in the face of a multiplicity of funny satirical challenges to the idea of Westerners going to Africa to save it, which appeared in the interim. But parodic critiques like the BarbieSavior Instagram account that I wrote about here are more than obscuring. In centering caring white women as the problem, such parodic whiteness makes a personal not systemic critique and helps to conveniently separate desires to save Africa from systematic racism in the US.

Other attempts to reimagine familiar tropes of representing Africa do not only marginalize Africans but also flatten out inequalities in the US by drawing on ideas about Africa that ignore geopolitical inequalities.Through a history of how saving Africa became hot in the first decades of the 21st century, White Saviorism and Popular Culture shows the White Savior Industrial Complex’s ability to reinvent itself as satire or parody, happily co-existing with its own critique and creating spaces for a seemingly self-aware politics of doing good. The parodies, such as BarbieSavior, NORAID’s Africa for Norway videos, UNICEF Sweden’s The Dinner Party show how easy it is to mock whiteness with all of its self-absorbed self-loathing that does little to dismantle the system that creates so much privilege in the first place. You can look silly and still be in power. This is in part because such critique helps to distance participants from the problem. So, white folk continue to produce ideas about Africa that position them as the best thing for Africans while never addressing the geopolitical structures that ensure their own privilege.

Though deeply complex and varied, I think through how these privileges play out in other ways that Americans imagine Africa. While the White Savior Industrial Complex might rest on white privilege, however, it can be enacted by Black Americans, such as Oprah, as Teju Cole makes clear in his tweets. I suggest that pop cultural phenomena—Black Panther and Black is King for example—assume that American struggles over Blackness and belonging are universal and normalized struggles that appear to require little translation as they cross borders. Black Panther creates a place in Africa for Westerners, black and white, to journey to where colonialism does not exist. Wakanda is most marked by its outsiderness: outside of colonialism, outside of contemporary imperialism, outside of all forms of Western extraction, its entire purpose in fact is to protect its metal and its technologies from these forces. At T’Challa’s challenge for the leadership early in the film, Wakandans gather in all their glory. The men are powerful and the women gorgeous, and we know we are in Africa. This moment, stunning as it is, does some of the ugliest work in the movie in its representation of Africans. We already know that Wakanda sees itself as apart from the rest of Africa, which is simply dismissed as hopeless, war mongering, poverty ridden and with basically no agency. Yet Wakanda’s various “tribes” stand in for multiple people who have achieved social and political wealth historically but also in the present, represented by their design sensibilities and their production of artwork and materials. These are recognizable, but only in a generic this-is-Africa fashion.

Black is King, Beyonce’s visual album reinterpreting Disney’s The Lion King, also rests on a celebration of African beauty firmly grounded in the past, emphasized by a 19th-century ethnographic film style of blocking and color treatment This is especially marked right at the beginning when Beyoncé lovingly carries a child along a beach in the first video for Bigger. When the scene shifts to show Black women (dressed as generic traditional/rural Africans) leaning maternally over children, the film stutters, decreases in frame size, and gains a sepia brown/green color. This technical visual shift frames the women as objects in a 19th century-like ethnographic film. This gesture happens at multiple moments in Black is King, reminding the viewer of the long history of Westerners pointing cameras at exotic Africans producing a lexicon of film about Africa grounded in images of semi-naked, dancing, drumming or hunting Black people. This visual format evokes the colonial era films or the earlier ethnographic films by anthropologists trying to represent the exotic otherness of people in Africa and elsewhere through the lens of empire.

These sites of American Black empowerment depend on very similar tropes as those that create the White Savior Industrial Complex by sending Africans to the background of American lives. As, Boluwatife Akinro and Joshua Segus-Lean ask on this site:

Would a Zamunda without its prosperity or a Wakanda without the technological advancements of vibranium be of much interest to African-American audiences? It would seem that none of the Africas the rest of the world imagines are any of the ones Africans live and think and work and love and die in.

In celebrating Africa by leapfrogging centuries of colonial encounters and violence, as well as decades of postcolonial successes and failures, Black is King like Black Panther insists that African beauty and autonomy lie entirely in its past. Their possible power as counternarratives to familiar representations of Africa obscures what it means to imagine an uncolonized Africa as the only way to emancipate Blackness. This does harm to Africans of course in familiar ways, but it also does harm to Americans, where both the privilege of Americanness and the violence it produces look like the same thing.

My book explores why Americans can’t help themselves when they try to save Africa and seeks to explain why this relationship is so important, especially at a moment when the US is coming to terms with its own deep history of anti-black violence. In the end, I suggest, Americans produce a form of media representation that hypernormalizes, rather than undermines, the power of whiteness.

Kathryn Mathers, a socio-cultural anthropologist, is producer of the film “When I say Africa ...”





Annual NGO ranking shows that the “white savior” status quo remains intact

By Fairouz El Tom

Teju Cole wrote that a white saviour is someone who, “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”.

Global_Geneva recently released the third annual Top NGO ranking, and unfortunately, it’s more of the same. In 2013, I reviewed the Board profiles of the previous ranking, focusing on their gender balance and diversity, and links to the tobacco, weapons and finance industries. The findings were troubling. Many of the listed NGOs were not adequately diverse or representative, and over half had links to the above industries.

This year’s ranking reveals similarly disturbing trends. Though 78% of the activities of the NGOs listed take place in the majority world, the ranking remains skewed towards NGOs headquartered in the West (64%). This once again sends signals about who has value and expertise, and reinforces the fallacy that citizens of Western countries are best equipped to change the world.

Diversity continues to lag. Women and men of European origin are still over-represented in leadership positions (over 60% overall and by gender). The representation of women is still relatively low (40%, of whom 63% are of European origin). More disturbing, however, is the lack of ethnic diversity.

SEE here: gender_ethnicity

The statistics on Africa and Africans (including the diaspora) are once again particularly disconcerting.

Only 5% (26) of the 500 NGOs listed have their headquarters in Africa, yet 33% of activity takes place in that region. Of those 26, only 7 are in the top 100 and most (9) are found in the last tier (401-500).

Only 4% of CEOs are of African descent.

People of African descent are the only group in which there are fewer male than female CEOs. This implies an institutional bias against black men.

In the regional rankings, only 25 NGOs have been selected for the top African ranking compared to 100 each in Europe, North America and Asia/Australasia. Moreover, of the 25, 8 are outside the African continent (2 in Bahrain, 3 in Israel, 3 in Jordan).

Many NGOs continue to display stereotypical and patronising images and videos that portray Africans in particular as poor and needy victims devoid of agency.

In addition, a large proportion of the ‘top’ NGOs continue to appoint leaders who are not representative of the communities and groups they claim to serve, and retain links to corporate interests that appear to be inconsistent with their mandate or public identity.

As with the previous ranking, a number have Board members as well as funders with links to the tobacco, finance and weapons industries. Some, such as Room to Read for instance, pride themselves in such links: ‘Our leadership team is comprised of veterans of such venerable corporations as Goldman Sachs…’. Others are partnered with corporations that have been accused of human rights and environmental violations: for example, Akshaya Patra with Monsanto to provide food for children, Care with Cargill to combat poverty, Vital Voices with Walmart to increase economic opportunities for women, Injaz-al-Arab with ExxonMobil to mentor Arab youth. The International Crisis Group receives support from corporate members of its International Advisory Council, including Shell and Chevron.

Some also have affiliations with individuals whose political or professional record is arguably inconsistent with the mandates of the NGOs they serve: examples include the International Rescue Committee (Henry A. Kissinger, Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright, Overseers), the International Crisis Group and ONE Campaign (Lawrence Summers, Board member), and Operation Blessing (M. G.‘Pat’ Robertson, Board member).

The rather broad failure of many of the listed NGOs to have representative leaderships is reflected in some of their publicity statements and attitudes. Some exhibit slogans that offer absurdly simplistic solutions (‘You can cure starvation’ – Concern Worldwide; ‘Change the World in 4 clicks’ – Ufeed). Others display hubristic attitudes (S.O.U.L. Foundation says that its President represents ‘a new generation of young American activists who are quickly growing into a group of enthusiastic non-profit entrepreneurs and leaders who are choosing a piece of the world and changing it’; GreenHouse’s ambition is ‘trying to save the world by developing new models of social change to better people’s lives’). FAME World even adopts a disturbingly traditional missionary approach: it takes ‘Christ to the unreached and underserved’ but provides no assistance to non-Christian organisations.

We are all incoherent. Recognising this, where is the line between incoherence and deceit?

As individuals, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing that we do not perpetuate global inequities and discriminatory attitudes we claim to oppose. Organisations are no different. When NGOs are challenged to meet standards of integrity and fail to do so, they start to fit Teju Cole’s definition of white saviours.

International aid and advocacy is a multi-billion dollar industry and the corporate structures of the largest NGOs increasingly resemble those of large businesses. At the same time, NGO appeals for public support and public money rely heavily and distinctively on their claim to moral authority. Given this, it is entirely reasonable to expect NGOs to demonstrate their institutional integrity, including accountability to those they claim to serve. Unfortunately, Global_Geneva takes neither of these criteria into account. By choosing to rank so many NGOs in the manner it does, Global_Geneva and those who support it reinforce paternalist models of decision-making and governance that should be challenged rather than lauded.

Fairouz El Tom is creative director at Plain Sense in Geneva.





‘Doing good’ in an age of parody

Kathryn Mathers
Elsa Gunnarsdottir

Why does being in on the joke not slow down the desire to save Africans?

Image: Barbie Savior Instagram.

For some time now it has felt overdone, even somewhat passé, to examine closely the ways that Africa is represented and how Americans engage with it. The backlash against clicktivism after #KONY2012 has bought us the funny ranging from Radi-Aid’s Band Aid-like music video calling on Africans to send radiators to freezing Norwegians, or the more recent viral White Savior Barbie Instagram account. Everybody is in on the joke. Does this mean there is little power left in the narratives about Africa that sites like Africa is a Country gave us such clarity about a few years back?

There are two reasons to take this moment of parody seriously. First it wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that there is a dependence on parody as political critique. Second the “volunteer” or “saving Africa” industry parodied so bitingly on social media and elsewhere, continues to thrive sending thousands of young Americans and Europeans to Africa to do good. So, why does being in on the joke not slow down the desire to save Africans?

Much of how we think about volunteerism stems from the experiences of one of us (Elsa) working as a volunteer at the Moroccan Children’s Trust in Taroudant in southern Morocco close to Marrakesh. During her time there, Elsa interviewed volunteers from North America and Europe as well as on-site coordinators. (The research, by the way, was conducted for an honors thesis in International Comparative Studies at Duke University.) Instead of finding volunteers blind to the multiple and complex ways in which “voluntourism” can be a neocolonial project, the Moroccan Children’s Trust was supported by young volunteers fully aware of the relation between their work and parodies of it, as well as the cultural and political critique of the “white savior complex.”

What might appear to be a paradox – that young people volunteer for NGO’s abroad while aware of the critique of such work – is not only built on a long history of such debates in philanthropy but in its contemporary iteration, and is a logical outcome of neoliberal subject-making. Familiar images of Africa both presented in earnest or satirized continue to represent Africans as needing help. These allow a new generation to continue their self-development through service on the continent despite their awareness of the ethical problems. How does this happen?

The generation in the Global North that most consumes social media news and satire as politics has been labeled “millennials.” They are a generation born in Europe and North America between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, those who came of age at the beginning of the 21st century. They grew up in a geopolitical environment that values individual empowerment and asserts that compassion is the main catalyst for social change. Millennials have been raised to believe that they can and should be major actors in helping provide aid abroad. Their choices and desires are intertwined with the evolution of social media, which has helped create a collective society that empowers millennials to construct their own identities through being seen and recognized constantly. These selves are present not only on individual social media platforms but are effectively echoed in the way voluntourism and other forms of aid represent the role of young people in Africa. The circulation of images online between official sites created by international NGO’s and community based organizations and personal sites makes one’s own world almost indistinguishable from the global terrain of aid and development. As they have always done, such images also make consumers feel connected to a wider community, one united by shared global responsibility. These images are of course what Barbie Savior skewers. But they also successfully turn aid and philanthropy and volunteering into an entirely affective economy, switching emotional resonance for political and economic landscapes of inequality.

Millennials are also encountering an increasingly stressful and limited job market, albeit one that is meant to offer freedom and flexibility not available to their parents. They have experienced waves of financial collapse and economic downturns leading to higher levels of unemployment, student debt and lower levels of income than preceding generations had achieved at a similar age. They are, therefore, encouraged to pursue experiences that they can use to market themselves positively. Their job searches are characterized by employers’ desire for candidates with affective skills such as empathy and sympathy. Not only has the last decade seen significant increase in the professionalism and skills required of volunteers but volunteering is the ideal evidence of having achieved affective skills. Volunteering has therefore become a worthwhile investment for millennials in periods of economic stringency and despite increasing criticism.

Alongside this changing labor landscape, millennials have only really known a world characterized by neoliberal policies. They value above much else individual empowerment and are skeptical of a governments’ capacity to provide social good. Such subjectivity allows young millennials to understand their own voluntourism, not in terms of the unequal geopolitical relationships that they critique, but as an appropriate form for them to develop their own skills base, including something that could be called global empathy.

If, as neoliberal citizen-, their primary responsibility is towards their own advancement (because that is in itself a social good and globally responsible), there is no contradiction in being both critical of and a participant in voluntourism. Or being engaged in (or resistant to) many other seemingly paradoxical political and social movements.

Kathryn Mathers, a socio-cultural anthropologist, is producer of the film “When I say Africa ...”

Elsa Gunnarsdottir will be interning at the Norwegian Embassy in Prishtina, Kosovo next year.