Why Did Invisible Children Fail to Address the Most Important Criticism?

Yes…the Stop Kony movement ran through cyberspace faster than a mono outbreak at junior prom. Viral, indeed.

And as it pummeled through the Internet at breakneck speed, being re-blogged, re-tweeted, shared, and passed along indiscriminately by Good Samaritans and media-hungry celebrities alike, it was stopped midstream by the Kryptonite of everything instantaneous and surface – the Kryptonite of critical analysis.

Someone(s) stopped re-tweeting, re-blogging, and sharing long enough to say, “hey…let’s check this group out first. Let’s see what they’re about. Let’s check their facts. Let’s see how they use their money. Let’s seriously deconstruct both the tone and the subtleties of this video.”

And then came the flood of criticism. Apparently, Invisible Children, the non-profit organization behind the video and the digital campaign, had some serious questions to answer. Questions about their fuzzy financial practices, super hero photo shoots, glossed over information, oversimplification of a truly complex issue and their relationship to/portrayal of the Ugandan people.

In response to the criticism, Invisible Children released a statement that addressed almost all of the issues – their financial practices were sound and in compliance with 501(C)3 requirements and standards, they stated. Yes, they knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, but he had committed major atrocities and was still a powerful threat, they argued. True, much of their money went to film-making, travel, and administrative costs, but all of those activities fit well within their three-fold mission, they insisted.

Their response, resolute and self-satisfied, seemed aimed at quelling what they considered to be the most pernicious criticisms. Now that it was done, they could get back to the very critical business of making the invisible…visible.

However, Invisible Children was absolutely silent on what I think is the most critical and fundamental question raised about their efforts – the question of whether their work is shaped by and helps to perpetuate a white supremacist/colonialist attitude and approach. On this critical matter, their silence is deafening. 

I get it. White liberals who have dedicated their lives to “helping” people of color have a hard time seeing, let alone addressing, the benevolent racism that can undermine even their best intentions. How can they be racist when they want to help so badly?

What they often fail to realize is that white supremacist attitudes, mostly unconscious, can often be at the heart of these efforts. As a person who has spent a significant amount of time in community organizing, I have witnessed white consultants parachute into communities of color armed with their dissertatations and urban planning savvy, ready to identify the problems and solutions – despite the fact that they may have very little experience in the cultural space that they have just stepped into. But experience-schmexperience – they don’t have to have intimate knowledge of the community. They have degrees, credentials, and validation from institutions that assure them that they are equipped to be saviors. They’ve read books, done service-learning projects and listened to lectures. Of course, they get it.

I have seen these consultant-saviors either outright ignore or invalidate the knowledge and insight that already exists in the community… in the residents who have lived and seen the cycles come and go. I’ve witnessed the direct experience and wisdom of community leaders trumped by the good intentions of paternalism and benevolent racism.

Invisible Children’s failure to address the white supremacist critique unquestionably jeopardizes the effectiveness of their mission. How can we truly work for liberation and equality when we fail to examine and acknowledge the ways in which our social conditioning could potentially taint our cause? Social justice work necessarily involves internal reflection and the willingness to acknowledge and confront the personal demons that may stand in our way.

See, I understand that rooting out social conditioning and vigilantly deconstructing the cultural reinforcement of racism, internalized sexism, classism, ableism, and homophobia is an ON-GOING process for social justice workers. One enters into this grueling but deeply transformative work knowing that the work is never truly done. I understand how ignorant, arrogant, and pretentious it would be for me to declare that I have somehow been able to rid myself of all of these “isms.”  The only thing I can (and will) do is to continue to make this work a priority. That’s all that I ask of Invisible Children. That’s all that we can ever ask of anyone – that they continue to TRY to be free and loving human beings in a world that often makes that that extremely difficult to do.

With that being said, Invisible Children may not be ready (or even see) how their video and/or approach might propel the white savior/supremacist myth. I get that. If they don’t see it – they don’t see it. However, as long as they have been doing this work, I find it hard to imagine that they haven’t come across this concept. I have to imagine that somewhere, somebody, has questioned their authenticity, their skin, their western agenda. I imagine that they have stumbled across this accusation before.

And their silence in the face of this recent criticism reeks of denial.

But what would a response about the questions regarding paternalism and white supremacy look like?

I have tried to imagine the founders of Invisible Children as good people – people who mean well but who, like so many of us, haven’t delved into their deepest assumptions, fears, and conditioning enough. I try to imagine how they would respond in a way that authentically addressed their lack of experience in racial self-reflection AND their desire to grow in this area. In my head, their response would sound like this:

My-Wishful-Thinking- Hypothetical-Invisible-Children response:  

“As for the criticism around issues of white supremacy and our campaign, we must, with all transparency, admit that this is an issue that we can’t address right now. Theoretically, we understand that the history between people of color and white colonizers has greatly impacted the socio-global landscape. We understand that in many ways, there are many nations who are still trying to wrest themselves from under the heel of white supremacist attitudes and policies.  We understand that when white people decide that they know what’s best for people of color, that we are revealing supremacist  and disparaging attitudes about the very people we are trying to “help.” And while this makes for a softer, cuddlier, and more benevolent racism — we understand that it is still racism, nonetheless. 

What we have not done yet, is truly reflected on how our personal attitudes and approaches either contribute to or deconstruct that painful legacy. We simply need to examine ourselves more.  Of course, we can operate from a place of privilege and emphatically deny that subtle racism is present in our work. We can laugh it off and roll our eyes at the very real and valid suspicions about our motives. But we understand that to do so would make us less effective in our mission, in our desire for social equity and humanitarian change….and in our commitment to being authentic and evolving human beings. Therefore, when it comes to the criticism around THIS particular issue….the criticism of whether we are (consciously or unconsciously) exercising privilege and evoking white supremacist attitudes and strategies – we have to honestly say that prior to now, we have not been equipped, educated, or brave enough to tackle this question. But now that it has come to our attention…and because we truly care about being both an authentic organization, a true ally to people of color, and genuine human beings…we will take the time to research and reflect. Hopefully, we will emerge from the process with firm answers that will benefit the world…and ourselves.” 

Am I asking too much?

I don’t expect the founders of Invisible Children to be perfect or to have it “all figured out” when it comes to these things. What I do expect is what I expect of anybody who makes such egalitarian claims – that they be willing to frequently mine their own hearts and psyches in order to weed out the barriers that hinder them from being what they so vehemently claim to be. I need to know that misguided as it may be, that their hearts are in the right place.

Perfection? No. Authenticity? Absolutely.