Saturday, February 23, 2013
saving the savior: Africa for Norway
The following post was written by Lester Andrist and originally appeared at The Sociological Cinema.
The broad claim that certain groups have power over others—that racism, sexism, and classism exist—is hardly controversial. Yet mention privilege and tempers flare. But privilege is simply the other side of the power coin. Just as some racial groups are systematically oppressed and marginalized, other racial groups are systematically privileged, and just as forms of oppression vary, so too do forms of privilege. For instance, a white privilege might simply be living in a world where one can count on being paid more on average than Blacks or Latinos. While pay gaps may be easily quantified, forms of privilege that are less amenable to statistical analysis exist as well. Consider the male privilege of being immersed in a media environment that consistently depicts men as important and powerful. Or consider the white privilege of living in a media environment that assures audiences that white heroes are nearly always capable of transcending adversity. The above clip is from "Africa for Norway" and parodies the narrative typically deployed by Western charity organizations in their campaigns to secure funds and drum up support. It draws attention to a kind of Western privilege, a privilege both forged from and bound up with the experience of colonialism, the application of the rule of colonial difference (i.e., representing the 'other' as inferior and radically different), and Western racism. Whether it is the Kony 2012 campaign or the 1985 song "We Are the World," the story being peddled to publics is of a compassionate West saving the 'other' from unbearable poverty or some other grave injustice. Author Teju Cole famously named this dominant cultural narrative and the practices it calls forth the white savior industrial complex. While the components of the narrative can be spotted in the viral videos of these NGOs, Cole points out that it can also be found in countless Hollywood films, such as Out of Africa and The Constant Gardener. Time and again, moviegoers and YouTubers are asked to consider a rather narrowly defined hero. He's a compassionate white westerner, who stands apart in his uncommon ability to recognize the basic humanity of the many black and brown foreigners he has encountered while on his journey through an unfamiliar land; and against the advice of civilization, he heroically commits himself to the mission of saving these people from their plight. Although the perception that it is a criticism against charity will likely be a point of contention with viewers, the real critique, which is aimed at neocolonialism and the privileges it supports is incisive. It is a peculiar kind of Western privilege to be able to wade through the media pool each day, soaked by the various incarnations of this narrative, a day full of subtle reminders of one's intrinsic goodness and extraordinary abilities.