A call to people of colour: Build towards liberation
This is less a critique of the new HBO series, Girls, the Kony 2012 viral video and Occupy Wall Street, and more a response to the racial critique of the show, campaign and movement. This is intended for youth of colour both here in the West and abroad who are outraged by the implications of the above-mentioned things. I hope this piece aids in bringing us to consensus that it is time for us to take control of the cultural/political/economic/social means of production and do for ourselves what we previously expected and longed others to do for us. It is no longer time for us to struggle to have our voices heard by the powers that be, but time for us to acknowledge that we hear one another and ourselves and with this mutual recognition, build towards our collective liberation.
Let’s start with Girls.
I watched the first episode of the show in order to be able to write this article from firsthand observation. Before it’s premiere, I saw an ad for the show on the side of a New York City bus and my conclusion then was exactly the same as it is now: this show should be called Privileged White Girls. But it’s not, and that’s okay too. It’s okay as long as no one regards the show as a representation of the universal experience of female twenty-somethings living in New York City. It’s okay that Lesley Arfin chose not to include a Black or Hispanic or Arab or Asian character in the show. She’s a white girl who lives in an imagined white world, where the only people of colour she interacts with are uptight Asian tiger ladies and homeless people singing to her when she walks out of swank hotels in Midtown.
More importantly, it’s okay because I choose not to expect Lena Arfin or any other white girl for that matter to be the person who relays my story (the story of a young, black, twenty-something sister of consciousness living in New York City) to the world. I would rather have a young, black, twenty-something sister of consciousness do that job (wink, wink Issa Rae). And to be honest, if they threw in a token Black girl I would probably complain of tokenism. The lack of diverse representation of people of colour in all arenas, not just the media, is a real problem (see Chimamanda Ngoizi’s TED Talk: The Danger of A Single Story), but I’m not looking for a white savior to champion my cause.
That brings us to KONY 2012.
Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign is a drop in the pool of egregious examples of white people telling the story of people of colour and the corollary white saviour complex. I will not elaborate on this point, as my intention here is not to layout a critique of the campaign (this has already been done at length by Rosebell Kagumire, Teju Cole, Dinaw Mengestu, Solome Lemma, the folks over at Pambazuka News and Aljazeera, and more). Rather, I wish to look at the response the video garnered from Ugandan youth and point to their display of consciousness as an example for youth of colour around the world (including those outraged by the monochromatism of Girls).
I should first state that my understanding of consciousness is informed by the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy. According to their definition, conscious people of colour are not only aware of their situation (of oppression/exclusion/second class citizenry), but more importantly, they are working to “assess and improve their own influence over themselves and their environment … [and are] committed to the idea of getting [themselves] out of the morass.” [i]
The Ugandan youth journalists who shared their response to the video are doing this work. Through social media, they vocalised their dissatisfaction with the KONY2012 video by, amongst other critiques, highlighting how the espoused narrative ignores the efforts of Ugandans to address the conflict and once again paints Africans as a powerless and voiceless people in need of the Great White Saviour. In other words, these Ugandan youth highlighted and problematised Invisible Children’s attempt to invisibilise them. The result: their voices went unprecedentedly viral, they reminded the world about this beautiful, yet forgotten thing called African agency, and the KONY 2012 campaign collapsed.
And they continue to challenge this historical practice of Westerners representing and acting upon them. A collective of Ugandan journalists, some of whom are Acholi, have built a platform for telling their stories without the familiar Western bridge character. UgandaSpeaks is “an online social media project founded by a group of Ugandans to recapture the narrative about Joseph Kony and Northern Uganda from Invisible Children and its #KONY2012.” Through films, videos, interviews, and articles, these Ugandans have taken back the power to produce their own narrative and are sharing it with the world.
The value of this work — the work of building alternatives that challenge, instead of only critiquing, the status quo — is one of the hard learned lessons I took away from my four-month experience organizing for Occupy Wall Street in New York City. I along with many other organisers of colour who associated with the People of Colour Working Group (turned Caucus) expended a great deal of energy struggling to convince our comrades that we were not invisible, that our problems — those historically faced by communities of colour in the US— should be at the core of the movement. We very courageously called out oppression when we witnessed it and struggled to bring an analysis of race, class and intersectionality into the work we all were doing. We were sometimes met with victory, other times with defeat, exasperation, and trauma, and at all times overwhelmed by exhaustion.
Eventually, we grew to understand that we took up this struggle at the expense of another. We had dedicated our energy towards changing the consciousness of our white comrades and fighting traditional power structures within the movement, all the while neglecting the important work of building unity, power, and consciousness with politically and economically marginalised folks (and supporting those already doing this work). We spent more time fighting traditional power structures within the movement than doing, supporting and cultivating the important work that makes the former fight less relevant. Put frankly, we spent our time implicitly acknowledging our marginal position rather than engaging in work that challenged and eroded it. We learned that in this stage of the struggle for amore humane world, we should not spend more time battling than we do building.
And so instead of harping on the monochromatism and classist nature of Girls, support the artists, producers, and creators of colour and consciousness who are centralizing their experiences — our experiences— in their work. Support UgandaSpeaks, and writers like Chimamanda Adiche Ngozi and Teju Cole; films like Pariah, Gun Hill Road and Restless City; shows like Awkward Black Girl and East Willy B. Help lift up all of the underground artists, writers, thinkers, producers, workers, organisers and creators who produce alternatives all the while remembering that we, youth of colour, are not invisible. We may not figure in the imagination of pop culture makers and all may not understand our struggles, but we do not need to be delivered to relevancy by anyone other than ourselves. White eyes are not the only one’s with insight; white voices are not the only one’s that sound; white ears arenot the most important receivers; and white actions are not the only one’s that count. We are not invisible children, for at the very least, we see ourselves.
Sharon Cromwell studied International Development Studies at McGillUniversity and travelled to East Africa twice for studies. Shortly after moving to New York City last spring, she began organising with Occupy WallStreet. She is a member of a collective of activists of colour, DecoloNYC, and a mental health worker.