It still makes me uncomfortable.
For years, they have come to me, wanting to share their story. Civic clubs, church groups and, yes, alternative spring breakers, all who spent a week “in Africa” and want to recount the various ways they not only “helped those people,” but how the experience “changed them forever.”
So when colleague Adela Talbot passed along the Kony2012 viral video, I couldn’t watch more than 10 minutes. Just seemed like a rerun of the overly simplified story I have heard for too long.
If only the world’s problems were so easily solved: Invest half an hour. Like a status. Retweet a video. Done.
Understand, I am not proud my initial reaction to these endeavors has always been one of suspicion, rather than appreciation. I write today as neither indictment nor denouncement of their deeds, only as a confession and a point to consider as Western ramps up its internationalization push.
Blame what you will in me: An editor’s skepticism. Too many years in the racially charged U.S. South. White guilt. I have been accused of them all.
But I still get that uncomfortable feeling whenever Africa comes up as a ‘problem to be solved.’
Perhaps I have been asked to run one too many ‘Thank god the white people are here’ photos. You know the ones, showing the smiling faces of the sons and daughters of privilege holding African children in various states of misery. How many times has a malnourished child been used to raise money? I still see it today, not on this campus fortunately, but among many agencies that should know better.
I have always refused to run them, for the record. I opt for hope in my images. Trust me, another shot from an iPhone won’t push the world beyond the tipping point of action.
To Western (region, not university) eyes – especially the recently opened eyes of youth fresh from beneath their parents’ wing – Africa can be nothing more than a string of stereotypical images: The starving child. The ruthless dictator clad in the uniform of an unrecognized army. A landscape of seemingly infinite beauty soaked in the blood of more than a century of tyrannical (be it imported or domestic) rule.
Who wouldn’t want to help?
But what many don’t see, or chose not to see, is the complexity of the continent. But again, how could you squeeze that into 140 characters or a 30-minute video. No, it’s far easier to perpetuate this cartoonish image as a roadside attraction of misery.
Ask yourself, what if Canada was presented to the world solely as images of Attawapiskat schools? Or the United States solely as images from Appalachia?
Perhaps I am being too difficult. The problems of certain areas of Africa are quite real. Are there true-believers doing wonderful work to address those problems? Absolutely. Many of them, in fact, walk this campus.
But I am not willing to afford sweeping approval for all. And it’s something I think about a lot in this job still.
I carried my bias with me to Western when I returned to the classroom. During that time, I had a wonderful discussion with Biology professor Charlie Trick, one I am sure he doesn’t even remember, where he explained the evolution of academic research from the days of ‘helicopter researchers’ to today’s stringently filtered, ethically benchmarked, sustainable, partner-based work. It was fascinating.
In that accountability, which came in direct response to the sins of the past, I believe there are lessons for all.
As this university moves forward with its internationalization push, and sends more of Canada’s brightest into the world through study abroad and exchanges, we must go for the right reasons. And I would hope we pack a little humility to go with our humanity.
Remember, some good deeds are allowed to go untweeted.