The White Man’s Dilemma: What Would Teju Cole Have Us Do?

As I read American novelist Teju Cole’s tweets and article in response to the viral Kony 2012 video, I began to wonder what Cole expects white people (or America; he seems to conflate the two) to do in the face of strife or privation abroad. He seems uncomfortable both with our doing something and with our doing nothing, and intent on ensuring that we feel terrible either way.


Joseph Kony

Explaining his tweets, Cole reminds us that novelists like himself “traffic in subtleties,” even though most of the tweets are no more subtle than playground taunts. His message is clear: the burgeoning White Savior Industrial Complex, greased with hypocrisy, ignores the macro-scale suffering of Africans and periodically clears out the resulting deposits of guilt by launching micro-scale advocacy campaigns, charities, and NGOs. “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” We should take this thesis seriously.

I too found the video overdone (and overlong), and it is true that Joseph Kony is a micro-problem in comparison both to the enormity of global capitalism and to the poverty, corruption, and disease that pervade parts of Africa.

But Kony, despite his elusiveness, is the easiest of these problems to solve. He is also tremendously evil, and calling him a “convenient villain” does not let him off the hook.

Cole complains that his tweets were then called extreme, blaming American “enforced civility” for that judgment. I’m not going to focus on this, because I don’t care about whether Cole was being extreme. I want to know whether he’s right.

Cole argues that the problem with Kristofian “advocacy-by-journalism” and with organizations like Invisible Children is that they don’t think “constellationally” (meaning that they understand problems as being isolated and solvable with outside help and attention). He comes closest to making a clear argument when he lays out two principles he believes they should follow: First: “There is the principle of first do no harm.” Second: “There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

This seems fair enough. I have some experience with development in Northern Uganda (perhaps making me an agent of the WSIC), and am somewhat literate in the controversies surrounding development and foreign aid. It is true that aid efforts can do harm. It is also true that they can neglect to consult with those being helped.

Cole acknowledges both that Africa has problems, and that all decent human beings feel an urge to rectify them (he presumably is also aware of the horrific crimes of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, but chooses not to recapitulate them here, even in passing). But when faced with the question of what we should do, he gets cryptic. He lists humility and respect for the agency of Ugandans as prerequisites. These are valuable mindsets, but he stops there.

Next, Cole recounts the oil subsidy protests in Nigeria earlier this year as a moment of true political awakening of the sort we should encourage, and here is where he loses me. He acknowledges the State Department’s support of the Nigerian protesters’ rights, but dismisses it as “boilerplate rhetoric” of which “nothing tangible” came. Here he shows himself to be as subject to the allure of the White Savior Industrial Complex as we. After all, he too wants America to do something “tangible” in Africa. Having partially affirmed his White Saviordom earlier in the piece by confessing his ownership of a cellphone and the complicity it entails, Cole here fully inhabits the role by expressing a desire that America do something.

Despite this, I cannot imagine what State Department reaction could have earned his approval. Silence from Foggy Bottom would surely be a damning sign of the West’s indifference to democratic struggle and its resistance to meaningful change–classic White Savior hypocrisy. A more strongly worded statement to the Nigerian government? Imperialist bullying. Sanctions? Intervention? Enough said. There is nothing we can do, and we can’t do nothing. We’re either quixotic or callous.

Cole might acknowledge this dilemma, and claim that the reason the State Department can’t make the situation right is because the Nigerian protests are a mere symptom of the much larger problem: systematic oppression of Africa and the rest of the global south by the developed world. In this context, there simply is no role for America. We can only hang our heads and embrace the shame.

The American state thus condemned, Cole addresses the role of the individual. He endorses charitable giving, with the caveat that we undertake it fully aware of the bigger picture. This leaves me wondering what his point is, and how he distinguishes White Saviors motivated by narcissistic hero-fantasies from decent people responding to other people’s suffering. It also leaves me wondering what he would have me do.

Cole’s sixth tweet: “Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.” I hope I don’t need to point out the absurd premises that spawned this tweet. (I will say that Teju Cole should know that a shortage of worry is not our problem. I also wonder why he thinks we need to choose between worrying about dead Africans and Iraqis, or what the dead Iraqis have to do with the dead Africans, or how even murdering ten million Iraqi children in cold blood would absolve us of our obligations to our African fellow human beings). Cole not only hoards Congolese coltan for his phone, but seeks to monopolize guilt as well, in both cases at Africans’ expense. He plays a pretty good White Savior, but wait till you see his White Sadomasochist.

Left unsettled is the question of whether Cole wants Kony removed from play at all. At first it seems that we have his blessing (as long as we don’t feel too proud of ourselves). Later, though, he warns that stopping the LRA involves cooperating with and strengthening Uganda’s strongman president, Yoweri Museveni. So he might oppose stopping Kony altogether.

It is revealing that Cole cannot muster an opinion on what should be done about Kony. Maybe he’s just too subtle.


4 thoughts on “The White Man’s Dilemma: What Would Teju Cole Have Us Do?

  1. Jenson says:

    Boaz, I enjoyed your response. I read Cole’s article yesterday and basically came away with the same conclusion: damned if we do (buy Kony bracelets), and damned if we don’t (take issue with a man on top of the Earth’s Most Wanted list).

  2. Maduka says:

    I don’t want to get into an argument over Teju Cole.

    The most important point is that non-Western people have agency – and that was the lesson of last years Arab Spring. Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. The Iraq war is a reminder of what happens when the West decides to intervene in situations or societies in which it has little knowledge of.

    Yes, sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing if you are not willing to take the time to understand the World around you. The Kony video simplified an extremely complex situation. That is what Africans, Ugandans and people who have an understanding of the subtleties of life in Africa are alarmed about.

    You have also understand that it is not “all about you”. The West didn’t intervene in Rwanda but Rwanda managed to build something out of the ruins of a genocide. Somaliland and Puntland enjoy relative peace and Vietnam would have been better off without US intervention.

    Africans are pleading for you to listen to their voices, to consider that they also are human. That American college kids don’t really have all the answers to the World. If you cannot grasp that, then the World has serious problems.

    • boazmunro says:

      Hi Maduka,

      Thanks a lot for reading, and for taking the time to comment. We don’t have to argue about Teju Cole! I’ll just share quick thoughts on your 4 points:

      1. The idea of non-Western agency is so important. I couldn’t agree more. But to blame the West for Joseph Kony also deprives Ugandans of their agency. Agency-denial cuts both ways; both the war hawks who believe Iraqis are too passive to claim their own freedom AND the Teju Coles who refuse to hold non-Western criminals responsible for thier actions are guilty of it.

      2. I absolutely agree that the Kony video (and many other campaigns of its kind) is overly simplistic, sometimes harmfully. I hope my post made that clear.

      3. It seems like you believe Western countries should never intervene abroad. I disagree. The Iraq War, catastrophic as it was, does not show “what happens” when the West intervenes abroad. The Iraq war is what happened when the West did so in an extraordinarily reckless and arrogant manner.

      I’m also astonished by your ability to interpret the Rwandan genocide as a positive example of nonintervention. It’s true that the 80% of Rwandans who weren’t hacked to pieces now enjoy a better-than-expected life under a pretty competent autocrat, but the 20% who were hacked to pieces are unable to present their opinions.

      Your rubric for judging an episode in the non-Western world seems very simple: If the West intervenes, it’s a disaster. If the West does not, it’s positive. 800,000 Rwandans one way or the other don’t tip the scale. Your standard, not mine, epitomizes “all about us.” I think you should re-think it.

      4. Here I completely agree. I don’t have all the answers in the world. I can barely muster one. It’s those who think they do have the answers that I worry about.

      Feel free to email me at with any more thoughts. Thanks again for reading.

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