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In ‘white man’s burden’ style

On the wonderful Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics Facebook page the other day, a friend posted a link to an obnoxious sneery article on Racialicious about the Half the Sky PBS series. She was infuriated by it. She was right.

…the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.

Well that’s a shitty start. “Neo-liberal”? No. Neo-liberal is libertarian free market gospeller; the film wasn’t about that.  “White savior”? That’s just offensive.

…in ‘white man’s burden’ style, Kristof even says at one point, “When you have won the lottery of life that there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.”

Yes, he does say that, but in context it’s clear that he’s not doing a “white man’s burden” number. He’s saying what’s true: some people have the good luck of not being born into horrendous circumstances – like for instance being a prostitute because that’s your subcaste and you’re not allowed to do anything else – while other people don’t, and it is only ethical for the former to use their good luck to try to improve that of the latter. Would it be better to ignore people who have not won the lottery of life? Are selfishness and indifference better?

Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women–from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to intergenerational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (Um, no.)

No. So what? They all do have something in common, certainly.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification: the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

For example, would Kristof, a middle-aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14-year-old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone and that the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive–other than titillation and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

Identification, for one thing. Empathy. Interest. Engagement. Solidarity. A desire to do something useful. Awareness of what kind of thing needs to be done.

Why would the opposites of all these be better?

The issue of agency is also paramount. In the graduate seminar I teach on Narrative, Health, and Social Justice in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, I often ask my students to evaluate a text’s ethical stance by asking themselves–“whose story is it?” For example, are people of color acting or being acted upon? Although the film does highlight fantastic on-the-ground activists such as maternal-health activist Edna Adan of Somaliland, the point of entry–the people with whom we, the (presumably) Western watchers, are supposed to identify–are Kristof and his actress sidekick-du-jour.

Bullshit. Edna Adan was far from peripheral. At other times, yes, the outsiders did serve as a kind of bridge, because they’re the naive newcomers who have to be told everything and shown everything. But is that a bad thing? Not that I can see. They come across as incompetent, and we feel incompetent with them, and we also learn along with them. We’re the novice outsiders and the people we’re visiting are knowledgeable and informed. I thought the show did a pretty good job of that.

Although a few passing comments are made about rape, coerced sex work, and other gender-based violence existing everywhere in the world–including in the U.S., hello?!–the point that is consistently reiterated in the film is that gender oppression is “worse” in “these countries”–that it is a part of “their culture.” In fact, at one point, on the issue of female genital cutting, Kristof tells actress Diane Lane, “That may be [their] culture, but it’s also a pretty lousy aspect of culture.”

There’s nothing that smacks more of “us and them” talk than these sorts of statements about “their culture.” Postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, in fact, coined the term “white men saving brown women from brown men” to describe the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression.

Ah well if postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak says it it must be true. She translated Derrida, so she knows.

It goes on in that vein. I won’t cite any more, because life is short. But I think it’s a horrible piece. The author, Sayantani DasGupta, teaches in the “Narrative Medicine” program at Columbia. The what? Yes.

 

Comments

  1. anthrosciguy says

    Wouldn’t one excellent reason to show the same sorts of problems in four different places with four different cultures and four different histories be to show that it’s not just something restricted to one place, one culture, one history? If it were, or could be dismissed as, just one place, one culture, one history it would be easier to think of it as not being a really big widespread problem.

  2. kosk11348 says

    She sounds like she hails from the extreme left, the part which wraps around and becomes indistinguishable from the extreme right. Oh, she’s putting on a facade of cultural sensitivity, but her “principled” indolence would sound little different coming from an Ayn Rand libertarian.

  3. Rodney Nelson says

    She translated Derrida, so she knows.

    So she’s an expert at dadaism masquerading as philosophy. What does that have to do with oppression of women?

  4. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Ugh. What a repulsive article. Obviously one of those obnoxious ‘it’s their culture, if you condemn them then you’re racist’ relativists.

  5. Acolyte of Sagan says

    callistacat says:
    October 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm
    What the hell is “postcultural”?

    Well if ‘post’ is ‘after’ and ‘cultural’ relates to ‘culture’, then ‘postculture’ must mean sometime in the future when culture is no more.
    But that’s just silly..isn’t it?

  6. Armored Scrum Object says

    For example, would Kristof, a middle-aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14-year-old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him?

    Um… yes, he probably would?

  7. pramod says

    I don’t think it’s a horrible piece and I’m glad it was written.

    I get the impression that a lot of the so-called “reporting” on the racism/misogyny in the non-white parts of the world is just an attempt to dehumanize non-whites so that you people can bomb the fuck out of us with little or no outrage. I’m not accusing the readers of this blog to hold that opinion, I’m sure you’re all good human beings but are you going to deny that this doesn’t happen *ever*?

    Do you really think the average american cares about the six hundred thousand or so people who’ve died in Iraq just because of Dubya’s lies? Do you really think the average american gives a shit that food prices have doubled in Iran just because you fucks need a new brand of brown people to hate? I don’t think so, and part of the reason is because the average american really does think that brown people (or their culture if you like) really is inferior to hir own.

    Back to your blog:

    Identification, for one thing. Empathy. Interest.

    Notice these are all for the benefit of the white people watching the video.

    Engagement. Solidarity. A desire to do something useful. Awareness of what kind of thing needs to be done.

    OK, I’ll bite. Tell me what needs to be done.

    I should say I’m skeptical anything *can* be done unless you find a way to get these people out of poverty. You first need to make sure a person has a decent education, a guarantee that hir basic needs will be provided for and an opportunity for a reasonable life. Unless you have that, all your talk about equality and sexism will fall on deaf ears.

    And unfortunately, these people are not going to get out of poverty unless the western system of economic oppression comes down. That, I’m pretty sure, is not going to happen anytime soon.

    The author, Sayantani DasGupta, teaches in the “Narrative Medicine” program at Columbia. The what? Yes.

    Really? You had to stoop to this?

  8. Brownian says

    There’s nothing that smacks more of “us and them” talk than these sorts of statements about “their culture.” Postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, in fact, coined the term “white men saving brown women from brown men” to describe the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression.

    Ah well if postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak says it it must be true. She translated Derrida, so she knows.

    Are you kidding? Dredging up the horrors of the religious non-whites for self-serving purposes is the New Atheist community’s bread and butter.

    Dear Muslima says it’s true.

  9. Shaker Srinivasan says

    To paraphrase, Martin Luther King, Jr., that the color of the skin of Nikolas Kristof and his crew are black, blue, or white, have nothing to do with the substance of their documentary. Just as Einstein’s belief or disbelief in god does not invalidate his special theory of relativity, Ayn Rand’s espousal of free market in no way diminishes her atheist or pro-choice positions. And, Ophelia, does it really matter if Sayantani DasGupta teaches “Narrative Medicine”? For all I care, she could be teaching Quantum Electrodynamics at Caltech, or Hindu Mythology at Chicago, but her article does read like a jargon filled TPM to me.

    A couple of years ago I wrote this in a guest column on this blog:

    Identity is a statistical fiction, an artifact of data reduction and clustering.

    As an academic who has been at both ends of the double-blind review process, I hold that identity is the staple of politicians (it should not be, but it is), but of little use in illuminating good and bad ideas.

    Btw, what the hell are “Global South” and “Global North”, and what do they have to do with, say, human trafficking? On the flip side, why is freedom of expression a “Western” value? Do we really think Malala Yousufzai values it any less than Ophelia Benson?

  10. Nepenthe says

    So… is your contention that Spivak is incorrect about the existence of “white men saving brown women from brown men”, as described in the paragraph following the one you clip?

    Identification, for one thing. Empathy. Interest. Engagement. Solidarity. A desire to do something useful. Awareness of what kind of thing needs to be done.

    I noticed that you conveniently cut out the bit where DasGupta anticipates this line of argument with the Sontag quote.

    ”White savior”? That’s just offensive.

    *blinks* Really? Did you just go there? Are we to expect discussions of the offensiveness of “cracker” and “honkey” next?

  11. says

    … *blinks* Really? Did you just go there? Are we to expect discussions of the offensiveness of “cracker” and “honkey” next?

    What? Got something in your eye?

    Well, anyway: let’s try it on:

    … hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof…

    Hrm. Yeah, still reads a bit cheap, from here. I think ‘not a good start’ is pretty fair, too. But let’s try again, as per your request:

    … hosted by everyone’s favorite cracker New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof…

    Dunno. I think he’d probably be the one blinking, there. One more:

    … hosted by everyone’s favorite honkey New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof…

    Hrm.

    He’d probably just shake his head, roll his eyes, and say ‘what the hell are you even talking about?’, I’m thinking. But I’m still not quite volunteering to be the one who reads it to his face.

    More seriously: yeah, she went there. And y’know, I think I’m standing there with her. You stand where you like, I guess.

    It’s this impression I’m getting that shit like that is getting a mite too easy to sling around. Terrible thing this guy and his crew did, reporting on poverty and discrimination in places that aren’t their own country. And we can find things about his doc that aren’t quite what we would like them to be, notwithstanding we have to acknowledge it does show local groups trying to make a difference, too…

    Well, it’s ‘white savior’, then, I guess. I’ve got the brush right here, with the paint already on it. And look how conveniently broad it is…

    Whap.

    What, you really give a shit? As if. You want others to give a shit? Like hell. Obviously, you’re just flogging poverty porn, you sick bastard. Move over Larry Flynt, you’ve got some competition, right here.

    Y’know, I really have no trouble with people giving hell to hypocrites who say or support shit like ‘Dear Muslima’ and then take it to the ‘we’re not doing fucking anything here if we can keep banging on about how life is so much worse somewhere else’ bank. And if you see crap like that and then start thinking, well, obviously, no one really gives a shit, I guess, what can I say? I suppose I can well imagine how you might get that impression.

    But if you start dumping on people who actually just might actually give some quantity of shit, out of that impression, and who even might be bringing stuff to light an awful lot of their audience really wouldn’t otherwise know, honestly, I guess all I can request is that you mind the heft of the brushes you swing, at least.

  12. Nepenthe says

    Dear god, it would be a terrible, terrible thing to criticize someone who’s doing something. Because as long as a white guy is doing something, everyone ought be grateful. There isn’t a long history of white people doing something that either screwed over the not-white people the were supposed to be helping or making about as much real difference as a rat fart in a hurricane.

    I mean, if you think that Kristof isn’t following in the white savior of the benighted brown folk narrative, by all means, give some warrants. But don’t brush it off as if the mere insinuation that the “white savior” is a real phenomenon is desperately offensive. Because it is definitely a thing, as anyone who’s met a missionary knows.

  13. barrypearson says

    There appears to be some criticism here because Kristof is a white man and doing what he is doing.

    How many of these criticisms would have occurred had he been black and doing precisely the same thing? And/or a woman doing precisely the same thing? Would that have been objectionable?

    Is there some sort of anti-white-male prejudice here?

  14. Walton says

    I haven’t seen this particular series, but some of Nicholas Kristof’s activism has been problematic, to say the least. See this article by Aziza Ahmed, a feminist researcher, on the way that his campaign against the sex industry, while well-intended, can actually have unintended bad consequences for vulnerable sex workers. More on the problems caused by “International Justice Mission”, a Christian anti-prostitution organization which Kristof has supported, can be found here at The Nation.

    (Disclaimer: I’ve met Aziza Ahmed in person – I attended a guest seminar which she taught last year.)

  15. says

    … don’t brush it off as if the mere insinuation that the “white savior” is a real phenomenon is desperately offensive.

    Right. Next time I catch someone actually making that ‘insinuation’, I’ll make it all about that, then.

    Odd to me, tho’, that you read quite that much into Ophelia’s post, which really doesn’t seem to me to imply nearly that much. Kinda implies to me someone thinks they’ve got someone else pegged.

    … or just that they’re not thinking much at all.

  16. says

    Of course it may be true that Kristof has made mistakes or done things with bad consequences or done things with potential bad consequences or whatever. But this particular article did an execrable job of making the case that this particular tv film did any of that. It was all rhetoric and no substance.

    (“Nepenthe” – yes I used the word “offensive” without irony, because it was the right word. I usually include a disclaimer when I use that word, to say that it’s often used in a bullshit way but not always and this time it fits…but I didn’t, because I get tired of doing that.)

  17. Rebekah, the Wily Jew says

    The other person behind Half the Sky, both the book and PBS series, is Sheryl WuDunn. DasGupta makes a off-hand mention of her, but conspicuously fails to mention the rather pertinent fact that WuDunn is a Chinese American.

    DasGupta certainly has no problem of course focusing on Kristof’s race. And she takes the time to note the “blonde” pilots from a cheeky meme photo having nothing whatsoever to do with Half the Sky, but somehow never gets around to mentioning that Kristof’s partner in this project is a woman of colour. I note that one of the woman in the photo in question clearly has brown hair by any measure, but I guess all white people look alike….

    In other words the right-thinking paragons of racialicious seem to have entirely white-washed a woman of colour our of the discussion, as have walton, Nepenthe and others here that are expressing concern about this project. I could not fabricate a more glaring example of the hypocrisy and racial hostilities that underlies so much of ‘anti-racism’.

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