Tag Archives: colonialism

Invisible Children and Visible Egos: White Masculinity on International Women’s Day

8 Mar

I woke up this morning and found that my Facebook feed buzzed with a greater number of doleful testaments (surprisingly from both apolitical high school associates and close friends alike) about how “Kony must be stopped,” than the short, upbeat, but nevertheless inspiring “happy women’s day!” status updates I was expecting to see.

So I clicked the link to what I was told would be a short, but life-changing video.

For the next 30 minutes of my life, I was bombarded with propaganda. My heart-strings were manipulatively tugged at by a cute, blonde five-year-old and some sensational neo-colonial rhetoric about how “we, the [Western] people” have the power to use social media for good. I love democracy as much as the next girl, but I don’t appreciate that our International Women’s Day has been hijacked by a handful of white, middle-class American males and a  moral crusade that reeks of White Man’s Burden.

Here are just a few of the things about the viral vid that I take issue with:

Firstly, the narrator keeps condescendingly claiming that “we” need to “save Africa.” Last time I checked, Africa was a big-ass continent, with countries and cultures so diverse that to lump them together as “them” who needs saving by “us” is way beyond offensive; it’s just inaccurate.

Ugandans and their children are not “invisible.” They are very much alive and existing, and they can not only speak for themselves, they can solve their own problems. Invisible Children would have us believe that all the progress in Uganda over the years has been due to charity efforts, meanwhile, the Ugandan military had already been pushing out Kony (pronounced “coin”) before the IC was even created. They even had American backing way before Obama, although this hard-lined stance against Kony resulted in a Phyrric victory, with many children as casualties.

This video conveniently ignores this fact, as well as the input of any Ugandan citizen, let alone politician. It focusses on informing Americans, celebrities, and Obama about an issue that has decades-old roots. Why are these children “invisible”? Because Kim Kardashian  hasn’t heard of them? I’d be surprised if some of the celebrities the IC is lobbying can even name the 50 states, let alone talk international politics.

Moreover, this video does not only patronize and invisibilize African agency, it also talks down to Americans, through the dumbing down of complex issues with sweeping blanket statements about “the good guys vs. the bad guys,” as explained to a five-year-old, and by using flashy words and imagery any serious documentary filmmaker would find most unprofessional. It manipulates facts and attempts to pass for current events a situation that is quite frankly no longer current.

Starkly one-sided, Invisible Children conspires to make us think that the answer to all of life’s problems is direct military intervention, because that has just worked so well in the past.

Those who have researched the issue, or even simply typed “Uganda” on a Google search engine, may find Ugandan journalist Angelo Opi-aiya Izama‘s input to be of interest to them:

“One salient issue the film totally misses is that the actual geography of today’s LRA operations is related to a potentially troubling “resource war”.

Since 2006, Uganda discovered world class oil fields along its border with DRC. The location of the oil fields has raised the stakes for the Ugandan military and its regional partners, including the US.

While LRA is seen as a mindless evil force, its deceased deputy leader, Vincent Otii, told me once that their fight with President Yoweri Museveni was about “money and oil”. This context is relevant because it allows for outsiders to view the LRA issue more objectively within the recent history of violence in the wider region that includes the great Central Africa wars of the 90s, in which groups like LRA were pawns for proxy wars between countries.”

It is clear that military intervention would do more harm to the very people that Invisible Children claims they want to help.

I’m extremely uncomfortable with how passive this video appears to viewers on the one hand, sold to us as a campaign that requires merely word of mouth to spread and flourish. But Invisible Children’s goals are not at all peaceful.

For those who genuinely want to improve the world beyond a superficial means, please note that Uganda is now facing problems that are much like those of most other countries (yes, including America): an interest in improving health care, education, human rights, etc. It’s great that millions of privileged people all over the world are suddenly taking an interest in the lives and history of another country, but it would be even better if their efforts were well-informed.

The world is not a great place right now, and there is a lot that can be done. As Uganda heals itself from a conflict that essentially ended several years ago, Tibet continues to suffer human rights abuses that are utterly totalitarian, and even extreme forms of protest, such as suicide, continue. Why don’t people cry for these Tibetan women? Whose country, wealthy in arts, culture, and literature, is being drained by an invasion that has been going on for about half a century.

Or better yet, this Women’s Day, why don’t we celebrate rather than cry, because just over a month ago in Ecuador, news landed that hundreds of lesbian torture clinics, opened with the machismo logic that you can “straighten out” a “bad girl,” are finally being closed down for good by the health ministry. This was done without the use of arms, but via a social media protest using the popular petition site Change.org.

Yet right now, on this International Women’s Day, people are not celebrating Ecuador’s victory over misogyny, nor mourning the loss of those two Tibetan female protesters.

Instead, while people cry for Uganda, the beautiful, resource-rich country Democratic Republic of the Congo — a country that should be filthy-rich with earnings from their valuable exports — continues to be looted, significantly (but not uniquely) by North American corporations, who are funding a devastating civil war that kills 40, 000 people a month. Did you know that The Congo has the highest rate of rape and sexual violence in the world? This is International Women’s Day, so let’s focus on tangible issues that affect us now. Every woman in the world can and should care about the Congo, and the reasons are feminist, sincere, and legitimate, without a trace of the egotistic white-male burden complex. To quote playwright Eve Ensler,

“Congo’s the heart of Africa, Africa is the heart of the world. Women are the heart of the heart. So if the heart isn’t functioning, the rest of the world’s not going to function.”

All of our electronics are made with minerals that come from the Congo, and internationally, us ladies (and gentlemen!) as  consumers are fuelling a civil war in which the casualties who will suffer the most, are women. To support the Congolese, the West actually does not need to help, but they also don’t need to hinder.

For those of you who have just watched “Kony 2012” and have been blasted with images of a malnourished and underdeveloped Africa, let me level with you. The Congo is a culturally advanced, resource-rich nation with a beautiful, modern, and infrastructurally developed capital city and financial district. Unfortunately, the eastern part of the nation is suffering from a complex civil war wherein I cannot point out the clear “good” and “bad” guys for you, but I can assure you that there will be no winners. What we, as global consumers, can do for the Congo, is not simply press our governments to call for military action; that would be capricious and ill-informed. What we must do is transform ourselves from global consumers, to informed global consumers. We must lobby our governments to regulate its corporations, not only the ones who deal within the country, but those that deal abroad as well. We should also press corporations to not deal in minerals from mines run by armed groups. Now that you have learned that Western powers are already funding neo-colonial ventures in Africa, let’s not donate to the IC and fund another.

Despite the claims of Invisible Children, at the end of the day, it will not be the West whose “civilizing mission” will empower a so-called voiceless and “invisible” Africa. It has and will continue to be done from within. Again, the West does not need to help, but they also don’t need to hinder. Africa does not need anyone to make its issues “famous.” Africa has always been a powerful continent, and whether this view has been legitimized by the West or not changes nothing.

So in honour of International Women’s Day, let me end with a quote from Yaa Asantewaa, a Ghanaian Queen Mother with the balls to take on her fellow-queen, Victoria of England, and all her colonizing efforts head-on. This is what she had to say to the Asante soldiers before the Uprising of 1900, the last major African anti-colonial rebellion led by a woman:

“Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. […] Is it true that the bravery of the Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you the men of Asante will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women.”

It’s a poignant quote that oozes female empowerment. And isn’t that what today should be about? So I have to side with the women’s website, Jezebel, on this one, that while it’s great that all my apolitical associates are suddenly jumping on the bandwagon of pseudo-social justice, the phony sense of empowerment that “Kony 2012” gives to tweeters and Facebookers misses the point that “charity isn’t really about feeling empowered.” International Women’s Day, on the other hand, is.


Colonialism is Racism

29 Nov

Canada’s educational system needs to get it together, especially when it comes to discussing colonialism.

Colonialism is an ideology of oppression that requires a hierarchical, dualistic view. When European explorers first “discovered” a world that other humans had long-since known to be there, these colonialists quickly divided humans into categories of “us” and “them,” making colonialism synonymous with racism, sexism, and homophobia.

European colonialism has always thought in binaries: god/devil, heaven/hell, man/woman, white/black, humans/nature…etc., with the former always “above” the latter. It is disappointing to me that from primary school up until post-secondary, us Canadian students are never taught to critique colonialism. Few history professors dare to expose this ideology for the white-heterosexual-male supremism that it represents. Perhaps they are scared. Or perhaps they just don’t know. Some friends of mine have said that our curriculum is Eurocentric; that it only represents the history of one group. I would go even farther and say that it is no one’s history–it is non-history.

My first experience learning non-history was back in seventh grade. Our history class consisted of memorizing a series of names: Samuel de Champlain, John A MacDonald, Christopher Columbus, and a bunch of other dead white dudes. We learned about the battles over Canada between the British and the French; the Native population was non-existent. Or maybe they just didn’t matter enough to be mentioned in our textbooks. When they were mentioned, it was in passing, such as when one of my teachers told us, “there were some Native Canadians around who allied themselves with various white male “discovers,” “explorers,” or “heroes,” if you will, but they died on contact because “they did not have the vaccinations to protect themselves against European illnesses.” Something about that phrase always made me wonder what more went on that remained unsaid in our textbooks. The vaccinations could easily have been shipped along with the thousands of Europeans coming in, but they weren’t. They weren’t because the genocide was intentional, although no teacher would ever say this aloud, in fear of being politically incorrect. Positive Aboriginal role models like Louis Reil are either ignored by the educational system or mentioned with slight contempt. And one of Canada’s cruelest politicians, Duncan Campbell Scott, is having his name purged from our history.

Canadian history is taught as revolving around the British and the French despite that the true founding fathers arrived tens of thousands of years earlier, and we are taught useless tidbits about these two colonial groups, such as who attacked who, what battle strategies they used, the various treaties that were signed and the dates they were signed on (but not what they entailed), and more political jargon. Author Adam Hochschild says “treaties are a euphemism.”

The truth about history is that it is not a dry, apolitical, and impersonal non-history. History shapes the lives of real people, especially those that remain unmentioned in our textbooks.

Racist, anti-asian sentiments in CBS’s The Big Bang Theory

28 Apr

I’ve been hearing about The Big Bang Theory for a while now, and it has been recommended to me a few times by associates within my academic circle–by friends with both Asian and non-Asian backgrounds.

Interesting… I thought to myself. A clever comedy? That could be refreshing. And of course, I was also interested to see how they would play out the character of Raj Koothrappali, as East Indians are rarely favourably portrayed (or even included) in American sitcoms.

I’ll have to admit I was less than impressed with the initial episode I watched. What had been sold to me as a “smart sitcom” seemed more like a series of dull, mildly depressing and unintelligent ramblings of grown-up Superbad characters. But it’s alright for light-entertainment before bed, I convinced myself, slightly out of desperation as there are so few quality shows on the air nowadays.

Still, there was something that didn’t quite sit right with me about the show. I even felt mildly uncomfortable watching it. After a few more episodes, I started to admit to myself that I really disliked the show’s attitude toward Raj, but once again, the critic in me acquiesced to the more naive part of myself, and I told myself that I was just being hypersensitive.

Then the racist element really started to get under my skin, and I started documenting the evidence for social observance purposes. That and blog fodder.

The first moment that I probably felt that internal burn that we all feel when we know we are being discriminated against is during the first episode, when Penny (the show’s token “hot girl,” who actually is pretty adorable) addresses Raj, and he doesn’t answer her. Her immediate response is, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?”

This problematic assumption is worsened by the fact that it is sidekick Howard who steps in and speaks for him, explaining that he cannot answer her because he is “a nerd.” Great, I said to myself, so the one time an East Indian is cast in a lead role in an American sitcom, not only is he part of a group with questionable attitudes towards women, a group so pathetic, so painfully nerdy that even I want to give them all wedgies, but he also has to be silenced.

Raj Koothrappali is robbed of his voice: a key feature of colonialism, sexism, slavery, and oppression in general. Is it the tale of Columbus, or of the scores of  humans he slaughtered, that we are taught of with semi-folklore status in our history classes today? Is it the women or the men who are noted as the prime social reformers and philosophers of their time? When we discuss politics, both national and foreign, ancient and modern, who has their say? Certainly not those whom it would be most relevant to hear from. And let’s face it, in American history, it’s the Anglo-saxon version that dominates despite the myth of the melting pot. This is what subjugation is all about.

Is Raj’s inability to speak a comedic aspect of his character, or a symptom of something more insidious in The Big Bang Theory? Why couldn’t it be the socially inept Sheldon, the uncouth and sexually repulsive Wallowitz, or even lame Leonard who is rendered with this ignominy?

Relax! You say to me. You are over-analyzing it! It’s just a show. And anyways, Wallowitz is Jewish. He is also a member of a minority group that has faced extreme discrimination in American society. So what if he spoke for Raj in this instance? He does not have the agency to be racist.

Okay, let’s agree to disagree and say that Raj’s fleeting loss-of-voice isn’t racist. But it isn’t only Wallowitz who speaks for–and even defines–who Raj is. In The Precious Fragmentation, (S3 E17), it is the leading-nerd Sheldon Cooper, a Texan of Anglo-saxon ancestry, who distinguishes Raj as “the foreigner who tries to understand our culture and fails.”

This instance draws parallels to the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, wherein the slave, through systemic oppression, is (at least initially) only able to see himself through the eyes of his oppressor. His oppressor ends up being the one who provides him with his identity.  Moreover, why is Raj’s character forever seen as an outsider incapable of assimilation? He is a smart, functional (aside from his encounters with women) member of society who speaks fluent English and almost seems to abhor anything remotely “Indian.” Yet he is not “one of them.” He is not an American, and in the eyes of Sheldon, who emblematizes not only the dorky Anglo-saxon, but also small-town, white American nerd-dom, he never will be.

The show doesn’t stop there with Sheldon’s sense of entitlement to speak as the wiser, more advanced counterpart to his foreign comrade. In The Gorilla Experiment (S3, E10), after Penny cutely throws and catches food in her mouth, Sheldon makes a condescending remark about how he dislikes when she acts “willy nilly” towards food without concern for its equitable distribution. He then addresses Raj with an uncalled-for and inaccurate attack, stating “Raj, this is essentially why you have famine in India.” This is an instance of the classic “ruler-knows-best” colonial symptom.

It doesn’t take a self-proclaimed genius like Cooper to know that India, a major exporter of the world’s food, hasn’t had a famine since after the British left. Under British rule, millions Indians died of starvation during at least 25 well-documented famines, while the colonists gained inspiration for their later behaviour in Ireland by inducing Indian famines through looting the country’s food and goods and taxing people for everything (see: The Bengal Famine, which killed 1/3 of the population, or 15 million people). Interesting how colonial thought enjoys distorting these basic facts.

In The Jiminy Conjecture (S3 E2), Sheldon even reminds Raj of his ancestral colonial connection during a disagreement where Raj remarks he would be “kicking [Sheldon’s] butt” if this argument was in his Native tongue.

“English is your Native language!” Sheldon quickly and thoughtlessly repudiates, met by the laughter of the audience.

So Sheldon can state that Raj’s Native tongue is English, however Raj is still far from an American, “failing” to comprehend its cultural norms. This attitude is typical of the British Raj, who forever tried to Anglocize India, while never agreeing that India was “Anglo” enough. For example, Sir Babington Macaulay, a hailed reformer of the Indian education system (whose role in the outlawing of all homosexual activity is conveniently ignored) and a fierce proponent of English-medium schools despite his inefficiency in the English language, had this to say about India: “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic, but […] a single shelf of a good European library are [sic] worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.”* Even after Macaulay had done his damage and outlawed homosexuality, Vicery Elgin still referred to homosexual amour as “special Oriental vices.”** Macaulay’s “reforms” reveal an example of the British colonial view that although India was English-speaking, it’s still not English. Their so-called “backwardness” was basically an inherent “Oriental vice.” Similarly, Raj may speak English, but Sheldon will never see him as on-par with his fellow Americans.

It’s not racist, it’s funny! you protest. Raj knows he is “the foreigner” and he plays upon it, calling his friends out on their racism and coming back with witty remarks whenever he’s faced with it! This show is far from depicting Raj’s role as that of the inferior immigrant.

Not always. Again in The Jiminy Conjecture, when the nerds meet with a cricket expert (who has just been fired) to settle their asinine dispute, he lashes out at them with comical irrationality–at least, until he gets to Raj, where his anger takes on a racist turn.

“What’s your deal?” he says to Raj, as he gives him the cat-eye. “Are they out-sourcing my job to Bangalore?” Again, this question is met with audience laughter. Raj’s retort is simply, “I’m from New Delhi.” Although this response does elicit the sense of incomprehension that educated people when confronted with extreme ignorance, I was disappointed that none of Raj’s friends stood up for him, and I was left with that same uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.

Further, I would argue that Raj’s homeland is seen as subordinate to The Land of Opportunity. In The Pirate Solution (S3 E17) when Raj faces deportation, he whines incessantly about how he doesn’t want to go back. After all, India is “hot, it’s loud, and there are so many people! You have no idea–they’re everywhere!” He rebukes the McDonald’s in Mumbai for not selling beef, degrading his culture while glorifying this ethically questionable MNC by going on and on about the wonders of animal flesh. As an animal rights activist, frankly, I was horrified to watch this episode.

Yes, this is just Raj’s opinion of India I’m discussing here, but none of the other characters even attempt to cheer him up. Rather, Sheldon suggests becoming a pirate as a suitable alternative to living in India, contending that it’s what he would do in Raj’s position. To the Big Bang nerds, India is a strange, uninteresting, faraway land they wouldn’t visit even for one of their closest friends. Howard remarks that India is a very far plane-ride away, and that instead they should “Skype.”

(I could probably find even more instances of racism in a show that is so chock-full of it, but as you can probably tell, I only watched Season 3, and I feel that that is more than enough for a lifetime.)

So overall, this is The Big Bang Theory‘s stance on India: boring, far, hot, and inferior. A place undeserving of even fact-checking before you throw a few reproachful comments its way. In fact, India is so unworthy that even Howard wouldn’t go there for his best friend, with whom he shares a latent but palpable bi-curiousity.

The end.


* Quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education can be found here. PS–Why Macaulay took an opportunity to diss Arabia when he was supposed to be commenting on education in India will always be beyond me.

** Suparna Bhaskaran. “The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code,” in Queering India, ed. Ruth Vanita, p. 17. Routledge, 2002.

***Other great posts about The Big Bang Theory here and here.

****Update May 3, 2016: I love that this blog post continues to get visceral reactions from people years later. I am also amazed at all the hypersensitive people who got offended at my being offended all the while missing the irony in that.