Nick Kristof and His Reoccuring Recentering of Whiteness
Nick Kristof has a Whiteness problem. All of us White folk do but his is on global display as he talks about Africa. As you might know, Africa and Whiteness have a historically terrible relationship, one where Whiteness, under many guises, has enslaved, colonized, and destroyed populations and civilizations. You can see why Kristof and his Whiteness might cause a problem…
Kristof is the winner of two prestigious Pulitzer Prizes and championed as a relentless human rights crusader, bringing the difficult issues to America and the world through his writing in the New York Times. He writes stories which personalize the larger issues such as war and poverty, bringing a human face to tragedy. The problem is that this human face is most often White and not black or brown or any other color. His stories show the face of the proverbial White hero, more often than not, rather than the face of those who actually bear the brunt of the tragedy and those who spearhead the actual daily resistance on the ground.
What is the problem here? There are many. His centering of White heroes erases or at least obscures the histories of survival, resistance , triumph and heroes of the places he covers (as well argued here). The centering of White faces hides those other faces who are actually doing the heavy lifting, who are living the solutions. Beyond that, his articles often portray Africa (and the other locales he covers) within the typical colonial tropes: uncivilized, violent, backwards, etc… Within these places, bad things such as rape, imprisonment and war happen on a daily basis and the only answer is Whiteness, White intervention, and international (White) law and order. His writing falls perfectly in line with the tradition of Kipling’s ‘White man’s burden’, where the savages must be saved from their own selves by well meaning White folk – The civilizing mission.
Kristof is more than aware of these critiques and he has a handy answer in his pocket.
On of his recent articles, on jailed Swedish journalists in Ethiopia, highlights the reoccurring problem: despite acknowledging that the Ethiopian regime of Meles Zenawi (who was also in power when we were there and has been for almost 17 years) regularly jails Ethiopian journalists with no hope of release, the story focuses on two Swedish journalists whose only offense is “courage”. Yes, fine Kristof, they are the courageous ones, rather than those who you don’t mention… I digress. In light of this story, I asked him a question on Twitter:
He was kind enough to respond:
Unfortunately, this is a common line and one he’s used before, his main line of defense which he expounds on in an article here. The reasoning goes like this:
White people only care about White people and the only way to save Black people is to get White people to care about them, so to save Black people we need to talk about White people.
While the premise of “White people only care about white people” is one I might argue myself, the rest is based on a colonial logic that Black people (or other racialized bodies) need White people to save them. In reality, ‘saving’ Black people has nothing to do with garnering White attention and centering White ‘saviors’ in your story only serves to recenter Whiteness (defined as a system of domination) which only further oppresses and marginalizes Africans and others in his stories.
This is not a new problem, people have been writing about Africa like this for decades. The early explorers and missionaries to Africa, the Mortons and Livingstones, were equally lauded for their commitment to the savages and far off places full of savages. For Kristof, he carries on a long lineage of those who like to see Africa as the ‘dark continent’ or, as Kristof puts it, ‘a sucking vortex with no heart’.
Want to read more? There’s a great longer article by Kathryn Mathers here.