Stuff White People Do*

He’s back.

If you’re new to the discussion, here’s a brief recap: Kristof recently answered some of his reader’s questions, including one submitted by Texas in Africa (TIA) in which she asked why his columns about Africa seem to portray “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors.” His answer left a little lot to be desired (as Sean noted here), so he is back with another response, titled “Westerners on White Horses…”

Now, for some people this is great—at least he hasn’t gone all Alex Perry on us, right? Well, some people is not me. And, let’s be honest, who still reads TIME? Anyway, on to Kristof’s latest response.

He starts by admitting his original response was “off-the-cuff.” OK, that’s a bit of a cop-out. But I’ll let it pass. Then he presents two of the comments he’s received, including one from TIA. He does not, though, directly respond to those comments. Instead, he includes this quote from fellow journalist Phil Bronstein, who apparently came to his defense:

admitting that there’s a white reporter’s burden in writing about Africa is among the braver things he’s done. It’s the bold revelation of a messy little secret not so mysterious to those of us in the profession.

Hear that? It’s hard out there for a white man!

Or, stuff white people do: pat themselves on the back for admitting things the rest of us already know. What, pray tell, is brave about this? I suppose it’s so hard to get white people to talk about race that when they do, we get excited. Even when what they say betrays their lack of critical self-reflection, and so does nothing to advance the discussion in a way that is constructive for everyone involved. This is what I call laziness, beget by privilege. As a former participant turned facilitator of “Day of Dialogue”-type events such as this one, I’ve seen it many times.

Then he goes on to rehash his earlier bit about “bridge characters” and empathy. Nobody cares, you see! What’s a white reporter to do in Africa? Now, he’s no Oprah but he’s one of the top columnists for the paper on record (however much we might want to disagree about that). And, he’s a best-selling author. You really want me to believe his thousands of readers are going to stop tuning in when he reveals that Africa doesn’t need to be saved by “westerners on white horses”? I don’t believe you. You need more people.

But this, while he admits is a “genuine conundrum”—although apparently not one that deserves a proper response—is not his most pressing concern. This is:

I worry that by focusing on Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe, I’m helping create a perception that all of Africa is a mess — a perception that reduces foreign tourism and growth prospects.

Why? Not because it’s a completely simplistic (re)presentation of an entire continent, and so you know, wrong but because:

If I were Ghanaian or Botswanan, I’d be irritated that there was so much media attention on Africa’s shortcomings rather than on its successes.

I see. Unless you’re Ghanaian or Botswanan, why would it matter to you, after all? Quick! Nobody tell the Africans lest Kristof be forced to change his ways!

Uh, way to let yourself, and your readers, off the hook with that one, Nick. It’s also nice to see that Kristof presumes his readers are non-African. In his world, I suppose we aren’t connoisseurs of the New York Times.

Maybe this means I should stop reading it full stop.

*Also the name of a blog you should already be reading.

Comments

comments

18 Comments
  1. White folks requiring "bridge characters" to care is the cause of a fiction writer, not a freaking 'journalist'. The naming of Africans he HAS discussed is insulting (thank you massa!, by the way)- the Africans he generously individualizes for the purpose of his columns are absolutely characters in a dramatized narrative, not real people connected to real movements. Here is ONE African in this ENTIRE country doing SOME small thing …. with the help of Nick Kristof, of course.

    I'd say this guy is unreal, but this rhetoric will never go out of fashion.

  2. So you're uncomfortable that Kristoff, a white man, cares about Africa in any way that doesn't line up perfectly with your worldview. Got it.

  3. The first question any writer needs to ask is "who is the audience?" Kristof has clearly always been writing to Americans who make up the vast majority of the readership of the New York Times. For those of us who have never been to Africa, these bridge characters have been helpful. I find it highly ironic that you manage to claim Kristof stereotypes Africans and then toss out your own stereotypes of white people. This is what I call laziness, beget by racism on your part. Perhaps you should do some self-reflection of your own. How about you walk the talk?

  4. I think Kristof's problem is the same problem lots of folks working for big donor agencies have and it's reflected in alot of the pro-Kristof comments. It's the "but I meant well and besides even if I'm patronizing or doing other things wrong it's okay because in the end I got other white people to care about the issue."

    The problem is it's great to get other foreigners interested in an issue but years and years of foreign aid have at least taught us one thing: that when we're trying to solve issues of poverty the only sustainable and effective way to do so is to support Africans themselves and elevate and replicate their stories and successes because they know best how to address the issues. Simply throwing more money at a problem or drawing lots of attention to it does not mean that it will actually be addressed effectively.

    Raising awareness is great and gives everyone warm fuzzy feelings but if you really care about an issue you want to create an impact. Focusing on the good intentions of the reporter or the Westerners who learned a little bit more about Africa as a result without extending that to ask the question– are these efforts actually and objectively helping people on the ground is what is often missing and what people are criticizing.

  5. Maybe i'm a little dof, but I read your piece three times and I can't find the source of your obvious volcanic anger in either his quotes or your arguments.

    (Although I have to admit the picture above annoys the hell out of me.)

    If I understand you correctly he is guilty of pointing out – "the obvious" – that white reporters have a problematic relationship with their subject when reporting on Africa. (As an Afrikaner I find his argument odd. Not all Africans are black. Or is being African a fixed racial category? I digress.)

    He is also guilty – as I understand it – of stating that western audiences don't care about Africa. But that he has the star power to change this & does not.

    He is also guilty that he feels is problematic that reporting on the likes of Sudan damages the prospects of places like Botswana. And then you offer some convoluted thought gymnastics – I think – to prove that he does not care what Africans in general think.

    Do I understand you correctly?

    In the UK TIV had the most cringeworthy idents for the World Cup, small helpless kids flashed across the screen before and after each match.

    It is infuriating. But your anger is so over the top that I expect its counter productive.

  6. I read most of Kristof’s columns and your argument here is a valid and important one. This aspect of his reporting, in addition to his bent toward melodrama, often comes off as patronizing and works against, what appears are, his aims. That said, your argument does leave Kristof, and writers/journalists/readers in the same vein, in a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation, without offering an alternative–other than, if I understand you correctly, for readers to completely ignore him: “Maybe this means I should stop reading it full stop.”

    This seems a bit stark, as, in an effort to call out his flaws, you’re in danger of disregarding what good some of his columns do actually highlight and produce. (Perhaps, you think that his columns are of no benefit at all, and on this point, I would have to disagree, for, while I do share your concerns about how Kristof often frames his arguments, I also think that completely disregarding arguably does more damage than good). In other words, I applaud your voicing these concerns, as they are essential to this greater debate. But , as others have commented, in doing so, one must be careful not to let anger eclipse the discussion, for that would render your very valid argument counter-productive and, really, not much different from the one you criticize.

  7. As you so clearly state, Kristof's response is a classic one used by dominant bodies to avoid dealing with their implication in systems of oppression, misrepresentation and exploitation.

    It's the classic 'do we sacrifice truth for political aims or political aims for truth' but the two need not be mutually exclusive.

    White people don't need bridges, coddling nor stories that boost their self-esteem – what they need is to realize that the rhetoric that Kristof regurgitates is tied to a system that has for centuries left Africa and Africans as deficient, savage and less-than-human. White people need to stop ignoring the ramifications of their choices and implications and stand up and tell Kristof to politely (or impolitely) "shove-it". His work is truly rubbish and I cringe every time I read it.

  8. I admire Kristof immensely. It is so easy for people to criticize, especially people, who are doing well and have never been in one of the third world countries.
    Have seen some of it, helped with it, it is very satisfying work if you care for your fellow men, regardless of race or country of origin.
    For me what was always very annoying, that a lot of the rich people in these countries often careless.
    Of course she same goes for our own country and other Western Nations.
    But the brutality what these women in these countries go through is just unbelievable. It is for men like Kristof that a woman can still believe in the kindness and goodness of men.
    Men the protector of women? I wonder who made that story up. Any men who get caught in human trafficking, raping, mutilating of children and women should be shot. It should be an International Law, to get rid of this evil, we do not need human beings like this on this fragile planet.
    Leaders who are being brought to The Hague for crimes against humanity should have no mercy.
    All these men in these African village, who says, they would not marry a woman who has been raped, she is only worth 2 goats, shoot them too, these men are worth nothing.
    The prostitution issue, to get out is not that easy and when out, there is no work. So, with other words, starve!!! Aren't men nice human beings, they will give a woman food if she is starving, but first she has to give up her body.
    I would almost start hating men.
    Than don't get religion into it. The wonderful Pope, with his don't use condoms, don't use birth-control. The Catholic Church should keep their mouth shut, they have too many dark areas, how dare they tell other people how to live their lives.
    Instead of having one of your so many fancy, clown outfits made, use the money to feed the people. That goes for many other religions, with there Mega churches, Mormon Temples, Mosques. Instead build shelters and water wells and than give seeds so they can grow crops. Give them chickens. But it is so easily said. But I have seen wonders, with a water-pump, some livestock and the growing of needed food. (vegetables) Then the donations who are coming in from rice and flour. But it ends up on the docks, sitting there spoiling or the warlords have control over it.
    The problems never end. Corruption every where, you need a document stamped, you sit there forever, they hope you shove them some money under the table. I was always thinking, how dare you, at least you have a job, the people for who this paper is don't and I donate my time.
    That's when you get discouraged. But you can't let the bad ones get next to you.
    We have the something else going on in our own country.
    When I see the cheating and betraying going on around me I really wonder in what kind of a world are we living.
    I haven't seen my son in 6 years, he constantly in the Middle East. I am fed up with the wars. I have lived there, I have lived in the Far East for many years.
    I don't want my son to give his life for some darn oil. I don't want to make the Elite any richer.
    I don't give a darn about the Muslim world with their barbaric religion. Yes, I do have Muslim friends.
    My deceased husband was a 28 year veteran, who never had a chance to benefit from Social Security and his retirement pay.
    All the money we spend on the wars and on weapons could be used for such a better purpose.
    But as long as we have such Evil greedy Men and some women too, the world will never change.

  9. Wow. Yeah, the problem with the world are articles of mediocre writers with good intentions like Kristof. Glad you're out there on the internet slaying dragons such as these. You're so so *brave*.

    Not only should everyone have the same intentions as you, they should act on them in exactly the way you would approve of.

    Seriously, you have problems. Take a deep breath.

  10. Mhambi

    Maybe i’m a little dof, but I read your piece three times and I can’t find the source of your obvious volcanic anger in either his quotes or your arguments.

    Kristof was accused of writing stories that portrayed Africans (and other non-Whites) as passive victims, and Whites as saviours. This in the face of evidence that was available to him. Kristof doesn't dispute the charge; he concedes it, then defends his choice of racial framing. White protagonists are essential, we're told, because readers of the New York Times won't pay attention otherwise:

    …often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection. One of the readers notes, correctly, that in writing about the work of nuns and priests in South Sudan, I wrote about Westerners rather than equally valiant and more numerous Sudanese clergy. Likewise, when I wrote about the conquest of Guinea Worm, I focused on President Carter’s role rather than the great work of heroic Sudanese.

    This is silly. It implicitly prioritises readership over presenting the facts as best as one can tell them. The severity of this ethical issue is sufficiently obvious to leave aside.

    (You appear particularly ill-qualified to complain about this, because your exculpation of Afrikaner racism here begins with the complaint that Afrikaner racism has been misunderstood in the West for reasons to do with the end of colonialism and so on. Since, Afrikaner racism is, in your view, a reasonable reaction to African culture, it's supposed to follow that it's no worse than any other form of racism. Western media framing, in your view, makes Afrikaner racism seem worse than it is. My take is that that argument is more or less nonsense, as you know. Still, the key bit for our purposes is your complaint about the racial frame in which Afrikaners find themselves. I'm unable to understand why it's a problem when the Western media fit Afrikaner history into a prior racial frame, but definitely not a problem when the racial frame is imposed on black Africans.)

    The less obvious issue is that Kristof's reply is dumb: it doesn't answer the charge, and he admits that his own strategy is counterproductive. Kristof was asked why his White protagonists play the saviour, not why he chooses White protagonists. Presumably, if Whiteness is sufficient for the connection with the audience, it doesn't matter what the protagonists are doing, so they needn't be saviours. He hasn't actually explained the choice of saviour role.

    Second, it's self-defeating. Kristol argues that NYT readers are unable to identify with African subjects of the stories. And they're unable to identify with those African subjects because of a mix of compassion fatigue and distance: "frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that". Yet he admits that his choice of frame — White-saviour protagonists in benighted Africa — contributes to precisely this effect:

    the concern that I have much more with my kind of reporting that readers didn’t ask me about during the YouTube series is that it overplays the negatives in the developing world…Africa in particular. I worry that by focusing on Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe, I’m helping create a perception that all of Africa is a mess — a perception that reduces foreign tourism and growth prospects. This is a genuine conundrum, one that to me is more problematic than an American newspaper writing about Americans in Africa and Asia.

    That is, his reportage contributes to the view that Africa is a hopeless mess, and that Africans can't help themselves, which strengthens readers' aversion to Africa reportage, which effect he hopes to counter by giving them more of the same. Self-defeating nonsense.

    As an Afrikaner I find his argument odd. Not all Africans are black. Or is being African a fixed racial category? I digress.

    I'm not sure what use of Africans you have in mind, or how you reached the conclusion that Kristof (or Bronstein, from whom the quote is taken) thinks that all Africans are Black.

  11. Sorry,

    this:

    You appear particularly ill-qualified to complain about this, because your exculpation of Afrikaner racism here begins with the complaint that Afrikaner racism has been misunderstood in the West for reasons to do with the end of colonialism and so on.

    should be

    You appear particularly ill-qualified to complain about this, because your exculpation of Afrikaner racism here begins with the complaint that Afrikaner racism has been misunderstood in the West for reasons to do with the end of colonialism and so on.

  12. What an odd rant you've created here. In your world it is apparently better for women to be raped and sold, to die in childbirth, to remain uneducated, than it is for a man with a good heart to do his best to change things. All because, in your opinion, he does it "wrong." Despite the fact that there is virtually nobody else willing to fight these battles.

    Grow up and get over yourself. Perhaps you could even use your time to do something productive.

  13. Daniel, we agree. Kristoff is as you say "silly" and "self defeating", and I could add "infuriating". The tone of the attack above I maintain is counter productive.

    "You appear particularly ill-qualified to complain about this, because your exculpation of Afrikaner racism here begins with the complaint that Afrikaner racism has been misunderstood in the West for reasons to do with the end of colonialism and so on."

    I'm sorry but I don't get what your trying to say with your reference. I am saying that Kristof is wrong because he seems to imply that are Africans are black.

    With reference to my previous post. Western reporting on Africa has in my mind given more prominence to Afrikaner racism than other racism precisely because of the all the issues raised in this article. Whites are seen as saviors, and ultimately not African – and by extension that Westerners are culpable for whites misdeeds in Africa.

  14. I don't think sarky style helps: there are serious issues here that we are trying to work out the answers to, that affect the lives of so many.

    Local knowledge&understanding is of the greatest importance, and I'll ask Kristof to try to convey more of the ingenious solutions people come up with on the ground. Readers could be inspired by this complex world instead of shying away from it. And by seeing how many people right here are ready to solve these problems, with just a little help needed sometimes to get them started.

    When (e.g.) I try to help a streetchild in Nairobi, I get an assessment from Peter, who lived more than 10 years on the street himself before turning it around, and others with experience.

    Pride/patronizing attitude/chip on the shoulder doesn't solve it…

  15. @Mhambi,

    I have to admit I'm not seeing where Kristof implies that all Africans are black. Your complaint seems to have been generated by his admission that white reporters have difficulties in Africa. The move from that to the claim that Kristof thinks all Africans are black is the bit where no one seems able to follow you.

    “You appear particularly ill-qualified to complain about this, because your exculpation of Afrikaner racism here begins with the complaint that Afrikaner racism has been misunderstood in the West for reasons to do with the end of colonialism and so on.”

    In the post, you complained about the racial frame in which Afrikaners find themselves. That racial framing is coming from the Western media — you say so yourself in your post, right? If you're complaining about the racial framing of Afrikaners in Western media, then you're complaining about the racial framing of non-black Africans. Since you wrote the words yourself, it's reasonable to think that you intended them; that's why I can't see why you'd think that Kristof's admission that Western media have a problem representing Africans — and they do — is to be understood as proof that they think that only black folk can be Africans.

  16. @Mhambi,

    With reference to my previous post. Western reporting on Africa has in my mind given more prominence to Afrikaner racism than other racism precisely because of the all the issues raised in this article. Whites are seen as saviors, and ultimately not African – and by extension that Westerners are culpable for whites misdeeds in Africa.

    You've misstated your argument, sorry. It's point was to normalize Afrikaner racism in two basic steps: first, you redefine racism as group conflict; then you say that Afrikaner racism is more or less the same as any other form of group conflict. That's the point of things like the remark about Afrikaner racism being a reasonable reaction to African culture: since to know Africans is to fear, loathe and hate them, Afrikaner racism is a reasonable response to Africans. So it turns out that the difference between Afrikaner and other kinds of racism — your example is the English variety — is simply that English people don't know us black folks well enough.

  17. Shame on Kristof for risking his life and trying desperately to stir America to pay attention to crucial world issues! I'm sure it's the easiest job in the world and he does it all for the spotlight! Racism comes in all different forms, and I believe one of those forms is dwelling on colour of skin- instead of paying attention to the colour 0f the victims and "saviours" (or faulty humans, rather, just helping out a brother or sister), look at the bigger picture: people are dying, we are one world, those who need help deserve it, whether the provider is black, white, or purple.

  18. Wow – from oversensitively calling the blog author's expression of annoyance "volcanic anger" to invoking strangely colored people (black, white, or purple"lol), the white readers here certainly could use a strong dose of "Stuff White People Do."

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