An Examination of the Institutionally Oppressive White Savior Complex in Uganda Through Western Documentaries.

Date01 August 2021
AuthorYu, Chunhua

The white savior complex is an institutional social relation that entails self-serving, condescending, and often institutionalized actions by "privileged" people that aim to provide help to the underprivileged, including those from less powerful nations and people of color in developing nations. The psychological and institutional complex applies to a wide range of domains, spanning from media representation, education, foreign policies, volunteer tourism, to the study abroad, and it justifies the "saving" actions through the good intention to change the status quo of those who are being helped.

At an individual level, the white savior complex is a mentality that encourages individuals to act as saviors of those incapable of self-autonomy. However, the white savior complex is more than the intuitive psychological complex that people often endorse. When understanding individual mentalities and actions in the bigger picture, the white savior complex refers to an institutional social relation made up of individual psychological mentalities. In this broader sense, the phrase endorses the definition of the concept as a confluence of practices, processes, and institutions that reify historical inequities to ultimately validate white privilege. (1) The individual psychological experiences make up the larger complex system that involves many institutions, leading to dire consequences, including inequality and a limitation of those who are being helped. Therefore, the white savior complex is both a psychological and institutional complex.

In a discussion of the white savior complex as an institutional social relation, it is important to identify the three key elements of the complex: the white savior, a condescending "saving" action, and nonwhite people who are being "saved." These three elements make clear the "social" part of the definition of the white savior complex as an "institutional social relation"--and under the social relation, the two social groups (the saviors and the saved) are connected through "saving" actions.

The white saviors are the subjects of the white savior complex who intend to better the situations in a developing country or a less privileged population, which they identify as in need of saving. However, "whiteness" is not an accusation of all white people who offer help to nonwhites, and nonwhites from developed nations can also partake in the white savior complex. The use of "white" in the naming and discussion of the white savior complex alludes to white privilege, an important aspect of the white savior complex.

The second key component that defines the white savior complex is the verb: the actions of the savior to "save"--something patronizing and condescending in nature. The condescending attitude demonstrates the feeling of superiority as saviors instead of humble help-providers, which also alludes to the third condition of oppression. The condescending attitude is a key makeup of the white savior mentality because it helps explain the privileges and oppression. Without the condescending mindset that accompanies the saviors, the actions cannot be labeled as consequences of the white savior complex.

The third key element of the white savior complex is the object of the savior action: nonwhite people from developing nations and people of color in developed nations who are characterized by negative stereotypes--including their inability to self-help.

The white savior complex can be understood as an institutional relation because it entails the existence of actual institutions and a widespread system. "Institutional" can be defined in two ways: the existence of actual institutions (like media, government, colleges, or individuals), both private and public, that maintain and reproduce an unbalanced system of social relations, and the metaphorical meaning of "institutional," which refers to the nonaccidental, systematic, and widely distributed scope of the white savior complex. The institutional white savior complex is not a product of random people acting on their own but is a result of actual institutions and a larger system that produces and reinforces the same system of inequality.

The broader white savior complex becomes an institutional system capable of inflicting material and psychological harm as various actual institutions support the complex. From popular media, higher education institutions, to foreign aid organizations, physical institutions produce and reinforce the white savior complex. For example, misrepresentations of Africa presented by mass media institutions in the Global North push forward white savior agendas of charities and even non-profit organizations that eventually cause harm to the local population. (2) The oppression is institutionally structured because of the prevalence of the complex across different domains: scholars from fields as diverse as religion, environmental conservation, education, and politics have all identified that the white savior complex causes damage to its

victims. (3)

This paper uses Ann Cudd's framework of oppression and applies it to the white savior complex under the four conditions of oppression: the harm, social group, privilege, and coercion condition. Using examples from five Western documentaries about Uganda, the paper demonstrates that the white savior complex causes harm that comes out of an institutional practice; it is perpetrated through a social institution or practice on a social group; there is another privileged social group that benefits from the institutional practice, and there is unjustified coercion or force that brings about the harm. (4)

The paper then examines the cyclical effects--the durability of the oppressive white savior complex in the interaction between Western nations and Uganda, and it discusses the role of reliance, the reinforcement of stereotypes, and the silence and denial of privilege and in maintaining the oppressive system.

Finally, this paper offers ways to address the problems of the oppressive white savior complex in Uganda to counter what makes oppression possible. It also comments on the roles that documentary journalism plays in the process of both disseminating and combating the white savior complex in cross-national interventionist processes between the United States and Uganda. From the understanding of complexities of social problems to encouraging selfdetermination and independence, the paper proposes ways to challenge the power hierarchy created by the white savior complex.

Background Information: Documentaries on Uganda

The five Western documentaries on Uganda discussed in this paper include "Kony 2012" (2012), "Call Me Kuchu" (2012), "God Loves Uganda" (2013), "Uganda's Moonshine Epidemic" (2012), and "Inside Uganda's Unregulated And Overcrowded Child Orphanage Industry" (2019).

Directed by Jason Russell, "Kony 2012" was produced by Invisible Children in 2012. The forty-minute documentary primarily featured three protagonists: Jacob Acaye, a Ugandan child soldier, and the white director and his son. The documentary's goal was to expose the crimes done by Joseph Kony, who began a guerilla war in northern Uganda against the Museveni administration in 1986, which led to growing conflicts in the Acholi region between Uganda and Sudan. (5) Whether as a partial cause, continuation, or response to US support of Museveni, the documentary denounced Joseph Kony and LRA and called for increased US interventions. This paper argues that the documentary manifested the oppressive white savior complex when put under the four conditions of oppression.

The second film is "Call Me Kuchu," another American documentary film about Uganda produced in 2012. "Call Me Kuchu" was directed by Malika Zouhaliworrall and Katherine Wring and focused on telling the story of the aftermath of the murder of David Kato, an important Uganda LGBT activist. The paper directly compares "Call Me Kuchu" with "Kony 2012"--two documentaries filmed around the same time and same place--and argues that "Call Me Kuchu" did not fall under the white savior trope.

Like "Call Me Kuchu," "God Loves Uganda" was filmed as a reaction to Uganda's increasing punishment of homosexuals in the 2010s and was produced by American director Roger Williams. Under a similar background but with a different focus from "Call Me Kuchu," "God Loves Uganda" explored the impact of Western Christian missionaries on Uganda's homophobic environment, attributing the passing of the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act to American influence. As a film that explored the activities of American missionaries in Uganda, the documentary implicitly supported the white savior complex, and this paper discusses the documentary both in terms of its explicit content and hidden messages and ideas.

Finally, "Uganda's Moonshine Epidemic" and "Inside Uganda's Unregulated And Overcrowded Child Orphanage Industry" were both produced by Vice, in 2012 and 2019 respectively. The former investigated Uganda's waragi (Uganda's domestic beverages) and alcoholism culture while the latter exposed problems with Uganda's child orphanage industry in the ten-minute short film. Although with the same producer, the two documentaries discussed very different topics and had a diverging relationship with the white savior complex.

All films discussed except for the one filmed in 2019 were produced shortly after Museveni won his fourth presidential election in 2011, during a time when the United States sent increased forces to help the Museveni administration combat LRA rebels led by Joseph Kony. (6)

During the same time period, the issue of homosexuality tolerance also became an important topic in Uganda and attracted media attention internationally.

To show that Western documentaries oppress Ugandans under the white savior trope, Ann Cudd's definition of oppression, which outlines the four conditions of oppression is quite helpful: "Oppression is an institutionally structured harm...

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