Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nicholas Kristof offers a welcome shot of honesty, now I want action

Earlier I discussed my roller-coaster relationship with Nicholas Kristof. His recent comments in response to reader criticisms have gotten to the heart of my issue with him, and why even though I'm glad he's talking about developing countries, I think he needs to take a serious step back and reevaluate his work, before he risks doing more harm than good.

From NYTPicker:
Kristof -- a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist who focuses much of his attention on Third World problems including rape, prostitution, hunger and lack of education - has been praised by presidents and world leaders for his compassionate and determined effort to help the destitute.

But to some of his readers, Kristof has demonstrated, at times, a condescending superiority over those he wants to help -- portraying himself, and other Americans working on these issues, as seemingly necessary to the process of bringing about change.

Those feelings bubbled over into public discussion late Friday afternoon, as Kristof answered questions from readers via YouTube. The columnist found himself on the defensive from a reader who rightly observed a pattern in his standard narrative -- one that often focused on the foreign, typically American "savior" helping the poor Africans in need, to the exclusion of efforts of black Africans themselves to bring about change on the ground.
It's Kristof's own words that bowled me over (transcribed by NYTPicker. He somehow managed to demonstrate both extraordinary self-awareness (about what he does and why) and shocking obtuseness (about its consequences) all at once:
...Very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there. And let me tell you why I do that. The problem that I face -- my challenge as a writer -- in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that 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.

One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.

And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.
Ok, well I guess that settles that. What makes Kristof write his columns the way he does is racism. Look, I really don't want to say that. Because I think Kristof is an ally. Or at least he wants to be. And I don't want to say it because by saying it, I'm making him out to be the enemy. But he's not. The enemy is racism. Racism that's inside of all of us, and integral to all of our geopolitical discourses, and yet unspoken, and unaddressed, and all the more powerful for it.

What makes Nicholas Kristof put white protagonists front and center in his stories, while Africans are depersonalized and turned into background players, is racism--both his own and (his impression of) his readers'. That description of how he gets people to stay on the page...he is admitting that he sells out Africans to save them. He erases the stories of successful, charitable, entrepreneurial, and independent Africans so he can better tell the story of the destitute and diseased. He is only showing one side of the African coin--the negative one. It is to get people to care. But it is sending the wrong message. If Africa is a place to be pitied, to be acted upon, to be saved, how can its people thrive? If helping them means you have to dehumanize them, thanks, thanks.

Kristof's racism is unintentional, and I believe well-meaning. But it is damaging nonetheless. Now that he's admitted it, I'm asking him to change it.

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