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#KONY2012: An Ethnocentric Social Movement?

The last few weeks, an organization called “Invisible Children” made waves across the internet, attempting to raise global consciousness of the long-term and horrific violence that has plagued Uganda for decades. Specifically, the organization encourages citizens from high-income countries to take a global responsibility in capturing Lord’s Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony. However, critics have argued the effort lacks a true Ugandan viewpoint. In this post, David Mayeda asks if Invisible Children’s efforts reflect privileged ethnocentrism.

At the time of writing, Invisible Children’s slick 30-minute YouTube video, “KONY 2012,” has been watched over 100 million times, taking only 6 days to reach that threshold. In this video gone viral, the charity’s leader, Jason Russell, helps to expose the conflict that ravaged Ugandan communities for decades, while privileged citizens from high-income countries went about their daily lives with little awareness of the extreme violence. In fact, the conflicts that cut across Uganda are indicative of a much broader and complex web of collective violence that has long ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and adjacent countries, termed by scholar Virgil Hawkins as stealth conflicts:

So what exactly is the problem with a charity from the United States working to raise public consciousness of this global problem specific to Uganda? At least potentially, a problem lies in how consciousness is raised. But first let me give you some background on ethnocentrism.

When you judge another culture by your own values you are being what sociologists call ethnocentric. When people demonstrate an ethnocentric point of view, they typically “view their own cultural values as somehow more real than, and therefore superior to, those of other groups, and they prefer their own way of doing things” (Parrillo, 2008, p. 18).

If one watches Invisible Children’s video, it does not open with content focusing on Ugandans. Instead, the video opens with roughly four minutes of life from an overwhelmingly Caucasian point of view. And although the video reframes focus from time to time, presenting Ugandan voices, it maintains a strong western perspective. Perhaps this is understandable to some degree, considering that one of Invisible Children’s primary aims is to get privileged westerners involved in a global conflict of which they have generally been ignorant.

Yet critics have also taken a closer look at the key players included in the video, one of whom is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of many groups responsible for the brutal violence inflicted in and around Uganda. Kony in this triangulated Hollywood-esque drama is presented as the central villain. The victims, clearly, are innocent Ugandan citizens who have been brutalized by Kony’s LRA.

And who are the heroes? The “white knights” with all their privilege coming in to save the day are westerners, led by Invisible Children’s leader himself, Jason Russell. As stated by journalist Peter Greste, the video “makes a villain out of one man in a war full of bad people. But there’s also been a lot of criticism about the film maker himself. Jason Russell is as much a star of the video as the rebel leader, Joseph Kony is its villain” (see video, below):

And in fact, Russell and his charity have now received strong criticism for promoting militarism, having a deeply narcissistic edge, and presenting a “helpless” Africa to market their own merchandise, which may have led to Russell’s recent breakdown and detainment in San Diego, California. To this end, one might wonder what Ugandans think of Invisible Children’s approach. Did the video which presumably has resonated so strongly with westerners also connect positively with Ugandans? The proof is in the pudding:

As noted at the video’s 1:38 minute mark, Ugandan viewers initially saw the video as “puzzling,” focusing on an American man and his son and outdated Ugandan events, eventually prompting the Ugandan audience to revolt against the video in anger. Ugandan viewers perceived the video as ethnocentric, ultimately inattentive to their current concerns. What do you think?


Dig Deeper:

  1. Invisible Children appears to have good intentions, wanting to decrease violence in Uganda. What might be some of the serious unintended consequences of Invisible Children’s approach?
  2. Do you think the arguably ethnocentric efforts of Invisible Children will make their efforts less effective? In order to be effective, why might Invisible Children need Ugandan citizen’s buy-in?
  3. Invisible Children argues capturing LRA leader, Joseph Kony, would be an effective way to end violence in central Africa. Re-watch the first YouTube video in this post on stealth conflicts. Do you feel capturing Kony would yield sustainable levels of peace in this African region? Why or why not?
  4. How have you demonstrated levels of ethnocentrism in your life? How might you be able to reframe your outlook in various situations so you can examine things from different cultural viewpoints?


Parrillo, V. N. (2008). Understanding Race and Ethnic Relations: Third Edition. New York: Pearson.