Stuff White People Do

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, for all the people he's helped, lacks critical self-reflection.

Nicholas Kristof speaking on a panel at the Aspen Institute in July 2010. Credit: Aspen Institute.

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, 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 Batswana, 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.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.