In an unusually frank discussion of his approach, NYT columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has acknowledged that a key component of his narrative strategy is to emphasize the role of white foreigner as the savior of poor black Africans in need of help.
"Very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work," Kristof conceded Friday in a video posted on his blog, "and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there."
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.
Indeed, Kristof's answer -- while defensive in citing some specific examples of columns that cited the work of Africans doing good -- acknowledged that he has purposefully chosen this narrative thrust for his columns, simply to ensure that his columns are better read by those inclined to flip past stories about Africa, poverty and other painful topics.
Here's the full text of Kristof's reply, as transcribed by The NYTPicker:
One reader says, "Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors." This is a really important issue for a journalist. And it's one I've thought a lot about.
I should, first of all, from my defensive crouch, say that I think you're a little bit exxagerating the way I have reported. Indeed, recently, for example, among the Africans who I have emphasized, the people who are doing fantastic work are the extraordinary Dr. Dennis Muquege in the Congo, Edna Adan in Somaliland, Valentino Deng in Sudan, Manute Bol in Sudan, and there are a lot of others.
But I do take your point. That 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.
But in fact, Kristof has barely mentioned -- if at all -- the people he cites as examples of "Africans who I have emphasized, people who are doing extraordinary work."
-- Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere -- a doctor at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he treats victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo -- came up towards the end of a Kristof column on February 17, 2010, for a few paragraphs.
-- Edna Adan, who runs an obstetrics clinic in Somaliland, has been mentioned only once in a Kristof column, at the tail end of a February 25, 2007 piece about Catherine Hamlin -- a white, Australian gynecologist who Kristof describes as the "Mother Teresa of our age."
-- Valentino Deng, a former refugee and, more recently, the builder of a school in the Sudan, first appeared as the subject of a Kristof column on December 17, 2009 -- three years after the writer Dave Eggers made Deng famous via the bestselling book, "What Is The What?"
-- Manute Bol only turned up in a Kristof column on June 24, 2010, three days after his death had already attracted worldwide attention to the former basketball star's efforts to help the downtrodden in Sudan.
This isn't to say, of course, that Kristof hasn't done wonders for those in need all around the world. His passion for those less fortunate deserves our praise and our attention.
But the unnamed reader raises a reasonable point -- that the perception of Kristof as a "white man savior," fair or not, is served by his ongoing attention to the efforts of outsiders to help those who seemingly cannot help themselves. It's a narrative that, intentionally or not, plays into the notion of Kristof as a saintly figure. Enhancing that perception was Kristof's willingness to appear as the central character in "Reporter." the recent HBO documentary that followed the columnist on an expedition through central Africa, the camera usually focused on him.
It's an easy attack on Kristof to suggest that he's condescending when he writes about the problems of Africans -- though it pops up frequently on the web, most recently in reference to a column about how some African men spend more money on alcohol than on family necessities.
"[Kristof] manages to condescend to the people he purports to 'understand' by stereotyping every poor man on the continent as a lazy drunk," wrote Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, on her blog.
Harsh words, and we don't necessarily agree. It's easy to attack Kristof for generalizing about problems and solutions, but there's no denying the courage it takes to address uncomfortable racial issues head-on. He has chosen a beat that's far more challenging than those taken by his op-ed colleagues Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, who -- when they do venture forth from their offices to do an interview -- often just go to someone else's office, bigger than their own.
Having said that, there's wisdom in the question posed to Kristof on Friday. We think he would do well to ponder it and push himself to question his ongoing narrative. Maybe he'll find a different storyline that reflects even more courage and vision, and puts aside his homegrown American heroes in favor of the richer yarns found on the ground.