Joseph Kony is famous. Trayvon Martin is not.

Joseph Kony is famous. Trayvon Martin is not. March 17, 2012

White Evangelical Christians love African children.

Two years at Grace College (a predominantly white Grace Brethren college in small town Indiana) taught me that. Students went on missions trips in which it was mandatory to return with at least one picture of you surrounded by African children, or perhaps holding an African baby.

Then, of course, there was Invisible Children. Middle class white guys “giving voices” to black children in Uganda. Grace College was all over that. And I include myself when I speak of Grace College–I went on mission trips and I was heavily involved with Invisible Children for about a year.

Yes, Grace College loved children in Africa.

But then Black History Month came around and the conversation about black children changed.

Where we blindly trusted a couple of white guys telling us that African children in Uganda were being oppressed, we refused to believe the African-American woman speaking in chapel telling us that our black neighbors’ children were being oppressed as well. 

Where we sacrificed our minimum wage paychecks to send food to children in Africa, we ranted about affirmative action and welfare in America, calling it “reverse racism” or laziness.

Where we saw children in Africa as totally helpless, we saw African American children as the cause of their own oppression.

I don’t accuse every Grace College student of participating in this, nor do I suggest that the college actively promoted these mindsets. But these are the conversations I overheard in the cafeteria. These are the arguments I saw on Facebook. These are the things we discussed in our dorm rooms late at night.

And we Grace College students were not alone. In fact, we were products of our society.

Our society loves children in Africa. We see them as helpless victims in need of our saving.

But black children in America? They’ve brought their problems upon themselves.

This double standard becomes glaringly obvious when we realize that Joseph Kony is famous, but Trayvon Martin is not.

We see Ugandan culture as savage and backward and in need of redemption.

Yet, we live in a culture where a white/hispanic man can stalk a 17 year old black kid who is walking home from the store. We live in a culture where a white man can shoot and kill that 17 year old black kid just because that black kid looked suspicious and was carrying a bag of Skittles. We live in a culture where the police let this white man walk free because he killed, out of “self-defense,” an unarmed black teen who dared commit the offense of walking down the street.

We don’t even try to fix these problems in our own culture.

In fact, we rarely even acknowledge them.

Yet we are confused when the rest of the world does not welcome our efforts to “rescue” them.

I by no means wish to belittle the efforts of those who have been on short-term mission trips or those involved in Invisible Children. But both forms of activism raise all sorts of complications that we need to wrestle with (Jamie the Very Worst Missionary and Dan Haseltine draw attention to many of them). One being that our culture portrays  children in Africa as victims, helpless to fix their own situation and in need of rescue, while portraying black children in America as potential criminals, always up to no good and worthy of being shot and killed for no good reason.

Something is terribly wrong here.

If you would like to sign a petition asking for Trayvon Martin’s murderer to be brought to justice, please do so here. 

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  • Marcus

    Well, first off there is no evidence that race is a motivator here. Regardless of that kid’s skin color, what IS evident at the core is that some guy shot an unarmed teenager and the police are taking that at his spoken testimony. Rather than accept that there is no probable cause for self-defense and leaving this guy’s ability to walk the streets to a bail bond, they just let him walk until they could build a case for homicide. Ideally, it should be the other way around.

    By the nation turning this into a race issue and blowing it up in the news, you are actually helping impede a real, meaningful investigation into this kid’s murder, racially motivated or not. Now the officers who should be dedicating their time into interviewing potential witnesses, combing over a crime scene, and building a real, objective case will be hindered by “justice tourists,” the press, and thousands upon thousands of false leads and irrelevant correspondence. Thanks to all this publicity, there will likely be enough mitigating circumstances for this guy to walk, even if it did turn out that he shouted “sig heil” before pulling the trigger, as winds up happening in many cases that get this much press.

    His family is screaming for justice, whether it was by hate of their son’s race or just by sheer carelessness and distrust of “shady, entitled, rebellious youth” in general. But because the police have now had any ability to build a solid, impartial, objective case stripped away from them thanks top all this press coverage (trust me, within America’s borders far more people are discussing this than Kony). We won’t be able to imagine the justice that could have been, because this guy will walk. There will be no one who has not heard a bit about this case, so selecting a jury will be impossible. Enough people on both sides of the issue will have thrown in their two-cents’-worth and free advice and analysis to stump anyone trying to pin a concrete reason for this guy’s guilt or innocence.

    This guy will walk. I’m sure his family will thank you all for your support then.

    • it’s not about whether or not Zimmerman hated blacks and was out to kill them. It’s about the fact that we live in a culture where black young men are already seen as suspicious and dangerous. We don’t even bat an eye when a white man murders a black youth out of “self-defense” because we have such a negative opinion of black men that we see such as a necessity. It’s reminiscent of lynch mob days, really.

      Grace from Are Women Human does a pretty good job of analyzing this case, I believe:

      • Marcus

        I began to follow you because you fashioned yourself as a paradoxal Christian skeptic. You are being untruthful to both here. Why can you not be skeptical in this case? You are following sensationalism and inserting a conclusion before the evidence has presented itself. Likewise, you are passing judgment on this man. Sure, he shot the kid, it might have been cold-blooded murder, it might have been something else. But you already have him labeled as a lynching racist as well. If it was a white kid or a black shooter, it would still be national news, albeit a hell of a lot less loaded. This campaign to pre-judge (the very definition of prejudice) the situation is irresponsible from every single person who chooses to participate in it.

  • Marcus

    Now that I think of it, that’s also why the Africans are a bit sick of American intervention as well. We kind of make it hard for them to find their own solution by sticking our own agenda in there at every turn and telling them what their problems should be and the solutions they should seek. Right now, we have a ton of Americans wanting us to start a new war where Kony is. Considering what we just spent the last dozen years in the Middle East trying to live down our actions, do we really want to wish that off on a small country in Africa?

    You realize that the least we would do if we got involved is send more weapons for them to use against one another. At most, we would create a new Iraq.

    • I’m completely against Invisible Children’s methods as well. That wasn’t really the point of this article so I didn’t focus on it, but if you’ll read some of the links I attached above I think they explain my position.

  • Sarah, thank you so much for this article and for bringing this to our/my attention. This scratched a personal itch of mine, some things that happened to me when I was in college by the campus police.

    I wrote this poem a little bit ago in response to your article:

    Stand strong Sarah, your onto something here. I signed the petition, and will say prayers for the Martin and Zimmerman families.

    @Marcus: This articles seemed to have moved you in some capacity, which I believe was the intent. Sarah was bringing an issue to light that a lot of people are noticing (read her links). Why don’t we pour our energy into what we can do for Trayvon’s family and our local communities and not against Sarah.

  • Andrea

    @Marcus, to say that you don’t think racism is involved here is to be willingly ignorant of the deep racism in all of us. To say that this was a racially motivated killing is a very educated guess. To say that this murder was handled the way it was by the police because the boy was black is a perfectly acceptable conclusion after simply to look at a long, consistent history of racism in the police force. To not even ponder whether this was racially motivated means you live in a bubble.

  • John Pendleton

    Thank you for this.

  • Lisa

    This is nice but Africans arent blacks but Africans huge difference

    • Can you explain the difference to me and a way I can explain myself better? I don’t mean to offend and I’ll admit that I’m ignorant about some of these issues! I was mainly referring to skin color and not trying to suggest homogenity between Africans and American blacks. I don’t know if that clarifies. Anyway, I apologize if the way I’ve worded things is ignorant or offensive! Let me know what I can do better!

      • Ebbe

        @ Sarah, I believe what Lisa means is that most mainland Africans do not consider or refer to themselves as “black.” My father is Nigerian and my mother is American Black or African-American. I’ve never heard my father refer to himself as “black.” I think this description is more of an American term. Most mainland Africans refer to themselves as Africans, or from their countries of origin (e.g. Nigerian, South African, Kenyan,etc.). However, historically the term “black” is used to describe people of the African Diaspora, be they American black, Brazilian black, or Black Latino or Black Africans. My “black” Canadian friend told me that the term is controversial in Canada in some areas, further leading me to think it is a mostly American term. But, since I am a product of African and American Black culture and ethnicity, I agree with Lisa. The cultures are very different, and there is tension in this country and abroad surrounding that. However, I appreciate and agree with your point that for some reason Africans and their oppression are more palatable to whites than American blacks and their oppression. My guess is because American whites don’t have to live daily with the guilt of the oppression of Africans like they have to live with the guilt (or denial) of the oppression of American Blacks. It is easier to care for those abroad (where there is no real relationship) than it is to care for one’s “neighbor.”

        • Thank you! I’ll edit this post and sorry if I’ve offended anyone by my word choice! Thank you for making me away of the controversy about this term outside of America!

  • Interesting post. I am a white, evangelical Christian who has lived in inner-city America, surrounded by black children, for 14 years. I am also a sponsorship coordinator for an NGO in southern Ethiopia. So my comment here has experience to back it. First, all the children in my neighborhood have free education, free school uniforms and free school breakfast and lunch. There are good schools in our neighborhood, my boys attend them. In Ethiopia, over 5 million children will NEVER attend school (source: UNICEF), the conditions I witnessed with my own eyes are overwhelming and make my inner-city neighborhood look like paradise. I came home and showed all my neighbor kids (who we are actively reaching for Jesus) the pictures and have gotten them on board in my fund raising efforts. Second, my heart does break for children in my neighborhood (which is why we are reaching them) but I do see a level of dysfunction because of government welfare programs. It has been a struggled to help my neighbor kids understand that you have to work for what you get. I’ve prayed over these girls that they don’t get pregnant and cried when I’ve heard comments like, “I’ll just have a baby and then get a check.” These precious children are a product of the culture in which they live and they are oppressed. However, I think that a way to help them rise above the oppression is to take their eyes off themselves. Pointing them to Africa has been a perfect way. In Ethiopia, children have a whole different understanding of education. It is a privilege to go to school. My neighbor kids don’t get that. They have SO many opportunities available to them. I’m striving to show them the reality of life in Ethiopia in hopes that it will help them understand what privileges they do have and take advantage of them.

    I do understand where you are coming from but I personally think you are taking it to an extreme. I went to a Bible College and saw a lot of people wanting to work in inner-city America. My church has loved on my neighbor kids and welcomed them with open arms. I don’t think comparing inner-city America to Africa is helpful other than to help American children understand the privileges they have. Have you been to Africa? The level of poverty I witnessed was overwhelming. I’ve seen poverty in America for the past 20 years and it just doesn’t even compare to developing countries.

    As far as the Trayvon Martin, I think you are wrong. He is getting ALOT of attention. I am sick about the situation and want justice done and it has been flying all over FB & Twitter. What more do you want? The whole Kony 2012 situation also deserves attention. They are both important. I don’t think it is productive to compare the two.

    Now, I think that evangelical, white American has struggled to understand the issues in the inner-city. I grew up with a dad who just bashed people on welfare. It is a complicated problem because there is level of dependency on the government that isn’t healthy. Our goal in our neighborhood is to encourage the youth to take school seriously and get a good education. The better their schooling the more likely they will overcome poverty in the future. As far as the adults/parents we know, it is hard. When people have been receiving a check for years, it hard for them to grasp life any other way. It is sad. It’s a problem bigger than I can deal with, so I am focusing on the children, the precious black American children and also the precious black African children. They are both on my heart!

    I just wanted to you see that people do care about both. All my neighbor kids are begging to go to Ethiopia with me and I am hoping to take a couple of them next year. It will be SO good for them. They need to understand that they have privilege here in America instead of being told they are oppressed and deserve… If they are going to overcome poverty it is going to have to come from their own desire and hard work.

    • I think I should point out, first of all, that this Trayvon Martin case has exploded in the media over the past few days. I wrote this right before that explosion when I heard the story for the first time from some activist friends who were frustrated at the lack of media coverage. They wanted this story to explode so I joined their efforts (possibly a little too late to have any impact). Those efforts were obviously successful.

      Also, I was not trying to knock any work done with children overseas. I was just pointing out the hypocrisy that I’ve seen in my own life and in the context I grew up in. I was trying to get us to think more critically about out activist work. I was noting this strange dichotomy where black people in America are often (not saying by everyone or by you) portrayed as agents of their own oppression, while Africans are seen as totally helpless to solve their own problems. Both are negative stereotypes and both need to be overcome so that we can work together with both black Americans and Africans to see real change.

      • Thanks for clarifying. I agree that the idea that Africans are helpless is not a good things to promote. The ministry I am involved with in Ethiopia was started by an Ethiopian man who just wanted to reach out in his own village. He was lacking funds and looked to America. I’m thankful I can help him help those in his village. Also, allowing people to believe they are oppressed, when they have so many opportunities, is not a good thing. I have seen teens in our neighborhood believe that and therefore, blow off school. I tell them, “You blow off school, you are guaranteed to be poor.” Blending this ministry in Ethiopia with our neighborhood kids has been a good thing.

  • Blair

    I wanted to let you know I appreciate this article. I have found it very thought-provoking and have re-posted it on my facebook (as have some of my friends). As an African-American, I have an understanding of this situation that no one will ever have unless they are African American. I live in a predominately white area and can consider myself fortunate. I am a smart, hard-working black woman in America. I am currently a first year graduate student with a bright future ahead of me. I grew up in a middle class, well off family. But I can say I have been stereotyped on numerous occasions for the color of my skin. There have been many times where I have walked into a store and instead of being asked if I needed help, I was closely watched as a suspect of stealing. Another example is when my parents were trying to sell my house in a nice suburban area. They had tried to sell by owner, but no one was interested in buying (This was before the economy troubles). My mom had an idea of taking away all of the black art and having her white friend show the house instead of my mother. The day after her friend showed the house, we had FOUR offers. I know these are just small examples of stereotypes, but these are my personal examples. When I look at Trayvon Martin, it hurts me because I feel like he represents brother, cousin, or friend. This could have happened to any black person that I know. This is why it is crying such an outrage from the black community; they sympathize with his family because the fear of our men being persecuted and stereotyped for their color of skin is among us daily. Black men are taught at a very young age, that if a cop comes up to you, comply. They are taught to expect this standard and stereotype that is given to them.
    While I also believe in the KONY movement, I also believe in what you are saying. How can we try to help other countries, if we can’t even help ourselves? How can we try to be set as a “role model” country, if we have injustice right in our back yard? We go to these African Countries (or how we initiated the War on Iraq) and demand that they be more like us. That our way of thinking is the right way and that our way of life is truly justice. Why would any country want to be like us if events like Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis, and the many other racial injustices that are happening in our country? When white men came to America they fought with the Indians and considered them “ignorant” and “incorrect” because they were of a different culture. I think people have moved on to believe these African people are “helpless” and in need to assimilate to our cultural to become “normal.” But how can we demand this if our own culture is so flawed to let a man go for killing an innocent 17 year old boy. We can not expect the world to assimilate to our ideas and culture when we obviously still have issues. I don’t in any way believe that the invisible children movement is bad. I think it is necessary and helpful, but I do believe that is easier for white people to help those children in Africa, then it is to help the black children in their own back yard. As the person above @Marcus, said there is no race involved in this issue. I feel a lot of white people are blind and dont even realize it. They dont want to believe that their people could believe in such ideas and carry out so much hatred. So they mask it and make excuses to say that race is not a factor. Ive had several white people say to me ‘Well this could have happened to anyone, Black, White, Hispanic, or Asian.” This is just one example of how some white people have blinded themselves to racism because they dont want to admit fault in their people. They don’t want to believe that Trayvon Martin was targeted because of his race. They want to believe that it was Zimmermans own personality to lead him to chase Trayvon, not the fault of the way white society portray black men in america. I do not say this for all white people, but i have seen it in many cases. I feel if you believe race is not a factor, you are blind and need to open your eyes. This is a living example that racism is still alive in america.
    I also feel many white people are more likely to help KONY 2012 because they are not fighting their own race, they are fighting people of darker skin, who some believe to be less than them. KONY is an African man who has persecuted and caused an injustice on African people. Its easier for them to pinpoint this African man as the bad guy and the enemy, but it is hard for many white to pinpoint people from their own race as the enemy and capable as carrying out injustice and hatred.
    As for the relationship of the Trayvon Martin case to the KONY 2012, I feel that Trayvon still has not recieved as much response as KONY. When the video came out, a white member from my class posted the video on our facebook group and got a large response from the 65 members of my majority white graduate program. But when I posted the link for the Trayvon Martin case, there was no response. It has not been discussed in my class and there are even a number of students who I’ve talked to, who have no idea who he is! In the small week that the KONY video first went up, MILLIONS responded. Yet, they have still yet to reach the millionth signature on the petition to charge george zimmerman for the killing of trayvon martin. (which can be signed here: ). People are more willing to fight the hatred and injustice millions of miles away, but are so unwilling to fight the justice in their own back yard.
    Again I really appreciate your article, and just wanted to ,voice my opinion. Keep writing. And keep fighting for the justice of Trayvon Martin. God Bless

  • Crystal

    I am in support of this article completely! I think that racial issues stem from ignorance, fear, and pride and should be fought against! But I think that we also need to remember that black children are not the only ones who don’t cause the problems in their lives. All children are products of the environments they are raised in. A fact that is truly unfortunate for children living in hateful, abusive, and demeaning surroundings. We people (and mainly speaking to the other Christians out there) need to stand up for them and be the voices we are called to be for them in Proverbs 31!

  • Marcus

    I don’t necessarily discount racism in this, I just think that it’s a very powerful accusation. And no, I do not live in a bubble. If you are from my part of the country, Marcus is thought of as a black person’s name. I have done a few experiments with resumes, I’ll send in ones for Marcus, and ones shortened to Marc. Marc gets phone calls. Marcus does not get interviews unless he goes and shakes someone’s hand ahead of time. Marcus even had someone at his job come right out and say “I’m sorry, I don’t feel right calling you Marcus. Can I just call you Mark? Marcus is a n***** name.”

    My grandpa used to talk about how it was worse to be an Indian in Oklahoma back in the 60s than it was to be black. He told my mom and uncle and sisters to be ashamed of his genes. He told them he was glad they all came out looking white. Life would be so much easier (little did he know, they’d all grow up poor anyway, 2 with prison records, one with a lifetime in and out of mental institutions, and the last one with a drug problem. But I digress).

    One of my aunts was part of the occupation of Alcatraz as part of the American Indian Movement. Out of my full-blooded cousins, only one has found any kind of success, and it was though no corporate ladder but as an artist.

    And I did not say that there was no way that race was involved. What I am saying, is that in the larger picture, all most of the nation seems to see in this case IS skin color. That is really sad. In my eyes, the case itself is not why we need to have the big discussion about race in America. Rather, it’s America’s reaction overall that needs to bring on the dialogue. There has been so much pent up anger from all sides thrown at this. I’m no exception. I just wish to God we could all look at this through a more objective lens first and make judgments after.

    We are such a passionate people. It’s out biggest blessing and our worst enemy.

  • Marcus

    Jermaine: Thank you. Peace be with you.