February 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
In conversations about poor young Africans in Diani engaging in sex tourism with older, rich white men and women, the typical explanation I get from fellow middle-class Kenyan peers places the blame entirely on the poor. I’d like to address some of the stereotypes about the poor that I keep hearing:
“They are just lazy. If they really wanted, they could work.”
Work where? There are no jobs in Diani. Tourism is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and most of the coastal region is almost entirely dependent on tourism, particularly Diani which has no other industries. And now in its 5th year, Kenya’s war in Somalia has led to the devastation of the tourism industry. Retaliatory attacks at the coast by Somali militants has made the tourists afraid to come. Several hotels have closed, many hotel workers have lost their jobs and crime is on the rise.
“If the poor would just take responsibility for themselves, all their problems would go away.”
What about the government’s responsibility? We need to stop scapegoating the poor for the failures of the Kenyan government in providing all Kenyans with the basics we need. Poverty is not caused by a lack of effort or priorities. The major factors that contribute to and keep people in poverty are systemic and actually not in their control.
“Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
On the contrary, I think that the rich and poor end up where they are mainly because of the opportunities they have in life, rather than due to personal successes and failures. The poor are poor because they lack opportunities and good jobs, not because of individual failings or poor work ethic.
“In life you just have to work hard.”
Most rich people I know got to where they are mainly because they had more opportunities, not because they worked harder than others. Yet we congratulate the wealthy for their hard work while blaming the poor for not working hard enough. We ignore statistics that clearly indicate that you are more likely to be rich if you were born rich and insist that the poor could do better for themselves if only they tried.
We forget that poor children have all the odds stacked against them. A child born into poverty has to contend with inadequate food, healthcare, education and crime-ridden neighborhoods. And even if she does try her best, very few opportunities will be open to her. Therefore chances are she will forever remain trapped in a low-wage job that prevents her from improving her life. And this cycle will repeat itself in the next generation.
While I’ve met lots of people who’d love to stop being poor, I have never once met anyone whose childhood dream was to be poor when they grow up. A little more empathy and compassion is therefore in order for those denied what they deserve by a system of inequality. As humans we should want to help the poor, not vilify them. A good place to start doing this is by changing the language we use to describe poverty and inequality.
July 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lately, in debates on white supremacy and racism, I keep getting responses from white people to the effect that I am wrong because they “know Africans who would disagree” with me. That my difference in opinion is not valid as the Africans they know would agree with their particular opinion. Often the white person will then go on to point out that they encountered said Africans during “extensive” travels in Africa; travels that even included my country Kenya. It is at this point that they will often stress their relief at not having encountered Africans/ Kenyans like me during said travels.
But here’s the thing. There are over one billion Africans in this world. Therefore, in order to seriously claim a firm and unanimous African opinion on any issue, you would have to obtain the perspectives of ALL Africans, and not just those of a token few.
Contrary to western stereotype, Africans are diverse people with diverse perspectives emanating from diverse experiences. After all, Africa is a continent (not a country) with over 54 diverse countries. And while there seems to be a preference among white people in Africa to surround themselves with token Africans who will tell them only what they want to hear, this does not mean that all Africans are in agreement with the token’s particular perspective.
Some Africans supported slavery and colonialism, while others continue to support neo-colonial imperialism by the West. Does that make those forms of oppression okay? Of course not. And the same applies to white supremacy and racism today. There are some Africans who – purely for financial reasons – uphold white supremacy. This is especially true when you take into account the economic hardships and rampant poverty plaguing many African people worldwide.
While token Africans make my job as an activist harder, I find that I can’t really blame them. Studies show that racism harms black people on a psychological level, leading to low self-esteem and sense of community worth among black children. It also damages the aspirations of black people and heightens anxiety and depression. When generations of black people are exposed to white supremacy and racism, it’s a no-brainer that some of that psychological damage will take on the “Stockholm Syndrome” effect of internalized racism.
Within the African-American community, there’s a name for black people who exhibit signs of Stockholm Syndrome: “Uncle Tom”. Such blacks are typically subservient or excessively deferential to white people. Uncle Toms tend to behave in a servile manner towards whites, marked with uncritical acceptance of the opinions and values of white people. Eager to win the approval of whites, they will cooperate with them – even to the detriment of the black community. In other words, they are willing to do anything to remain in good standing with whites, including betraying their own people. An Uncle Tom is a black man or a woman who bends over backwards for white people, while selling out the interests of black people.
I’m not that kind of African.
Fortunately, we live in a world in which “popular” (privileged) opinion is never the sole deciding factor. If it were, abolition and many other progressive achievements in history would never have been approved. Moreover, the fact that you “know” Africans who would validate your point of view, yet still encounter Africans like myself who would disagree with you should be proof enough of the diversity in African opinion. Picking and choosing only the perspectives that validate your opinion is a rather lame and disingenuous attempt at derailing conversations on race.
February 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
Recently, Angelina Jolie announced that as part of her efforts to raise awareness about wildlife endangerment, she would be directing Africa, a biopic on elephant poaching. The film will tell the story of Richard Leakey, the archaeologist who became an anti-poaching crusader in Kenya during the late ’80s. While I’m all for wildlife protection, I’m not particularly thrilled about Jolie’s latest cinematic venture. Here’s why.
Whenever westerners make “a film about Africa”, it’s never really a film about Africa. Western films on Africa typically stereotype African people and caricature African societies by presenting nameless Africans with affected accents, acting in a service capacity . In the case of Jolie’s Africa, I won’t be surprised if, apart from one or two resistant locals, all the other Kenyan characters in the film are portrayed as colluding “bad guys”: ivory poachers who slaughter the elephants; locals who protect their interests and threaten prying “outsiders”; and officials depicted as secretive, deceitful and domineering with regards to poaching activities and their regulation. Even the choice of title for Jolie’s film smacks of stereotype. Seriously, a film about Kenya titled “Africa”? Whenever westerners use the word “Africa” as an umbrella term for an entire continent of 54 diverse countries, sweeping generalizations and stereotypical images typically follow.
Moreover, any African characters that are not portrayed negatively are likely to instead appear as victims of those who have been negatively portrayed. For instance, the African anti-poaching guards who die at the hands of poachers while protecting elephants. And even then, their story will only be secondary to that of the white protagonist; if they talk at all, it will only be in reference to the white protagonist. They will not be presented as multi-faceted human beings who are reflective of their culture and history. Africans in western “films about Africa” are there only to serve as a backdrop to the main story of the white protagonist.
Western films set in Africa rarely make any effort to bring out the complexity of the story. Westerners don’t bother to obtain the perspective of local communities on why poaching is so important to their livelihoods. They instead portray Africans as threats to wildlife, while ignoring their crucial role in caring for endangered animals. Moreover, such a narrow focus on the conservation efforts of the 80s is likely to leave the impression that Kenya today lacks a vibrant environmental movement, while minimizing the role of environmentalists like Prof. Wangari Maathai in leading environmental protests.
Films about Africa by the West rarely seek the input of locals, team up with local activists or even independent African film makers, but instead keep it an exclusively American/ European affair. The end result is storylines that rationalize the mission of white saviors through black-and-white and ‘us vs. them’ narrative construction, along with allegations of African collusion, cover-up, and conformity.
Such conservation films also tend to romanticize and instrumentalize animals, whereby filmmakers resort to their Disneyfication, portraying them as having high intelligence and a human-like consciousness. The animals are shown to be ever affectionate and always happy – especially around white people, with whom they share a special “connection” and language. Yet such simplistic anthropomorphization and sentimentalization of these mammals by white saviors is not to engage in genuine relationship with them but to objectify them, to endear them to the audience, so as to rationalize the film’s mission – their rescue.
And is it not ironic that while aiming to put an end to the poaching of elephant tusks, Africa is a commercial movie that will be premised on the very use of elephants for our entertainment? That said, movies are not the only ones to blame for this, as the environmental movement often transforms animals into sentimentalized media icons for political purposes.
Another problem is that such films only target African countries, picking exclusively on Africans, while overlooking the West’s own role in wildlife endangerment. With colonialism and western capitalism, poaching mutated into a complex economy that today supports special interests in game meat, hides and animal trophies. The theft of fertile grazing lands by European colonialists also resulted in a human-wildlife conflict, in which pastoralists were forced to encroach into wildlife areas and wildlife going into farms.
By narrowing her focus on Africa, Angelina Jolie overlooked plenty of environmental conservation issues in her very own backyard to make films about. A fair share of animal slaughter continues to this day in Jolie’s own America, with millions of cows and pigs, and billions of chickens killed annually in US corporate agribusiness industrial slaughterhouses. Environmental contamination by oil companies like Shell has also endangered fish. And then there are the American zoos and animal amusement parks that profit from the capture and caging of elephants and other wildlife. Moreover, the guns used to kill elephants in Africa are produced in the West – Jolie’s own America being the largest weapons manufacturer in the world.
There’s a story to be told, not only about the white men in history who saved African animals, but also about the white men who killed them. In 1909, American President Theodore Roosevelt came to East Africa on a hunting expedition during which he massacred and captured over 11,000 animals – including elephants, while collecting animal trophies under the guise of scientific research. Or is it that only the westerners with means are allowed to wantonly kill wildlife?
In an effort to construct white environmental heroes, such potential screenplays become elephants in the room, conveniently ignored in favor of narratives about white men saving cute animals from black men. By focusing on a far-away other “culturally and politically inferior” Kenya rather than their own backyard, and by depicting and rescuing adorable elephants, white people get to prop themselves up as saviors. The audience is then drawn in as they identify with the heroes of the film and get to feel good about themselves and “their” humanitarian icons. The end result is a commercially successful, award-winning, audience-pleasing movie that earns praise from film critics across the West.
Ending the slaughter of elephants should be a top priority for environmentalists and citizens around the world. But we should be wary of cinematic efforts to raise awareness that are stereotypical, crowd-pleasing and which sideline inconvenient truths.
January 28, 2015 § 1 Comment
Of the various excuses that have been given for Charlie Hebdo’s racism, the one that really had me rolling my eyes was the suggestion that Charb, the editor, couldn’t have been racist because he was dating a woman of North African descent. And of course if the editor wasn’t racist, then Charlie couldn’t have been racist.
While this has to be the most tired excuse for Charlie Hebdo’s racism to date, the opportunistic citing of personal relations with black people as proof of anti-racism and openness to race is nothing new. In fact, claiming knowledge about and/or sympathy with Africans is one of the easiest ways to try to worm out of accusations of racial prejudice. The reasoning behind this excuse is that someone cannot be prejudiced if they have relations with Africans, due to the assumption that our personal associations magically free us from racist conditioning. The idea is that if the person had a real prejudice against the entire African people, then no African would be okay to date. Ultimately, the aim is to have us ignore any other evidence we have to assess the person’s attitude, by only taking into account the existence of personal relations with one single African.
There’s a persistently wrong idea that to be racist you must hate a particular racial group, commit hate crimes and use racial slurs. This derives from the existing stereotype of racists as only people with extremist ideas and actions, such as members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi movements of Europe. However, contrary to popular belief, hatred is not a requirement for racism; and neither are white masks, conical hats or swastika tattoos. There are varying degrees of racist bigotry, from passively racist, mostly in thought, to violent and confrontational. Harboring racist thoughts and attitudes, but not speaking or acting on them does not mean you’re not racist. It only means that you’re a closet bigot.
Racism was invented on the slave plantations of America – the very same slave plantations on which white slave owners acted on their sexual desire by raping the Africans they had enslaved. Therefore sexually desiring Africans doesn’t automatically make you non-racist. Just as it is common for some heterosexual men to remain misogynists after marrying the women they love; it is possible to be intimate with an African and still be racist.
Racism in Interracial Relationships
Just because you love/ like/ admire/ accept/ tolerate one African doesn’t mean you stop having preconceived biases against Africans as a group. As has been seen time and again, one can be a bigot and still wed/ date/ friend across the color line.
Take for instance the white husband whose basic lack of respect for Africans blinds him to the possibility that his African wife can make good decisions. Convinced it’s his duty to manage the affairs of not only Africans but women as well, he assumes the role of “protector” and subjects his wife to a double dose of paternalism: sexism and racism. Or the “colorblind” white wife unable to empathize with the plight of her black partner due to her insistence that racist oppression is but a forgotten past with no imprint on the present reality of black people.
There are also the white men who treat their committed relationship with African women as a taboo, secret or shame, unwilling to tell their family about their African girlfriend. No matter how well he treats her, if he cannot stand up to his family and speak up against racism, he is racist. Other white men who identify as only being attracted to African women and who are in a committed relationship with African women will continue sleeping around with other white women.
And then there are the white women with a tendency to date – more or less exclusively, African men, but who are quick to clutch their handbags and lock their car doors when a group of African men comes close. Having negative stereotypical views of African men as dangerous or feeling afraid or uncomfortable when you encounter them is a sign of racial prejudice.
We also have the white male fetishists who sexualize African women in a racially charged manner, bombarding them with offensive suggestions that Africans are wild, untamed, feral animals. Yet, these men refrain from using similar perverted pick-up lines when hitting on white women. Fetishization indicates an enhanced awareness of race – the main ingredient of racism, which makes it very different from truly celebrating someone’s ethnicity as it relates to their full humanity.
And then there are the white tourists who date Africans as part of their sexual safari tour of Africa, but would never consider fully loving or marrying one. This is an exploitative relationship which, in the absence of any real commitment on the part of the white partner, exists primarily for their personal needs.
Other types of interracial personal relationships also manifest the contradiction of racism. For instance the white grandparent to a biracial child who stereotypes Africans as “lazy”; the white mother who adopts an African child but continues to use the N-word; the white voluntourist who claims to have “African friends” who are really just acquaintances, neighbors or employees; and the white expatriate aid worker who is motivated to help precisely because they believe Africans are inferior to white people. Rather than genuine altruism, such “White Man’s Burden” assistance is merely a means of reinforcing white superiority.
Openness to interracial relationships is therefore no indicator of the absence of racist attitudes. If anything, many interracial relationships are proof that dating interracially doesn’t necessarily make one more racially sensitive or enlightened about racial equality.
With the excuse of “having a North African girlfriend” discounted, there is no evidence of Charb’s anti-racism. Instead, what we have are numerous dehumanizing cartoons portraying black people as monkeys, welfare queens and racist caricatures of Black Sambo, and filled with racial slurs such as the N-word – all of which were published during his tenure as Charlie Hebdo editor. That Charb’s relations with a woman of North African descent did not prevent him from publishing cartoons that were racist towards Africans as a group is solid proof that interracial romance is never an effective antidote to racism.
I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.
– Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race
Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other.
– bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance
In an ideal world, being intimately involved with someone of a different ethnicity would help you gain insight into their life and culture, as well as appreciation and respect for their humanity in a way that would make racial prejudice or bigoted thoughts, feelings, words or actions an impossibility on your part. White partners would also gain understanding of how racist oppression continues to impact the lives of black people. And this understanding would motivate the white partner to commit to anti-racism work by using their white privilege to confront and dismantle racial oppression and promote racial equality in their private and public lives.
However, the world we live in is far from ideal. Instead, interracial unions are today not only used to excuse racism in individual white people, but to also push indifference towards racism in the entire white dominated modern world. Leading this crusade are supporters of colorblind ideologies who point to the rising number of interracial marriages as proof that race is no longer a determining factor in life’s outcomes.
However, while interracial unions are today generally accepted, they can hardly be taken as a mark of progress in terms of racial equality. Take South Africa for instance which, three decades after the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws forbidding marriages and criminalizing all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, was in 2014 named the “most unequal country in the world”. The fact that interracial couples are today free to wed without legal prosecution or cultural persecution must therefore not be used as an excuse to sweep the history and impact of racist oppression under the rug of “colorblindness.”
January 15, 2015 § 1 Comment
Under the guise of being an “equal opportunity offender” Charlie Hebdo‘s intolerance was not only directed towards Muslims, but also diverse groups of marginalized peoples including Africans. Charlie Hebdo mercilessly targeted black people with a selection of racist cartoons including those featured below. This is why I say Africa is not Charlie. Because Charlie was racist and racists do not make martyrs.
Of course, the “Je Suis Charlie” apologists for Charlie‘s racism are now trying to shift the blame onto those offended by asserting that it is in fact we who lack the intelligence to comprehend the complexities of French satire as manifested by Charlie‘s crass, vulgar and tasteless sense of humor. They want us to believe that Charlie was in the same league as the Onion and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. They are trying to tell us that we should instead be grateful to and stand in solidarity with Charlie because Charlie was “anti-racist”.
Yet “fighting racism by being racist” is an old, tired and rather disingenuous excuse for racism that has long been used to systematically silence black people who call out racism. Racism is racism and you do not get to be racist and thereafter insist on defining what is and isn’t racism for those you have offended. The idea that only white voices are allowed to define what is and isn’t racist is an exercise in white privilege that seeks to uphold white supremacy.
The wider implications around black people’s rights not to have their group depicted as a racist stereotype must also not be ignored. While Charlie‘s stereotypical racist depictions may have appeared normal during the French colonization of Africa, today they are at best infantile and at worst derogatory. They exemplify the essential problem with white anti-racism in general, and certainly the problem with anti-racism in France.
The most worrying aspect of the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign, for me, is how easily it ignores the link between dehumanization and mass killings. During the Nuremberg trials on the Jewish Holocaust, the publisher of a German Magazine was tried and executed for publishing anti-Semitic cartoons. In the Arusha tribunal on the Rwandan genocide a radio journalist was among those tried. Another radio journalist is currently on trial at the ICC for crimes against humanity relating to Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8. In all three cases, journalists were accused of spreading hate speech.
It is noteworthy that the people voicing the strongest support for Charlie do not belong to racist movements. They are not members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi groups of Europe. These are ordinary white people who ignore the link between dehumanization and killing in cold blood. It is the good white people who resort to emotional antics under the banner #JeSuisCharlie, when their right to define racism is challenged.
If there’s anything the events of the last week have taught us, it is that for all their virtuous proclamations of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the French people’s sense of morality is highly questionable.
January 6, 2015 § 17 Comments
When white people refuse to respect ownership and instead insist on using facets of a culture – such as clothing or jewelry, that does not belong to them for their financial or cultural benefit, this is tantamount to cultural appropriation. Often when this is pointed out, the common defense is that “everyone should wear whatever they want”. In other words: white people are free to wear any clothing or jewelry – including that of cultures that do not belong to them. This profound sense of entitlement felt towards other people’s cultures stems from the overall entitlement that white supremacy displays over African land, resources, etc. But should white people’s self expression come at the expense of our cultural survival?
Cultural Imperialism & Exploitation
White people who wear African clothing and jewelry often display a lack of cultural sensitivity, by completely ignoring and disregarding the significance, traditions, identities and social history behind the fabric or jewelry items. The use of designs with sacred and cultural significance, outside of their traditional meaning, historical intention and cultural context is not only disrespectful and offensive but is equivalent to the colonial occupation of African clothing and jewelry.
For instance, while it would be perfectly ok for white people to wear our clothing and jewelry at African cultural celebrations such as weddings, it wouldn’t be right to wear these every other day, while acting as if they now understand what it means to be African. No ethnic identity, including “Africanness”, can be socially constructed simply by wearing African fabric or jewelry.
In true “Out of Africa” fashion, many westerners who visit East Africa cannot resist the opportunity of gaining close proximity to and photo-ops with the Maasai. It is not uncommon for white people to adorn the Maasai shuka (blanket wrap) as proof of their “authentic” Maasai/ African experience. Yet there’s nothing authentic about the shuka which is in fact a tartan blanket originally introduced by the 19th century Scottish missionaries for the Maasai to cover up their “nakedness”. Being nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai never established a textile industry. Therefore this trend of wearing the Maasai shuka only benefits the business men who trade in knock offs of the original – not the Maasai.
Rarely do the fashion trends that reference African cultural practices, everyday lives, and bodies afford Africans new opportunities to actively and genuinely participate in the world. Rather, it is our rich aesthetic of boldly-printed fabric and colorful beaded jewelry that white people view as exotic, edgy, and desirable – not us. White people don’t seem to value African life but value African dress and jewelry items primarily due to their potential as avenues for profit.
Just as the colonialists who subordinated Africa, extracting everything of value from our people and territories, white people today treat African culture as a “natural resource” to extract inspiration from. By dehumanizing us as a “source of inspiration” – props to be used at their disposal, white people worsen our historical exclusion, negate our agency and further our marginalization. Implicit in this form of dehumanization is the idea that Africans don’t exist unless whites say we do – and, even then, we exist only as we are seen by whites.
Cultural Erasure & Stereotypes
The western fashion industry is notorious for rampant culture-sampling and poaching from marginalized peoples. High fashion cultural theft involves the use of non-western cultural references on the catwalk, often re-branding it as if it were their own. By robbing marginalized groups of the credit they deserve, the cultures that created a style or fashion end up being erased from the “mainstream” record.
When Urban Outfitters wrongly labeled a traditional dress worn in Ethiopia and Eritrea as a “Vintage Linen ’90 Dress”, Eritreans and Ethiopians were quick to call out this form of cultural erasure and appropriation in a petition arguing that:
“… The way the dress was labeled and presented assumes the dress is a western or American creation. … By incorrectly labeling our traditional clothing, you are in effect erasing our cultures and histories, exploiting our civilizations and artistry, and all for your own profit.”
High fashion designers are also notorious for taking markers from other people’s cultures and commodifying them by “fixing” or “improving” them, in order to make a profit. They then applaud each other for “reinventing” the cultural item in “clever” and “more elegant ways.” Although, in most cases – despite their “innovativeness”, western designers typically arrive late to African trends which have already been produced, consumed, traded, and sold for decades within the fashionable culture of African public life.
Moreover, white people’s insistence on “fixing” and “improving” on our cultural items is in fact merely affirming white cultural superiority, rather than genuinely and thoughtfully appreciating our culture. This isn’t very different from their predecessor European colonialists who sought to fix and improve on “inferior” African culture through colonial oppression and brutality under the “White Man’s Burden” banner.
Fixing or improving on our culture only serves to reinforce the negative stereotypes that imply that Africans lack in creativity and intelligence. Because pretty soon, a “fixed” or “improved” upon cultural item that originated in a marginalized group in Africa comes to be associated with dominant white culture, with white people in turn being deemed more edgy and innovative.
Power Imbalances & the “Colorblind” Myth
Typically, when white people defend acts of appropriation, they do so under the misconception that modern-day race relations exist on a level-playing field, as though racism no longer exists in our “post-racial”, “colorblind” world. Yet systematic racism does still exist – with white people holding power and privilege in a world in which Africans are systematically denied power and privilege. And as long as white people have power and privilege over African people, there can never be a truly equal and free flow of culture.
This power imbalance is evident in the attempt by Dutch Wax textile company Vlisco to sue a designer for using their patented “African print” (popularly referred to as ‘Ankara’ print in West Africa) designs – never mind that “their” designs had in fact initially been appropriated from designers in Indonesia’s wax industry. Also, from the mid-20th century, as part of an effort to make their design motifs more “authentic”, Vlisco began using indigenous African textiles to create similar motifs that would cater to the tastes of their new African customers. In other words, even while the western fashion industry profits from copying indigenous designs, they are quick to crack down on illegal copying.
For the longest time, white people have taken aspects of African culture, built businesses and careers around them, written papers about them, had royalties issued and tenures granted over African cultural items, while the people upon whom this is based are left behind in Africa with nothing. During colonialism, European textile corporations contributed to the death of traditional African ways of producing textiles and cultural designs, by flooding African markets with cheap imports. When white people are today allowed to exploit their power by profiting from the commercial use of the traditional cultural markers of African peoples, this deepens existing divides between the West and Africa, thereby preserving white dominance.
“Cultural Appreciation” & “Reverse Cultural Appropriation”
Both producers (high fashion and retail stores) and consumers (white hipsters) of culturally appropriated objects often present them as examples of their openness to diverse global sources of inspiration. As if it weren’t already bad enough that they treat Africans like a natural resource to extract value by drawing “inspiration” from our bodies, cultural practices, and cultural objects – they defend their actions by labeling them acts of “appreciating”, “admiring”, “celebrating”, even “loving” racial difference and diversity. In other words, Africans should take it as a compliment when white people wear our clothing and jewelry in the name of healthy cosmopolitanism. But this is hard to do seeing as cultural appropriation always falls short because it is imitation, fake, and the end result feels dismissive, insulting and is often poorly executed.
Other defenders of cultural appropriation point out that Africans similarly wear western business suits and collared shirts in a form of “reverse cultural appropriation”. Yet Africans cannot appropriate western dress because during colonialism, westerners decided that their culture was superior, respectable and their lifestyle the best way for Africans to live. It’s therefore rather lame to now turn around and accuse those who emulate western culture of appropriation.
Moreover, the Africans who do wear western clothing do so as a means of survival – not as an appreciation of racial diversity. Africans today have no choice but to take on “respectable” western dress culture in order to gain material and social benefits which they may lose out on if they don’t. On the other hand, because they are part of the dominant culture, when white people adopt the clothing of other cultures, this has nothing to do with survival. Its instead about white privilege.
For many Africans, western dress culture is an imposition unworthy of celebration, as it lacks any meaningful cultural significance. Characterized by a fashion industry that promotes materialism and individualism, and whose preferred mode of advertisement is the emaciated bodies of super models clad in unnatural fabric, western dress culture encourages consumerism and wastefulness with brand new clothing trashed simply for being “out of fashion”. Rather than abandoning their clothing to wear ours, shouldn’t white people be fixing and improving on the problems bedeviling their own dress culture?
Often when Africans wear their own cultural dress in the West, they are stigmatized as being unprofessional or treated with hostility. Even in Africa, Africans are met with suspicion, and sometimes violence simply for wearing clothes associated with Africans. When the 19th century European Christian missionaries abolished nudity and forced Africans to adopt conservative dress in a process of acculturation, they laid the foundation for the establishment of a conservative society and dress culture that still persists in most of Africa. Today, African men who strip African women naked for wearing miniskirts do so under the justification that African dress is more modest and decent. On the other hand, white girls enjoy the privilege of wearing miniskirts in Africa without the fear of being hassled!
Expressing “appreciation” for racial difference and diversity is therefore a privilege that only white people benefit from. Rather than being perceived as unprofessional, dangerous or suspect, white people wearing African attire are viewed as hip, worldly and fashion-forward. In satisfying their personal need for self-expression, white people who wear African print are insensitively waving around their white privilege; because for Africans who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we dress just to earn respect to stay safe and employed, our means of self-expression remain limited.
How deep is Your “Appreciation”?
If white people bothered to properly understand the meaning, context and intention of a particular cultural clothing or jewelry item, they wouldn’t touch anyone else’s culture and justify this as “appreciation”.
The only way white people can appreciate African culture is to first learn to listen to Africans. Learn to listen to Africans when they identify the very real problems they face, such as the continued looting of natural resources by western multinationals. Listen to Africans when they describe the best ways to confront their problems with white supremacy and racism. This is the only acceptable way of appreciating Africans and African culture.
Simply wearing our clothes will not promote healthy cosmopolitanism, nor serve as a celebration of racial diversity. One of the critical things required for true cosmopolitanism and honoring of racial difference is putting an end to racism. Cultural appropriation is a form of racism, and as long as racism exists, there can be no celebration of racial diversity.
There are many real and concrete steps white people can take to dismantle racism including recognizing their role in perpetuating racism, confronting their white privilege, and attacking the systems of oppression that give white people privilege in the first place.
None of these steps entail wearing the clothing or jewelry of African people.
December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
When Bob Geldof recently announced the revival of his song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with slightly altered lyrics, to raise money for the countries afflicted with the Ebola virus, this sparked a Twitter riot by critics the world over protesting the resurrection of the patronizing song that has only done more harm than good in Africa since its 1984 debut.
Offensive, Patronizing, Condescending
First off, to many critics, the idea that Africa needs to be saved in 2014 by washed up C-list pop artists is a perverse and offensive example of the white messiah complex. Moreover, the revision of lyrics promised by Geldof, founder of the Band Aid charity, did not make the tone of the song any less offensive, patronizing and condescending. Dripping with “White Man’s Burden”, epitomizing agony and inviting sympathy to “save Africans” and cure Ebola, the revised lyrics include:
“There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you
Where there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom.”
Even worse, the song’s video features a clip of what looks like the corpse of an African woman being carried out of her home. This perverse use of images of dying Africans as disaster porn is not only exploitative of their suffering, but also disrespectful to the dying who deserve dignity even in their final moments.
Perpetuating Negative Stereotypes of Africa
But even more than the offense is the long term damage that the lyrics and images of this song will do. For years, Ethiopia has been trying very hard to move away from its image as a poster child for poverty, an image that was created by the original Band Aid Charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” of 1984. The country has been trying to portray a bright new image to the world in order to attract tourists and foreign direct investment. However, this uphill battle is always hindered whenever the images of the 1984 single appear on the screens of those they are trying to persuade.
The original Band Aid campaign and similar subsequent western efforts, have led to an image of an Africa full of people, unable to help themselves and constantly looking to foreigners for help. The constant appeal for funds by charities like Band Aid perpetuates an image of Africa as a basket case in need of western salvation. As a result, the rest of the world associates Africa only with a single story of stereotypes of disease, war, conflict, voodoo, 419 scammers, corruption, poverty, hunger, polygamy, lawlessness, child soldiers, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation.
Moreover, these stereotypical images are not associated with any one particular country. In fact very rarely are countries within Africa, allowed to have their own identity, but are bundled in together using sweeping generalizations. Though the original was recorded to raise money for Ethiopia, the stigma its simplistic message left behind affected not only that country, but a continent of 54 hugely-varied nations, with its legacy hindering investment, hurting tourism and inspiring the sort of aid that has a negative impact.
Africa – a continent rich in resources and full of unbridled potential, has sadly found itself with the challenging task of trying to erase the lingering image of despair perpetuated by psychologically powerful negative images made even more so when projected over long periods of time. These negative depictions are today available in every sphere of western life: media, academia, politics, business, international relations and popular culture.
But of course, charities like Band Aid wouldn’t really raise any money if they showed happy, healthy Africans. That said, the money raised in aid of Ebola victims will come at a price, as they will have to live with the damage of a blemished image of West Africans and Africa in general. This is only likely to exacerbate the stigmatization of and discrimination against Africans as potential Ebola-carriers that we have already seen. Shock tactics that use negative imagery may raise money in the short term, but the long-term damage will take far longer to heal. However well intentioned this Band Aid 30 campaign maybe, it will only end up promoting the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of poverty, disease and death.
Western charity campaigns such as Band Aid 30 are designed to give the impression that they are “saving Africa from itself”. Yet, this view point deliberately omits and completely ignores the complicity of western governments and multinationals in causing the problems facing Africa today. Fact is, the current health crisis is a consequence of the years of IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), economic injustice and neoliberal policies tearing up local healthcare infrastructure all across Africa.
It’s noteworthy that the very same Geldof who is now out to “save Africa”, has been deeply complicit in marketing neoliberal policies to the continent with a humanitarian/ anti-poverty sheen of respectability. Along with other celebrity activists, Geldof has been pushing for the adoption of policies that continue to fail African people while preventing governments from putting in place the quality public services people require. When celebrities like Geldof and Bono perpetuated the dubious “Africa Rising” narrative of a fast-growing West Africa, especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone, this did more harm than good. The result was that GDP growth through extraction made these countries poorer in terms of not only broadly measured wealth, but also the society’s ability to contend with health and welfare crises.
For Geldof to now turn around and purport to save Africa is a case of the right hand providing solutions to problems caused by the left hand. Yet, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Geldof’s disaster appeal is devoid of all historical context and therefore does not paint the right picture of the Ebola crisis or its structural and systemic causes. The only way to contain the current crisis and prevent a similar occurrence in future, is by first making the world aware of the long-term factors which have made the Ebola crisis possible.
According to Geldof, he was spurred into action to revive the song after he received a call from the UN to say that Ebola was “getting out of control”. But why would the UN send an SOS to charity rather than seek inter-governmental action? Yet Ebola is a public health issue to which no individual or private actor can make an effective contribution. The only way to combat this would be to have a well-resourced public health sector, well-trained health workers, good planning, logistics and coordination.
Yet, this is not the first time that the UN has overlooked the cooperation of states as the most effective means of tackling problems in Africa. Over the years, the UN has come under criticism, along with NGOs and IGOs for engaging in “philanthropic colonialism” in that these “new colonialists of Africa” see something that needs to be done, and they get to work – with or without the cooperation of states.
While this mode of operation can be good for the short term, it can be a blow to the authority of an already weak government. And it may do nothing to ensure that a state will be able to provide for its citizens in the future. Liberia is a case in point. That Liberia – a country with one of the largest concentration of private non-state actors and aid agencies in the world is experiencing this crisis, is an indicator of the inefficiency of charity in effectively combating the virus.
The 19th century colonialists justified colonialism as being the antidote to the savage behaviors of those they colonized. This noble mission to save us from our “inferior” culture entailed the dehumanization of Africans through the perpetuation of negative stereotypes that still linger today. The policies put in place by the colonizers which led to economic exploitation, destruction of local heritage and the creation of a culture of dependency, were all touted as being essential to easing the White Man’s Burden. Today, it’s the bearers of aid, charity and philanthropy who are the new colonizers of Africa, nourishing and destroying the continent simultaneously.
Denial of African Agency
Since the Ebola crisis began, local healthcare workers in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and DR Congo have managed to effectively deal with their outbreaks without much international help. Moreover, in countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria, transformative movements have been launched to deconstruct stigma and raise awareness about Ebola.
These are the people who are actually making a difference and “saving Africa”, yet who get no credit for their work. Rather than highlighting the Africans who are actually making a difference in this crisis, the western media has instead focused their coverage on hysteria-fuelled reportage on the disease.
Moreover, increasing celebrity activism and the celebritisation of global problems has meant that the people whose lives are affected are not listened to. Instead, it’s the celebrities who become experts: Clooney for Darfur, Bono for Poverty and now Geldof for Ebola.
This move to deny the ability of Africans to solve their own problems only serves to disempower African governments and people by negating their agency, and instead promoting western celebrities as the true agents of change in West Africa. This erases the effectiveness of local efforts, by making it appear as though western charitable interventions are what saved poor diseased Africa once again.
White Messiah Complex
Band Aid 30 is nothing but a sexy campaign designed to use an emotive song to sway impressionable westerners eager to jump onto fashionable social causes promoted by celebrities. It’s yet another classic sign of white saviorism, in this case with self-aggrandizing celebrities desperate to seem compassionate, searching for saviordom by swooping in as savior.
Sadly, this is nothing new. It’s in fact a very popular paternalistic narrative that always places westerners in the position of benevolent elders or messiahs, helping out poor, diseased Africans, on their constantly blighted continent. However, such assistance always fails to come off as genuine, but rather being given as a way of affirming the traditional belief of white cultural superiority. By portraying Africans as inferior, westerners are privileged as superior. This only serves to contribute to the dehumanization of Africans.
Band Aid 30 is exploiting African misfortunes as an opportunity for which “saving” them yields profits and photo ops for washed up artists seeking to remain relevant and unknown artists out to make a name for themselves. With Band Aid marching in to “save the day”, the only people set to benefit the most from this “good cause” are the celebrities and their images.
If the purpose of Bob Geldof and others is really to help the Ebola response rather than burnish their own profiles as modern day saints, they would donate money behind the scenes. The money that will be raised through their Ebola single could easily be raised by these rich musicians among themselves and their friends.
There’s a powerful psychological feeling of being moral by “giving back”, an emotional high from altruism, which allows westerners to feel as if they were saving the day. They get to pat themselves on the back and bask in morality at the little good they have done for those poor Africans far away. This effort places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and they get to feel good about themselves for “doing something”.
It would seem that wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created around the world through war and pollution, the West is once again turning to Africa for redemption. As more lives and communities are destroyed by a global economic system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the West, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” This is a form of “conscience-laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than others need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. This is guilt-washing the White Man’s Burden, which enables westerners to sleep better at night.
Typically, other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In fact, it is this lack of knowledge of other cultures that makes them easier to help. In this context, the decontextualized disease in West Africa becomes an easy moral choice for western do-gooders. Its noteworthy that Geldof’s own Ireland is regarded as having “the worst managed healthcare system in the developed world”. Yet, unlike the problems of Africans far away, the failing health care system in Ireland, which is connected to larger political narratives, isn’t as easily pitied as dying Ebola victims.
Its instructive that one of the main problems plaguing the Irish healthcare system is the privatization of the public health sector by populating it with private for-profit institutions. As in Liberia – private actors were favored over state actors in solving national problems in Ireland. Therefore the challenges facing the Irish healthcare system today were caused by the same neoliberal mindset that led to the breakdown of healthcare systems in West Africa and the inability to contain the Ebola virus. If charity truly begins at home, then shouldn’t Geldof be focusing his creativity in writing a song for his own crippled Irish healthcare system, rather than West Africans thousands of miles away?
The need to feel like a savior is understandable especially in those whose lives are full of tragedy that they do not want to face or resolve. However, this often causes the person to take actions that hurt more than help. These are the pitfalls of the “saving Africa” charitable-industrial complex: buoyed by the imagined nobility of their endeavor, the saviors fail to consider the needs of those impacted by the problem and end up doing more harm than good.
Band Aid Legacy: More Harm Than Good
The announcement of Geldof’s 2014 revival of “Do They Know Its Christmas?” led to the penning of a lengthy criticism highlighting the legacy of Band Aid as follows:
“But the harsh truth is that for all the generosity, for all the good intentions, those heartfelt efforts ended up doing more harm than good in Ethiopia. Band Aid kick started an age of celebrity activism – and with it the idea that simplistic campaigns and slick slogans can solve complex global problems…
Inevitably, Ethiopia exerts a special hold on the aid industry after Band Aid influenced an entire generation, and is among the biggest beneficiaries of the global aid boom. There was a 200-fold increase in the number of charities operating there after 1984, although it remains one of the world’s poorest places. As in other developing nations, this influx of outsiders distorts local priorities and entrenches corrupt elite in power. The flood of donations even allowed the repressive Ethiopian regime to reduce spending on the disaster at home and spend billions of dollars buying arms from abroad…
So what of the long-term legacy of the Band Aid phenomenon? Today, Ethiopia remains a despotic state that does not just steal land from the poor. It also shoots pro-democracy protesters, locks up dissidents, tortures political prisoners, gang-rapes women, jails journalists and uses food aid to starve the opposition. Tragically, this is the sad legacy of Band Aid.”
If the legacy of Band Aid 1984 is anything to go by, disaster appeals through songs for charity is not the best way to fix African crises. Geldof and his Band Aid need to stop fixing band aids on wounds inflicted by their own western governments and multinationals. They would be more useful if they instead used the power of their celebrity to influence changes in predatory western government policies towards Africa, rather than promoting dazzling charitable interventions which only end up keeping the existing structural and systemic failures in African health systems in place.
The western media is also complicit in that it chooses to focus on negative stereotypes of Africa and thereafter offers solutions to “save Africa”. Through the reproduction of this negative idea of Africa, the media offers a continuing invitation to “philanthropic colonialism”. Instead of focusing attention on what Geldof and co. can do to “save Africa”, western media should shine the spotlight on how we ourselves are implementing African solutions to African problems, providing an African directed approach, instead of a western pop star-determined one.
And western consumers tempted to buy this single need to realize that Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa needs the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with the international community, we ourselves are capable of tackling the challenges facing the continent. And that includes Ebola.
Update: December 22: A British study is released stating that:
“Reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may have contributed to the rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Researchers found that the healthcare systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia had been weakened by the IMF’s requirement of economic reforms that cut government spending and capped the public sector wage bill. Consequently, the countries had been unable to hire nurses and doctors and pay them adequately.”