How the West covers Africa and how we, African elites, need to expose these stereotypes
I argued last week that there is a double standard among institutions – both public and private – in the western world when dealing with an African country like Rwanda or a European country like Belgium. For example, mere allegations by Rwandan dissidents in the UK and Sweden to the police that their government has sent a hit squad to kill one of them are enough for police to take action and publicise the threat or expel a diplomat. However, if similar allegations were made against the government of Belgium, British or Swedish police would give Belgium the benefit of the doubt, investigate the matter and establish some credible basis before taking any action. The question is why the double standards when it comes to Africa?
Let us place Rwanda’s “public relations problem” (as American journalist working in Kigali put it a February 24th – March 1st article in The Independent) in the wider context of Western standards of dealing with Africa and its peoples. As a concept, Africa exists at two levels: as a geographical entity and as a people. As geography, Africa includes a northern region that is largely Arabic ethnically and Muslim by religion. In Western mass media, scholarship and diplomacy, the Arabic north is reported upon, studied and related to as part of the Middle East. Hence, when western media, governments and scholars talk of Africa, they mean Sub Sahara (or black) Africa.
In dealing with Arabs, the most dominant construct is religion – they are treated as Muslims first, Arabs second. In dealing with Sub Sahara Africa, the dominant construct is race; we are all “black”. This “Africa” is also an intellectual construct – there are images and symbols that people associate with Africa promoted through Western scholarship, religion, mass media, popular culture and language. For example, stories about Africa during the pre-colonial period were filled with bizarre tales of cannibalism, human sacrifice, savagery and other insane imaginations. Consequently, any mention of Africa or its people evoked feelings of sub-humans only useful as slaves. This construction was not pointless. It sought to justify one of the worst tragedies in human history – the Trans-Atlantic trade in slaves from Africa to the Americas.
As the colonial period began, a modified picture of Africa and its people took shape. Africans were no longer sub-humans to be enslaved. They were backward people in need of civilization. “The African,” said Gen. Ian Smuts, former Prime Minister of South Africa while giving the Rhodes Memorial Lecture at Oxford in 1929, “has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook. A childlike human cannot be a bad human…” Then Albert Schweitzer like many colonial overlords said: “The Negro is a child and with children, nothing can be done without authority.”
In one of his most thoughtful writings, Karl Marx argued that the way people organise themselves to solve their basic economic challenges – how to clothe, house and feed themselves – requires a “superstructure” of non-economic activity and thought; it will be bound together by laws (or traditional customs in societies without states), supervised by government, inspired by religion and justified by philosophy. In the same way, attempts by the West to dominate Africa at each of the epochs have needed intellectual justification tailor-made to a particular system of social control.
Thus, slavery required a particular intellectual picture of Africa – to use human beings as one would a horse. Capitalism and improved technology on the other hand, rendered slavery inefficient. This created a necessity for free labor from coercive conditions. Therefore, the philosophy of colonialism about Africans had to be different from the philosophy of slavery – the African as a perpetual child only able to work under the whip of colonial authority. This philosophy justified and legitimised the structure of the colonial state to its home constituencies and to the colonised.
As colonialism ended, overt racism became repugnant having been discredited by Adolf Hitler and his NAZI allies who took it to the European mainland. The claim that Hitler began genocides disregards history. The German psychopathic dictator was following in a long European tradition of mass slaughter of native peoples by European conquerors in Latin and North America and Africa. But to return to Africa, although overt racism began to decline at the end of colonial rule, the imagery of studying and reporting on Africa was not transformed, it only changed manner of presentation. Overtly racial expressions were dropped. In their place, however, particular stereotypes have been introduced that have sustained the construction of Africa and Africans as some incompetent humans in need of external emancipation – by the white man.
For example, Western media today tend to focus on poverty, misery, despair, corruption, state rapacity, violent conflicts, ritual murders, hunger, famine, cruel and brutal leaders etc. Western scholarship follows in the footsteps of the media, to provide intellectual explanations. Then Western human rights organisations campaign for particular interventions to solve the problem – the recent YouTube video calling upon the United States to capture Uganda’s rebel leader, Joseph Kony, being a good example. All this “pressure” makes western diplomacy (sometimes, as in Libya recently, military intervention) necessary to induce or force governments in Africa to behave in particular ways. Such projects require local allies. Slavery and colonialism required local chiefs as collaborators. Today, the West funds local “civil society”.
Of course Western scholarship, journalism, the human rights and humanitarian movements and diplomacy do not invent disasters in Africa. Rather it is the way they focus and angle this particular aspect of our reality that I find questionable. Indeed, it is the almost complete exclusion of our other realities that consciously or subconsciously sustains these stereotypes. Thus, although explicitly racial arguments about Africa are rare today and when made are scorned upon, the campaigns to end poverty, promote human rights, democracy, feed the hungry, try African leaders at the International Criminal Court (ICC) etc are part and parcel of a construct that seeks to present Africa and Africans as incapable of self-government.
Thus, today, there are phrases, words and expressions that allow many people not to mention race in discussing perceived failures in Africa. But they are still able to present arguments about our perceived inherent inferiority. The point is that it is no longer necessary to talk about race. This is because talking about poverty, misery, hunger, brutal governments etc conveys the same message of Africans being backward, brutal, incompetent, incapable and hence in need of external intervention. Different factions in the West may disagree on the nature of intervention – some may call for military force, others diplomacy etc. – but intervene they must.
Anyone reading this article thus far would be tempted to conclude that we as Africans need to establish our own media, think tanks, universities etc through which we can generate knowledge about ourselves and tell our story without such stereotypes and prejudices. Actually that is the solution. But the problem is much more complex than that. If that solution is to work, the complexity of how we are intellectually constructed has to be understood. As economics Nobel laureate Robert Solow said, just because the tyre is flat does not mean that the hole is at the bottom. The fact that Western journalists report negatively about Africa does not necessarily mean that African journalists and mass media owned by Africans would report about the continent differently. On the contrary, they could even be worse.
In my experience, I find that we African elites perpetuate these negative prejudices and stereotypes. With Rwanda, for example, the most outlandish stereotyping is done by its own journalists supported by like-minded allies in the regional press. A Western journalist may seek some little evidence in spite of the low professional standards required by her news organisation when reporting on Africa. This is because of her training and the standards – even if low – required of her by her employer. She is also likely to check her back for likely accusations of racism and hence tamper her statements with some qualifiers and reservations. The African journalist is restrained by neither.
Steve Biko said that the greatest weapon in the hand of an oppressor is never his armies – these are secondary. It is the mind of the oppressed. The overlord uses control of communication channels (mass media, think tanks, universities, books, education curricula, religion, philosophy etc) to create a particular world view – what Antonio Gramci called hegemony. This is a mind-frame or belief system of what is normal, regular and right – as opposed to the abnormal, irregular and wrong. In other words, the production of knowledge is an important instrument of social control.
We African intellectuals and elites know about ourselves largely (not entirely) through the writings of non-Africans. So we go to Stanford and Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge to be taught who we are, what we are, what we think, what we want, what we do, how we do it etc. Most books and research work about us is produced by someone other than ourselves. We participate in its consumption, not its production. The biases, prejudices and stereotypes generated may not be driven by deliberate racial intent. However, research into cognitive bias shows that both conscious and sub-conscious biases lead to prejudiced views and actions even when the individual does not want to do so.
I think most western scholars on Africa are anti-racist and seek to be as race neutral as possible. However, they come with particular biases – most of them sub-conscious – based on their education, culture, history, beliefs etc. These generate cognitive schemas or thought structures that influence what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted by our minds. Studies show that such schemas operate not only as part of conscious, rational deliberations but also automatically i.e. without conscious awareness of intent.
For example, in the United States, the mass media is awash with news of criminal activity on a daily basis. In most cases, the criminal is always a black male. In Michael Moore’s documentary, Bowling for Columbine, there is a play of actual television news reports sounding like a broken record in the way they repeat this description of a criminal suspect. Research studies into this cognitive bias show that after decades of media reports, it has sunk in the social consciousness of the Americans, including black people, that a criminal suspect is always a black male.
There was a study in America involving a video game where participants were asked to shoot as quickly as possible at a target they suspected was armed. Each target would be of either a white or black person. As the results showed, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed even when he was actually unarmed and more likely to mistake the white target as unarmed when he was actually armed. Black participants in the video game were also as likely as white participants to shoot at unarmed black targets as opposed to armed white targets. These results showed a pattern of discrimination based on subconscious thought processes, not conscious deliberations – meaning that over the years, a common “wisdom” has penetrated the social consciousness of Americans that a black man is a criminal.
The point is that the knowledge created by western scholarship and mass media that is imparted to us shapes our self-perception. For example, there are many things our governments do as part of democratic deal-making that we claim are signs of failure of our democratic process. Yet these very same actions are seen in western democracies as costs of democratic compromise. Indeed, African elites are quick to see the specks in our societies and remain blind to the logs in western ones.
For example, elites in Africa may condemn Rwanda and Uganda occupation of DR Congo – a country with an absentee state just across the border. But they see nothing wrong with America and NATO occupation of Afghanistan some 10,000 miles away for over a decade. A few killings by an African army get so much coverage compared to hundreds of death at the hands of American and NATO aerial bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We are therefore active participants in processes that encourage and reproduce stereotypes against us.
Therefore, the challenge for Africa is not merely to create our own mass media houses, universities and think tanks and staff them with people of our skin color. The primary challenge is to develop self-awareness – to understand the world we live in and challenge the images of who we are that have been constructed. There are many non-Africans in Western institutions who would see our point of view and advance it in their own media. But it is important that we actively define who we are and develop images, symbols, and schemas that reflect this self-perception. Only then can we expect others to respect us.
Immediately after independence in the 1960s, there was an attempt to do this. What happened? I will return to this question next week.