Saturday, October 31, 2009

homogenize people from over fifty different countries into one group: "africans"

Yesterday, I was talking to a white friend -- a friend who is not at all clueless about her common white tendencies -- about a party she'd recently attended. At one point she described one of the women who was there, a graduate student, and something or other in what she was saying made me ask where this other woman at the party was from.

"Oh, she's from Africa."

"Um, okay," I said. "Which country?"

"Let's see. Benin. Yes, that was it, Benin."

Our conversation moved on from there, but it left me with the realization that I'd just witnessed another common white tendency: to think of people from countries in the continent of Africa as "Africans." Instead of as citizens of a particular country.

Why do we do this? In my experience, we rarely homogenize people from Asian countries in quite that same way. I can recall being told about many individuals from that continent by white people, who usually identify the specific country they're from. They say things like, "That's Lalana. She's from Thailand," instead of, "That's Lalana. She's from Asia."

And I really don't think I've ever heard anyone homogenize a person in continental terms from Europe this way, as in, "That's Jurgen. He's from Europe." Instead, we immediately tie that person's identity to their specific country, and not to an entire continent. Same thing, in my experience, for people whose countries are in South America -- I've heard things like "She's from Brazil" far more often than "She's from South America," which I can't recall ever hearing before. But then, in somewhat different geographical terms, I have encountered people in the U.S. who assume that Latinos, who could be from many different countries, are all "Mexican"; the term "Native American" can obscure specific tribal affiliations as well.

I suppose that other, non-white people in the U.S., and in the West more generally, homogenize in this way too -- when it comes to Africa, it's certainly a "First World" way of looking down, in a delusional manner, on the supposed "Third World." But when white Americans do it, unspoken (and even unconscious) presumptions of racial superiority can add weight to the problem.

What we're usually exhibiting when we refer to people as "Africans" is something that the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls "the danger of a single story."

In a TED lecture that Adichie gave this past summer (video below), she describes the identity-crushing effects of European literature on her own efforts to write stories as a child. Because of her early encounters with that which had been labeled for her as "literature," and thus implicitly deemed "superior," her own stories were initially filled with white, blue-eyed characters.

Adichie then describes her arrival at a university in the U.S.:

I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe.

One thing that people in the U.S. don't seem to realize is how much racial and ethnocentric baggage they carry, and how much the contents of that baggage can spill out into such simple vehicles as their choice of particular words. Even single words, like "Africa," or "African." Part of that baggage is, as Adichie says, a presumptuous sense of superiority -- however unconscious that may be, it's there inside us. And unless we wake up and work to counter it, it's going to reveal itself in our words and actions. Also, as I said above, the baggage of this sort that white Westerners carry is even heavier, and that's because they've been raised in a de facto white supremacist context.

Would we feel better if we could somehow unload this ethnocentric baggage? Lighter, perhaps, and more free to move around, maybe toward other people, rather than away from them?

Adichie goes on to generously explain some problematic assumptions that a single word can express, and also how it feels as a Nigerian to be perceived instead as an "African":

In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to [my roommate], in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country. The most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”

So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner.

In her remarkably lucid and instructive talk, Adichie traces the development of this "single story" of disparate peoples, from its roots in Western literature to its ongoing perpetuation in contemporary mass media. She describes succumbing herself to the temptation of viewing people through a single-story lens while traveling in Mexico, and she also offers the following strategy, an effective way of countering the common perception of people like herself as "Africans":

I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho — and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers. 

Now, obviously I said this in a fit of mild irritation. It would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. And now, this is not because I am a better person than that student, but, because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.

Aside from expressing my gratitude for Chimamanda Adichie's highlighting of the problems brought about by "the danger of a single story," and illustrating its effects so well (and also expressing my gratitude to Restructure! for posting Adichie's talk on her blog, along with the transcript), all I can add here is, if you have a few minutes, please watch her talk and listen carefully.

Let's reject this "single story." We can do that in part by no longer referring to people as "Africans," unless they happen to do so themselves, and by paying closer attention to the intricate, beautiful diversity within any group of seemingly homogeneous people. The rewards for doing so are many, and our illegitimate presumptions of superiority will be kept in check.


  1. Good post. I'll remember it. BTW, my husband and I went to Zambia back in the 70's, and a lot of the people there had the USA and the USSR confused. It must have sounded similar to them. Most humans are dummies when it comes to geography.

  2. I would disagree with the assertion that we don't bundle "Asian-ness" into a stereotyped nationality. At my high school (circa 2004), it had definitely become a single-stranded identity-- people talked about "the Asian lads" and "the Asian girls", and if I could put the stereotype from back then into words, it would be that they were elegant, standoffish, good at abstract thinking, exclusionary and scarily intelligent. The boys, for some reason, were believed to all want to learn to drive as soon as they hit seventeen. Of all the supposed traits of "Asian girls", though, the one that struck me most as a teenager was that they seemed to have their own little clique that shut out everyone else, which annoyed me. They probably didn't have any such thing, but the fact that Asian girls seemed to move in an entirely different fashion space-- whenever people talked about them, they'd evoke fabulous, glittering garments that I was somehow not allowed to want-- and the existence of the local club's DevastAsian nights made me feel as if I was being shut out of some fantastic clique. I guess I might react differently to the same circumstances now.

    Obviously, we knew on some level that these people had different nationalities, but they were "Asian lads" and "Asian girls" fairly indiscriminately to everyone who wasn't one of them, including the teachers.

  3. Actually, people do this for all continents. Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa alike. Infact, we don't even have words for the Asian and South Asian races, they're just "Asian' even if they're 5th generation Americans of Chinese heritage. There's nothing wrong with saying "He's from Africa/Europe/wherever" as a general statement. The point you seem to be missing is that this is wrong when the person doing it does so because they believe it all to be one and the same. And that is certainly not true in many cases.

    Let's be honest, a great many people are fairly ignorant about world geography. Can you name all the countries in the world by memory? It's much easier to provide a continent than a mini geography lesson.

  4. Another excellent post. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  5. T.Allen-Mercado,

    You're welcome (and thank you).

    Frances (and maybe Cloudy too?),

    Right, I don't mean to assert in this post that white and other Americans don't homogenize Asians and people from other continents in some ways. I've written before -- here, here, and here, for instance -- about ways that we do that with Asians (though even in those ways I wrote about, the perceived homogeneity was still in identifiably national, rather than "Asian," terms: China, Japan, and Korea).

    What I meant to say in this post is that we don't seem to homogenize Asian individuals this way, by referring to particular individuals as simply "Asian," instead of as "Chinese" or "Japanese," nearly as often as we identify people from countries in African as simply "African."

    But then, given what Frances described, maybe people at her high school did say things like, "Yeah, that's Young Sook, she's Asian" about an exchange student, instead of identifying someone like that as "Korean."

    I could be wrong about this, but I do think that in most American contexts, people from Asian countries get identified in terms of their nationality, instead of as simply "Asian," much more often than people who might be identified as "Ghanaian" or "Nigerian" get identified instead as simply "African."

  6. I'm with Macon on this one. Especially given that the American media can't even always get the names of African countries right.

    Although, I think we're as bad, if not worse, with the label "Native Americans."

  7. Great post.

    Whenever it comes up that my heritage is South African, someone mentions their co-worker who is from Mali or that they know someone who speaks Swahili.

  8. I think it's normal for people to say someone is Asian/African/European but I've never heard people say someone is 'from' Europe, I have heard a few times people saying someone is 'from' Asia, however I have heard people say someone is 'from' Africa a lot, and it's really horrible how Africa is spoken about as if it is a country.
    I usually say 'Asian countries' or 'African countries', when I speak generally about some countries in a particular continent.
    The video was great.

  9. "Eat all your vegetables. There are kids starving in Africa!"

    Anyone got this from their parents? Fortunately my parents were a little more worldly and never used it. Being Arab, and therefore from a diverse group that is frequently (though not as much) homogenized, I try to avoid being non-specific in reference to Africa as much as possible.

    I had a roommate from the Ivory Coast for a while and my neighbor is from Ghana, and this has made it a lot easier to keep me from homogenizing people from Africa which is a constant danger. I find even though I know better, I occasionally trip and use a common expression or meme with roots in ignorance because it's a convenient mental shortcut.

    I would agree with Frances in general that the Asian community is homogenized just as egregiously and tactlessly. Though I don't think being gestured to broadly as being "Asian" is necessarily symptomatic of that. I've known people who immediately default to "Chinese!" (sometimes Japanese) when struggling to describe someone of unknown Asian origin.

    Taking it a step further, I think Africa is a more extreme case because on some level, people are willing to consider Asians as being distinct on some level- especially economically and politically, even if only in scare-terms "China has all our money!" Arabs are distinct if only because people can't avoid the fact that Iraq, which is in the news and constantly brought to people's attention, seems to be a separate country from Saudi Arabia. (Though don't get me started on the popular myth in some circles that Palestinians are really just Jordanians or Egyptians.)

    Meanwhile Africa is just seen as this single block of wasteland, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. People don't think of different African countries as presenting different investment opportunities or playing different roles in the global economy. My roommate was always talking about bringing business to the Ivory Coast (he's a business major) and talked specifically about ideas that would make money in the Ivory Coast, because of demands generated by the local culture and the relative scarcity and abundance of goods there. I doubt any of these would work as well in Eritrea, Namibia, or even neighboring Ghana.

    Still, you don't hear a lot of MBA types talking about "breaking into the Tanzanian Markets." Despite the massive amounts of resources being shipped out of the continent people still refuse to see it having a great diversity of capital (human and otherwise) on the global stage.

  10. I must also disagree with you about the fact white people don't generalize Asians as one group.

    Hello? Many Americans dont even think about the fact that INDIANS and PAKISTANI'S happen to be Asian, too.

    I get funny looks from white people when I call myself "Asian" and they reply, "but you can't be Asian. you're not Chinese!"

  11. but you know, there's another point you didn't address.

    People assume "African" equates to being black, which is false.

  12. Similarly, I think it's worth pointing out that it's pretty common for anyone from Latin America to be referred to as "Mexican."

  13. DIMA, points taken, but did you read my comment above? The post doesn't claim it's a "fact" that Asians don't get homogenized; it says they don't get homogenized in the way the post says Africans often do.

    However, as Frances' comment illustrates, and yours too, that distinction isn't as cut and dried as I made it sound. I'll think about whether I should edit the post to clear up these things.

    Yes Zippa, I have heard that happen with the terms Latin American and Mexican, another fallacious "single story."

  14. this was a wonderful post - perfectly describing my dual nature as a first generation nigerian-american.

    keep up the great work. i truly enjoy reading your perspective.


  15. This blog is fantastic. Thanks to White Readers Meet Black Authors-- I got the link there.

    I think the point here is that people have serious stereotypes about other countries and races in general-- this is prevalent even in my own small country, Portugal, which used to be a colonial super-power and now is left with only tattered remnants of bigotry to remind itself of how "great" it really once was.

  16. As a Hispanic person, I can really relate to this. In America--um, the US since America is much bigger:), we are all Hispanic or Latino. In fact, many people assume we're all Mexicans and/or illegal immigrants.

    I am Dominican-American (my parents were born in the Dominican Republic) but most especially when I visit the Western part of the US, I get people asking me how to make "tacos" or "burritos," assuming that I wasn't born in America, etc. There is this one story they're telling themselves about Hispanics/Latinos.

    Incidentally, many studies have shown that much like the woman you profile, most Hispanics identify by nationality. They will say, "I'm Mexican American" or just "Mexican" and forgo the monolithic "Hispanic" or "Latino."

  17. Asian-ness gets bundled, too. Most people I know think Chinese is synonymous with Asian and I find myself often asking for clarification.

  18. I don't see how referring to someone from an African country as "African" is wrong or racist. Assuming stuff about them based on that, or assuming that all African countries are the same, that's a different thing, but I don't see how your friend's answer was relevant in that way. Sometimes it's more convenient to name the continent instead of the country. How many Americans would have known what/where Benin is, come on! There are Americans who think Europe is a country, with France as capital.

    Even the educated Americans I've met had little idea (White and Black - haven't met other ethnicities yet) of anything that happens/exists beyond the US borders. And the immunity to foreign languages, foreign music, subtitled movies, foreign names -utterly shocking! I think food is the only element that slips through this wall of ignorance and arrogance. The rest of the world doesn't hate you for no reason.

  19. Yes. This. A trillion times.

    I cannot tell you the number of times I've been referred to by "African" by people who know I'm Ghanaian, and how many times I've heard African referred to as a country.

    Example 1- At my international school in Japan, there was a Zimbabwean teacher. Everyone knew he was Zimbabwean, yet I heard so many references to how he was "African" and how his kids were "mixed African and Japanese." WTH?

    Example 2-I was in Shanghai a few months ago and my friend was telling another woman about me and was like "she's lived in Japan, here, America, and Africa."

    Screech!!!!!!!! I wasn't aware that I had lived in a country called Africa, but apparently I had. I suppose we speak African and do African dances and wear African clothes and generally sit around being African.

    I disagree that this happens to other groups with the same frequency. I admit people do sometimes lump Asians together, or seem to think the only Asian countries that exist are Japan, China, and Korea, or better still, refer to any East Asian as "Chinese." I have also heard people refer to South Asians as being "Indian" even when they're Nepalese or Bangladeshi or, you know, any other South Asian nationality. I have also heard people refer to people from Central America as being "Mexican" or "Spanish" even though last I knew, Spanish people came from Spain. I'm not denying that it happens, but white Americans seem to at least be aware that Europe, South and Central America, and Asia are comprised of hundreds of nations that speak different languages and have differing cultures, but "African" students at a school are asked to do an "African" dance for a cultural show.

    I also remember when I was much, much, much younger, I bought
    idiotic CD-ROM game and at one point, one character was introducing herself and a friend to the title character. I'm embarassed and dismayed that I still remember this, but this was how the script went:

    Naikili: I'm Nakili, and this is Miko. Her name is Japanese and mine is African.


    The Chemist- very, very good points.
    Portuguese cunt- Heh.

  20. This was a great entry. I am from West Africa (Liberia) and I realize that when I say certain things like, "I cannot wait to have some African food" I am grossly generalizing what I am eating. I have never eaten a dish from Tunisia or Sierra Leone, yet I continue to say "African".

    I think it's just easier to say "African" food even though no two African dishes are ever alike. It is the same way no two African people are alike. It does bother me when some people consider Africa a country or they have no idea that there are many people in Africa living better than some Americans.

    It's true that there is a "one story of Africa" because it's apparently hard for many people to see that there is so much information they are missing that leads to them to have misconstrued understandings.

  21. Thank you to commenters Frances, Cloudy, Willow, Sam, The Chemist, Zippa, DIMA, and Aliza Hausman, for pointing out some problems with what I wrote in this post about homogenizing groups other than so-called "Africans." In response, I edited three paragraphs.

    FTR, in case anyone cares, here's what they used to say:

    Why do we do this? After all, we don't homogenize people from Asian countries that way. I can recall being told about many individuals from that continent by white people, who always identify the specific country they're from. They always seem to say things like, "That's Lalana. She's from Thailand," instead of, "That's Lalana. She's from Asia."

    And I really don't think I've ever heard anyone homogenize a person in continental terms from Europe this way, as in, "That's Jurgen. He's from Europe." The person's identity is immediately tied instead to their specific country, and not to an entire continent. Same thing, in my experience, for people whose countries are in South America -- I've heard things like "She's from Brazil" far more often than "She's from South America," which I can't recall ever hearing before.

    I suppose that other, non-white people in the U.S., and in the West more generally, often do this as well -- it's certainly a "First World" way of looking down, in a delusional manner, on the supposed "Third World" that we often think of as "Africa." But when white Americans do it, unspoken (and even unconscious) presumptions of racial superiority add weight to the problem.

  22. I agree, but in a provisional sense since there are so many layers to the racial subordination of non-Whites all over the world. I think it is a good idea to recognize the specific country of origin of Africans and other peoples around the world. That context defines people as individuals and honors them as such.

    However, the concept of a nation state as we know it today is a decidedly European invention. Many ills around the world, in Africa and the "Middle East" most notably, have arisen due to artificial national boundaries Europeans drew during the colonial era.

    So, it seems to me that noting a person's country of origin can mean different things for different people around the world. The nations of China and Japan were formed more indigenously than those in Africa and the "Middle East". Therefore, people from these countries identify with their national designation from more of a root level.

    Whereas, people from Africa and the "Middle East" had the boundaries defining their countries imposed upon them. These boundaries did not coincide with natural socio-political boundaries in these regions. They were purely an artifact of expediency for the colonial powers at the time. Now, many peoples are grouped together who do not identify with each other and in many cases have deep, historical rivalries.

    So, I might play the devils advocate here and posit the idea that identifying people from Africa as Africans doesn't frame them in terms of an imposed identity. Perhaps more accurate, but less precise...

    Anyhow, I guess what matters is what people from Africa feel most comfortable with, and I would imagine that their would be many, diverse opinions on this subject.

  23. Wow, thanks for this post. Welcome to my life.

    I'm from Kenya and I've gotten to the point where I dread it when people ask where I'm from. I know that often times they are about to vomit out their ignorance in grand fashion. From asking me how I speak English so well to asking if we live in trees, being surprised that we have cities (go figure!). I think the treatment of Africa as a single country is yet another manifestation of this ignorance.

    And this ignorance has consequences. I've posted about dropping my first CS course because I aced the first test and the professor believed that there is no way someone from Africa could have programmed back home (this was in 1992). In his mind, he was so fixated on what he believed my reality was that when I didn't conform to it the only other option for him was that I'd cheated.


    Let's be honest, a great many people are fairly ignorant about world geography. Can you name all the countries in the world by memory? It's much easier to provide a continent than a mini geography lesson.

    This is a weak excuse and derailing. By and large, I've found that Americans tend to be very ignorant about Africa. I learnt a good deal about the world (and the U.S) in school, but it seems that the American school curriculum teaches next to nothing about Africa. Therefore, when discussions about Africa come up, i.e Colonalism, IMF and World Bank damaging neo-liberal policies etc come up, the average American doesn't have a basic foundation to even understand or debate the issue. I tend to find that Europeans tend to know more about the world. If a European asks me where I'm from and I tell them, their next question is usually 'Oh, what city' or 'Are you from Nairobi?'. With Americans I either get a blank look or a totally clueless or insulting response.

    @Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist!

    People assume "African" equates to being black, which is false.

    I have a funny story about this. I ride with a group of people and a new member shows up. During a stop, he asks me where I'm from. I tell him. His next question.
    'So, did you have to go to remedial school when you came here?'
    My jaw drops open. I actually skipped about a year of college or more when I came here cause it was stuff I did in High school. As I'm wondering how to respond, another cyclist, white, jumps in and politely rips this dude a new one. I was totally surprised. The white cyclist, who was also new to the group, was African from one of the neighboring countries. So much about assumptions. I shouldn't have been suprised, after all, my local MP (member of parliament) was white (Leakey's brother), my neighbors were indian and one of my friends in High School was Sikh, my art teacher was Indian. Africa is surprisingly multi-cultural but it is not portrayed as such when you come to the U.S (not to say its devoid of class and race issues peculiar to its Colonial history).

  24. And on a related note, how could I forget to post Chinua Achebe's critique of darkness and Binyavanga Wainaina's 'How to write about Africa'. Enjoy

    How to write about Africa (Binyavanga Wainaina)

    Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'"

    This is still relevant today because that is the larger narrative that Africa is talked about within. The treating of the whole continent as a single country fits into this larger narrative.

  25. Among the many reasons white Americans are so accustomed to homogenizing Africa is because many of us were raised with the term "African American" as part of our vocabulary. The rhetorical erasure of distinct countries in Africa thus reflects the erasure of origin in slave narratives. In the white narrative of slavery, all slaves came from a single, indistinct, dark place and were brought to America--a vibrant "melting pot" of culture.

    The white American emphasis on a single narrative of African tragedy is part of a continual justification of slavery. If Africa today is uniformly tragic, then, the thinking goes, slavery must have, on some level, been a blessing.

    It's a warped ideology--and one which is white supremacist at its core, and serves white interests.

    What's interesting, in light of this, is the recent publicizing of Michelle Obama's geneaology. Such a public tracing back to specific origin works against the single slave narrative and the single story of Africa, which is why it's so discomforting to so many white people (who, in comments to the NYTimes article, often responded with a cry of, "what's past is past.")

  26. Reading the comments above, especially from readers who mentioned having Latino/Hispanic heritage, this reminds me of one thing: America.

    Americans (as in people from the States) call the States "America" while everyone else consider "America" to be more than the States.

    I know that a lot of people in South America refer to it as "the Americas" when speaking of the continent.

    For example, I was in London for 2 weeks last month. Everyone asked me where I lived. "America," I replied. They looked confused and asked which country. I then realized my mistake and explained I was from the States.

    It's just weird that Americans (from the States) consider "AMERICA" to be purely the States while ignoring Mexico, Canada, and the rest of South America. Becuase technically, everyone from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, etc... are AMERICAN, too!

  27. I like your post. But, I really hope everyone can have more patience with ignorant people. Your roommate certainly had a lack of information about Africans, but so does the rest of the world - it's not just white Americans. In Asia, people think of white Americans like Baywatch and Desperate Housewives, because that is the info they're getting. Of course I think these limited views are dumb because people are not curious enough to get the real answer for themselves. You'll have to accept that you're going to be an ambassador the rest of your life, and thank God when you come across someone who actually KNOWS the difference between Togo and Benin!

  28. This is something that one as an African is confronted with often. The movie industry is especially sickening in perpetrating this offense. Hotel Rwanda was filled with South African actors using their own accents. This seems subtle but if you lived in South Africa you'd see the difference but since foreign film makers choose to homogenize the entire continent into one super-country such details are looked over. I've even heard comments a couple of times from whites supposedly knowing how to say a word in get this "African". Somebody please, out of the hundreds of languages spoken in a myriad of different dialects, which one exactly is "African". I have a feeling it could be Swahili. You all heard that line in that most celebrated "african" movie The Lion King: AKUNA MATATA!
    I can even go as far to label white South Africans of this crime. Some of them have lived here their entire lives and are still not capable of distinguishing nationality. From a Nigerian to a Zimbabwean they will not be able to see the obvious changes that make each nation unique. Hell, even withing nations, tribal divisions are aplenty. But all this is just too advanced for the inner white eyes that choose to see a mass of darker skinned people with uniformly automated behaviour than individuals with quirks and personalities that can never like fingerprints be copied.

  29. While this is absolutely something white people tend to do with Africa, I don't think we do it much (if any) less with other continents. It's a general tendency.

    Some of it is due to not knowing (and I think it's better to say "Latino" if you don't know someone's family background than assume they're of Mexican descent, for example--e.g. I was volunteering at a museum yesterday and saw several Latino families), but if you *do* know or are in a situation where you can politely ask, I don't think there's any excuse for over-generalizing/homogenizing.

  30. This a wonderful post, and I do hear this all the time. The writer's talk is spell-binding and brilliant.

    And no Mel, I DON'T hear this said much about people from other continents, especially Europe.

    "You know, that European guy, what's his name."

    I never hear that. It's always things like

    "You know, that French [or British, or German] guy."

    White Americans accord more individual characteristics to people from Europeans than they do people from other continents, especially Africa. Just like they do so more with other white Americans , than with POC Americans. Especially African Americans.

    Funny [not] how that works, huh?

  31. In America Trinidadians are often called "Jamaican" and Korean Americans are often called "Chinese". This is based on what? A contempt for foreigners and foreign places.

  32. Most of the time, I get the feeling most Asian Americans don't mind being referred to as collective "Asian" Americans. In certain context, I think even we refer to ourselves as such to promote similar group interest. It isn't the same when people say "African American", because that is more often lack of knowledge of the different cultures in Africa, evidenced by how Africa is often referred to as a country, pointed out in the video (which is a brilliant video by the way).

    But I just have to bring up the collective grouping of "Asians" because I once again witnessed that despicable use of "Ching Chong" talk to mock eastern (or Southeastern in this case) languages. I normally won't talk offense to this sort of comment on YouTube, but it seemed appropriate to this topic, and I just saw it about a half hour ago.

  33. Here is a description I found on the net of Congolese NBA basketballer Dikembe Mutombo: "Mutombo is fluent in 9 languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and 5 African dialects."

    See what they did there?

    Few people understand that Africa is far more genetically and linguistically diverse than Europe. Contrast, for example, a Yoruba from Nigeria, a San from South Africa, a Merina from Madagascar, a Somalian, a Dinka from Sudan, a Berber from Morocco, and a Congolese pygmy. All look starkly different.

    I've actually heard a number of Africans, when asked where they are from, simply reply "Africa". I think they are so used to getting a bewildered look if they say "Eritrea" or "Burundi".

  34. People DO seem to say "South American" rather than, say, Uruguyan or Chilean. So, they get lumped pretty much. So many countries down there and they have a mostly-Spanish culture as well as a first-peoples culture, so we lump them together.

    Native Americans get lumped together, too, not spoken of as "Sioux" or "Hopi", etc.

    Actually, the African and South American continents were carved up into countries by the European colonists.

    We went to Zambia in 1977 and found that the people did not yet think of themselves as "Zambians" (although the country took on a common language -- in this case English -- to try to unify the people) and get them to thinking of themselves as Zambians -- much like our idea of a melting pot.

    But the people still thought of themselves as "Lunda", "Nyanga" and "Bemba" and had their own languages (they didn't seem to like each other much, either, but that was changing, too, as children went to school together). Most of the people could speak all three languages -- I don't know if they were dialects of one another -- including English. The people from these different tribes all looked different, too, in their facial features. After about a week or two, I could tell one tribal person from the other, and you would be able to do that, too.

    I don't know if all of the African tribal cultures are similar.

  35. It's just weird that Americans (from the States) consider "AMERICA" to be purely the States while ignoring Mexico, Canada, and the rest of South America. Becuase technically, everyone from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, etc... are AMERICAN, too!
    The USA is, iirc, the only country in the Americas that actually has "America" in its name.

    And no Mel, I DON'T hear this said much about people from other continents, especially Europe.
    "You know, that European guy, what's his name."
    I never hear that. It's always things like
    "You know, that French [or British, or German] guy."

    You're not going to see that about people from the famous countries in Europe, but you might see that about people from the lesser-known countries...

  36. Thank you Macon for this wonderful post! As always you bring up juicy and informative articles and comments are always dead on about their encounters and stories. I think the reason why 54 countries on continent of Africa are always lumped together, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity from each country ignored is because its dehumanized and demonized in the media, history books, etc. Whereas Europe is always humanized, distinct, normal and oh so ordinary. White Americans always ignore the multiculturalism and diversity of non European countries. Would it shock most people to know that India is home to five major world religions, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Hinduism alongside other religions such as Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, etc? All these religions are practiced by Indians inside and outside of India and living in diaspora, even though India is presented most of time in the media and white Westerners' mind as solely a Hindu country?

    Think about for a minute. Its not just Europeans colonized the world. We all know the history, culture, traditions and peoples of each European country. We know what makes them tick, what foods they like, etc. Its almost like there's something personal going on with our knowledge about Europe. As some commentators said, We would never lump European countries, languages, cultures and politics into one pot Nor would it be easy to paint a negative stereotype about all Europeans as foreign other, dehumanize them or consider Netherlands and Poland as one in the same as it is when it comes African or Asian countries.

    Now a days Nigerians, Senegalese, Egyptians, etc are telling their own stories, representing themselves and showing the world that Africa is not a backward, illiterate or dark country, but a continent, a very beautiful and rich one, that all 54 countries have so many diverse stories, histories, ethnicities, cultures, traditions, religions, and that sometimes self proclaimed self righteous Antropologists are confused by this diversity and don't know how to describe multiculturalism, complex music and languages of Sudan, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc because it doesn't fit the simplistic stereotypical picture of African countries all being same and being monoculture. As a couple commentators said, it is true not all Africans (oops now I'm doing it!) are black and not everyone belongs to a "tribe" nor are Liberians, Sudanese, South Africans always dying of Aids, starving or can not speak or think for themselves. Most people would be surprised to learn that Liberia is home not only to 36+ ethnicities (kpelle, grebo, kru, etc) but there are Liberians who are Lebanese, Ivorian, Sierre Leone, Ghanian, etc. Liberia's neighbor Sierra Leone, Senegal, South Africa are finding self help solutions to overcome ethnic divisions and artificial boundaries, created by European colonialism instead of waiting for Western countries to give them a hand. There are some Liberians who looking at China, Dubai and Egypt for inspiration to develop infrastructure that was destroyed by the civil war.

    In Liberia and Rwanda, journalists and ordinary Liberians and Rwandans discussing in newspapers and community meetings about building a new national identity based being Liberian and Rwandan first and foremost instead of saying she/he belongs to a certain ethnic group because the latter definition led to brutal civil wars in both countries. So I wasn't trying to preach, I am only saying you can't lump all Africans into one pot! Its more complex than that!

  37. Last night I heard an ad on Spotify where the DJ decided to "give a shout out to [his] listeners all across the globe...Rome, Berlin, Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria..."


  38. cannot count how many times I have been asked if i speak african, eat african food, wear african outfits and african dances.

    I remeber I was on the bus with one white girl from my college and there were to black women in front of us and they were speaking some language and then the white girl tapped me and asked what are they saying and I said i did not know
    then she said

    "I thought you spoke african"

    "No i don't speak african I speak Yoruba which is a Nigerian language"

    "So what are they saying"

    "I don't know!"

    also an asian boy from an Indian background asked if I speak african. I wouldn't ask him that i know they speak differnt languages there gujarati being one. Same with china having mandarin and others too

  39. 'Nor would it be easy to...consider Netherlands and Poland as one' (Aan)
    But Moldavia and the Ukraine, certainly (see 'Molvania' for details). In Macon's original post, 'Jurgen' would be a German, and white Americans have some kind of idea of what Germans are like (IOW a stereotype). Obscure Eastern European nations get classified as either backward antisemitic peasants or brave little freedom-loving nations oppressed by the Russians.

  40. You know, I think you're being way too generous: I hear white Americans say "Asians" as a homogenous group all the time (and "Latinos" too).

    That said, I think it's somehow worse with Africa because, while most white Americans know the difference between Japan and China (even if they can't tell Japanese and Chinese people apart), they rarely know the difference between Ghana and Kenya, or in some cases, even Morocco and Namibia (when I moved to Morocco, some of my less enlightened college friends told everyone "she's moving to Africa!" and I received more than one letter or package addressed to me in "Morocco, Africa").

    Also wanted to add that I've seen this from non-white people abroad too...In Morocco, I would occasionally have a student from a sub-Saharan country (usually Benin, Togo, or Burkina Faso) in one of the classes I taught...The other (native Moroccan) students would sometimes actually just refer to the student as "the African" - not even the student's name, just "the African."

  41. I think it really boils down to a lack of education regarding non-European countries. A one semester geography class in high school doesn't really cut it. There really needs to be more emphasis paid towards world studies in the US education system.

  42. Awesome post. Thanks for posting the TED talk. I can relate to this from so many different angles (some of which I'm not proud of).

    I do think Africa is clumped together much more often and unapologetically than, say, Asia or Latin America...In fact, it's rare that Africa doesn't get clumped together, even in Asia. Okay, so this one clumps together all sorts of places, but the Africa = starve is there.

    Yes, you can argue that most people are ignorant anyway. But I find that there are some who are ignorant, but their ignorance has no power over you because they don't actually regard you as inferior, and then others whose ignorance can feel very insulting because of where that person positions themselves in relation to you. If they perceive themselves as higher, then it can be insulting and patronizing.

    [3:57] It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually 'make' something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but poor. Poverty was my single story of them.

    This is very true when you live a privileged life in a world where the wealth gap is so great. I was like this too. She describes it so well. It's also a strange feeling to see how life can seem real cheap when someone is poor.

    [0:45] All my characters were white and blue eyed. They played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather...this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria, I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow. We ate mangoes...

    Totally. Same goes for international schools the world over. I grew up wondering: Why do they have snow on Christmas trees when we have make believe cotton snow? Why do their mothers know how to make brownies and mine doesn't? And what's a gingerbread man? Is it edible? Why do they get to sell lemonades on the streets? How come we don't have nickles and dimes? And my biggest childhood crisis: HOW IS SANTA GONNA DELIVER MY PRESENTS IF WE DON'T HAVE A CHIMNEYYYYY!!! "He'll squeeze through the keyhole. Santa is magical that way," said my wise mother (no joke). Lucky for her I was very gullible.

  43. There's a great book, 'mistaking africa' that details how the US systematically, through its educational system and popular media, creates the idea of 'Africa' as a monolithic space; an idea that's primarily based on the stereotypes Europeans and Americans created and perpetuated about the peoples on the continent. What's also interesting to note is that in general when people (white or otherwise) reference 'Africa', they are talking about subsaharan (aka Black) Africa. Northern Africa, with it's cultural ties to Europe, is implicitly exempt from those references.
    On a personal note, I'm Jamaican and the powers that created the idea of 'Africa' have as well created 'the West Indies' or the 'Caribbean' to homogenize other groups of Black peoples.

  44. Yes, yes, and yes. But, I would also like to point out that people like to refer to the countries of central and south-central Asia as "the Stans." Also, the war has made people only slightly less ridiculous regarding their knowledge of the Middle Eastern countries and I personally got confused when a friend, who is Iranian, explained to me that a certain Indian restaurant is a lot like the food her family makes. I had no image at all of Iran's proximity to India and Pakistan. Finally, just sample 25 people, telling them that someone you know is Dutch and then asking them where that means they're from. I do think that people are familiar with Germany, France, Italy, and Greece (thought often in a very warped sort of way) but I don't think the same can be said of "Europe" in general.

    However, general geography ignorance aside, there is a much more malignant problem in association with Americans' ignorance toward Africa and I think that Miriam has a very good point. The more Americans paint a picture of "poor tribal Africa," the less they/we are forced to recognize the full atrocity of slavery.

    Also, I do think people are more likely to sort of wave a hand toward a person from an African country and say, "(S)he's from someplace in Africa." Even though my friend who is now living in Germany is dating a Dutch man and it took me months to get to the place where I remember that he's Dutch. Had she been dating a French man, she only would have had to tell me once.

  45. An upper class white Amerian once asked me: "Do you speak African?" I doubt that anyone would ask a Japanese person if they speak Asian. So, while Chinese, Japanese, Korean people, etc. are lumped in as Asians, I think Americans generally understand that Asia is not a country. Many on the other hand refer to Africa as a country. Considering how big and diverse the continent of Africa is this is really problematic. I think it's symptomatic of the cultural superiority Westerners feel over individuals from the African continent. They view them as small and this thinking reveals itself when they liken Africa to a country. My father's from Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. There, you'll find members of different ethnic groups who discriminate against each other. A Yoruba may give a job to another Yoruba rather than a Hausa or a Fulani or an Ibo. If in one country, people view themselves as extremely different, it's perhaps doubly offensive to lump in Africans as one.
    That said there are times when Americans lump in Europeans together. We refer to a "European sensibility," for example.

  46. One of my most memorable encounters with that "single story" was back in grade 8, when my geography class was divided into groups that were each assigned a city somewhere in the world, and had to write a brief assignment from the point of view of someone living in that city, about what it was like to live there.

    My group was assigned Nairobi, and I thought that was convenient, because I had a friend whose family had moved there a year earlier, and we'd kept in touch, so I knew a certain amount about Nairobi.

    Unfortunately, what I knew of it didn't mesh at all with my classmates' idea of what "Africa" was all about. They didn't believe me that it was a large city, or that it could possibly have a university in it (it has several, actually, at one of which my friend's father was a professor), or anything like that, and insisted on describing it as a village of grass huts!

    Everything I tried to tell them was countered with "But it's in Africa!", as it that automatically negated anything else that could be said about it. As far as they were considered, "Africa" meant one very specific thing, and that thing was tribal peoples living in grass huts, so anyone believing otherwise clearly had to be mistaken.

    Now granted, we're talking 13-year-olds here, but the scary thing is there are probably a lot of adults out there whose idea of "Africa" isn't much different than that.

  47. This was a great post and a great TED talk, thanks Macon! I love Chimamanda Adichie, and I loved this talk.

    I've noticed this tendency for a long time. As a young child I was fascinated by Kenya and Tanzania, and devoured anything I could read about the area and Masai culture (this was a long time before the Lion King :p, but of course everything I found to read was by white people). So I developed a concept of Africa as continent and not country very early on, and noticed the lack of knowledge in others.

    That was one of the biggest headdesk moments for me with the reasoning for the invasion of Iraq - when Bush said Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium... from Africa.

    @Aan, I liked your comment, but something you said stuck out to me and I'd like to respond to it because I see it said often.

    "Its almost like there's something personal going on with our knowledge about Europe." Um, there is something personal going on... your culture comes from there. The USA grew out of colonialism.

    But I wonder about this: "We all know the history, culture, traditions and peoples of each European country. We know what makes them tick, what foods they like, etc." Do you really think so? How much do you know about the Hungarians? Moldovia? Lichtenstein? Croatia? Portugal? Denmark? Finland? Lithuania? Luxembourg? Iceland? Estonia?

    Americans and Australians know a lot about English, French and German culture because the three countries have been culturally tied for a thousand years and spread that culture to the USA. We know a bit about Greek and Italian culture because of migration and Classical antiquity. But there's a lot more to Europe and European cultures than that...

    My background is from one of the 'unknown' European cultures, so this is something I've thought about a lot.

  48. That was one of the biggest headdesk moments for me with the reasoning for the invasion of Iraq - when Bush said Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium... from Africa.

    Oh that's RIGHT! Ugh. And most of us Muricans saw no reason to call him out on that, especially the cowed corporatized media whores. Damn shame, a real, national shame, that he's not rotting in jail now for those kinds of f'ing lies.

  49. @Shaunee

    Thanks, just ordered that book ('Mistaking Africa') on Amazon, can't wait to read it.

    @Miss Lynx

    As someone from Nairobi, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. For a time at a previous job I had an aerial picture of Nairobi as my background (similar to this one

    People would come over

    Them: 'Where is that?'

    Me: 'Nairobi'

    Watch co-workers head almost explode as their pre-concieved notions of Africa crashed headlong into the picture.

  50. And just a reminder to anyone who thinks this is unique to Americans, the European view of Africa is no better:

  51. What an absolutely brilliant talk. So many ideas to chew on! Thanks for posting it.

    First of all, this reminds me of the time when my grandmother told me that in Africa, the people pretend to listen to the missionaries, but when the missionaries turn their backs, they go right back to their tribal religions. That was her single story of Africa. It was as if she didn't realize that there are modern cities in Africa, that not everybody lives in a tribe, and that Christianity actually has quite a strong presence there.

    Secondly, Cloudy is absolutely correct when (he? she?) says "The point you seem to be missing is that this is wrong when the person doing it does so because they believe it all to be one and the same."

    In other words, when we do it ("homogenize" people) because we have a single story of a place. Sometimes we do talk about "Europeans," but not because we have a single story of Europe. A lot of people do have single stories of specific European countries ("Oh you're French, you must know all about wine"), but not of the continent as a whole. The same goes for Asia. Japan has tentacle porn and China has an oppressive government. Those are single stories, but on a continental level, we know that Asia has multiple stories and so we don't "homogenize" it the same way we do with Africa.

    Sara said: "The more Americans paint a picture of "poor tribal Africa," the less they/we are forced to recognize the full atrocity of slavery."

    Sara and Miriam were, incredibly, the only two people in this entire thread to make a connection between American racism against black Americans and our single story of Africa. And I don't think the connection they made is particularly accurate. People - complete assholes - sometimes do say that black Americans are lucky to have been taken out of Africa.

    More importantly, I think a major feature of racism against black people in America (I can't really speak for other countries) is that we apply our single story of Africa to them too. The single story of catastrophe and incomprehensibility - it's the story not just of Africans, but of black people. The idea that black people in the US have benefited from slavery fits in perfectly with the idea that those devil-child Africans need to be saved by kind, white foreigners. Just think of all those white-teacher-with-disadvantaged-black-students movies. And think about how we associate black Americans with welfare and black Africans with international aid efforts. And there's so much more - gang/tribal violence, poverty, oppression, etc. are all part of our concept of black people the world over.

    We have a single story of blackness. It's not entirely the same thing as our single story of Africa, but it's very closely related.

    I wonder if our ideas about black Americans might change if we knew more about Africa - if we truly understood that black people can do things like build entire cities and write literature and make movies and so on - that they have civilizations of their own.

  52. Elsariel said...
    I think it really boils down to a lack of education regarding non-European countries. A one semester geography class in high school doesn't really cut it. There really needs to be more emphasis paid towards world studies in the US education system.

    I agree 100% with this statement. When I meet people from non-European countries, they're surprised that I know where it is--as there is a stereotype that Americans are geography illiterate.

    I have a friend from Nigeria and she says she can't count how many times people have said to her, "You mean they have running water over there?" When she tells them that yes, we have cities, too! she just receives surprised looks from people.

  53. White folks lump Africa into one big, homogeneous whole because to them, Africa is nothing but the home of the ni**ers, just one, big giant darkieland. It's the whole "Well you've seen one, you've seen them all" and "all Black people look alike" monolithic, negative, destructive view of Black people shared the world over.

  54. and this is why I'm beginning to not like the label: African-American. My history and culture spans more than two continents. I have yet to explore any nation on the continent (I plan to in the very near future though). My experience has no borders. Some people will, with no malice or ill will intended, ask me what tribe I come from. I'm beginning to want to shoot back with "you tell me", but I don't. I'm in no way denying my "African" ancestry, but don't lump me nor other "African-Americans" into some group. I'm simply American, more specifically Virginian and fearfully and wonderfully made : HUMAN.

  55. I wonder how much the recognition that the continent was carved up along European-colonist borders as opposed to cultural ones factors in. There are plenty of ethnic groups that cross political boundaries, so the political borders might not be meaningful ways to divide people.

    When I was born, the part of Europe my family's from was "The USSR." My grandmother gets pretty upset if you call her Russian though. "We're not Russian! We're Rusyn!" Rusyn? That's not a country. Rusyn sort of means you're from the mountainous parts of Eastern Europe.

  56. Here's where the problem originates, in my opinion. In places like Asia, or Europe, nations are generally associated with a definitive culture, (e.g France contains French people), with some exceptions (i.e Belgium). In Africa, because of the extreme artificiality of the national borders, this nationality-ethnicity tie is less prevalent. For example, in Nigeria, there are over 250 distinct ethnic groups, none of which are blatantly Nigerian. People should be educated about the ethnic groups of Africa, but they're not. And because there is no cultural marker for Nigerian, other than being born in Nigeria, people don't know how to describe them.

  57. While Americans certainly are the worst with Africa and not recognizing the individual nations... Brazil gets it pretty bad too. How many times have you heard people ask Brazilians to say something cute in Spanish?

  58. Great post, and I loved Chimamanda Adichie's lecture.

    To be fair, though, this is not just an american problem. Two weeks ago, brazilian author Felipe Costa wrote an article pointing that the same happens here in Brazil. Not only the media homogenizes Africa, but it does that to the poorer regions of Brazil (North and Northeast). He calls it "the lazy geography syndrome":

    "The (economically) poorer or (politically) weaker a country (or region), the more its boundaries must be widened so that we, news readers, are able to detect said country (or region) in our lazy mind radar".
    (In Portuguese:

    And yes, that applies to how brazilian people see Africa, too. Actually, to how we see the rest of Latin America.

    Personal note: I remember when I was 9 years old, playing a Risk-like board game, and I was overwhelmed by tha fact that Egypt was in Africa. That didn't fit in my mind frame, since for me Africa was equal to lions in the savannah, and Egypt meant pharaohs (who were supposed to be white like Elizabeth Taylor and Yul Brinner).

  59. Thank you for this post. I know I am waaaay late in posting but I would also like to share my experience. As someone who is Kenyan (w/one US parent), I'm well-acquainted with the trivialization of the entire African continent (e.g., "Can you do African dance?" ...cuz there's only one dontcha know and we black folks are soooo good at dancing...and singing! or, "Can you speak African?" or "Kenyanian?" (at least she got points for originality, lol)).

    The parentheses address a pet peeve: referring to distinct African languages as "dialects." NO. Are French and Spanish Latin dialects? Dholuo (Luo) and Gikuyu (Kikuyu) are two, distinct languages, NOT dialects, spoken in Kenya; they have separate linguistic roots (Nilotic vs. Bantu). It's as if there's one African language and we all speak a "dialect" of it, similar to a Southern dialect of American English. *headdesk* There are hundreds of distinct African languages. Africa's the 2nd largest continent but it's viewed by many as a city/country where everyone's identical.

    People tell me I can't be Kenyan (why would I lie? Is there a high social status conferred upon Kenyans in the US that I don't know about? *snort*) b/c I don't fit their uninformed stereotype about what an immigrant, and especially an "African," should sound/look/act like. Since I don't look like Alek Wek, people here want to know if my mother's white. We don't all have the same skin color, hair texture, nose/lip sizes and body types. There are many people in the east African nations who don't look like Alek Wek but more like Iman.

    Another thing I've noticed is the derogatory characterization of all Africans as "tribal." Tribal = primitive. I see this also occurs with "Indian tribes." Why is this applied to these groups but not, say, Europeans? In France and Germany, what passed as "regional pride," seemed very "tribalistic" to me...yet....

    Another thing: referring to an African nation like it's a city in a country: Kenya, Africa. What other continent is referred to that way? It reinforces the idea that Africa is a country. Oprah's not helping (I know she's not white, which is the subject of this post, but she routinely refers to Africa as a country or applies her experience with one city in South Africa to the rest of the continent, e.g., she said she would won't eat meat in Africa (I ate meat all the time in "Africa," and was extremely healthy); I bring her up b/c she's an icon for many white US women I know, who then feel justified to spew the same ignorance, and to "correct" POC who actually know what they're talking about.)

    In the same vein, I love when white Americans correct my pronunciation of "Kenya." And it's only whites and always the ones who've never been anywhere on the continent, let alone *my* country. Apparently, I'm not intelligent enough to know how to pronounce the name of my own country.

    Thanks for bearing through this extra-long post.

    ps - whoever said American/US culture comes from Europe: thanks for erasing all the contributions made by POC. Gotta love coopting cultures without attribution. POCs have been here the whole time, including before the US was a country. That's why I agreed w/the poster on the white history month thread who said we don't need, e.g., black history month, latino history month, etc., but to have these, and other POCs, integrated into the schools' core curriculum.

  60. One more thing:

    I hate the term "black African." I understand the US qualifier (black American, etc.) but to apply that to a predominantly black continent is absurd. It's as if we can't even claim our own continent: to call us "black" Africans, as if the norm is not black, linguistically displaces us from our own land.

    Why aren't non-black citizens referred to that way instead? For example, why is a North African (or, Morroccan, Libyan, Algerian, etc.) just North African (or Egyptian, Tunisian, etc.)? Why aren't the non-blacks referred to as Arab (or white? brown?)Algerians/Tunisians/etc.? It's as if non-blacks = the norm (just like in the US white is treated as the American norm, therefore whites are referred to as just "Americans," as opposed to "white Americans"), but blacks = exception.

    Compare to "Sub"-Saharan (love the "sub" ... sub-human, sub-standard....) "black" Africa, where we must be distinguished as such, lest the reader/listener mistake "African" (Kenyan/Nigerian/Somali/etc.*) for something else. There's something sinister about the "distinction" (and I think it has something to do with the mischaracterization of ancient Egypt as a non-black civilization because, well, blacks can't be civilized (see "tribes" in previous post), and there can't be any other great civilizations anywhere else on the continent. BTW, Arabs invaded Egypt = 7th century AD, long after what's now known as ancient Egypt disappeared.) This is not much ado about nothing. Why we are not given the courtesy of acknowledgement that we are the indigenous, predominant possessors of our own lands definitely bears examination.

    I hope I'm making sense. IOW, why isn't Europe (or any other continent) labelled this way? Not everybody who lives in Europe is white (and hasn't been for MANY centuries), so why isn't there an appellation "white" European? You know, to distinguish them from the non-white Europeans? Now, if it's because the majority of Europeans are white, then why not give Africa the same treatment? (Yes, not everybody in Africa is black but guess what? The overwhelming majority are! Even in north African countries (where people who look like me call themselves Arab and when I was in Morrocco and France, I kept being mistaken, by Morroccans, for being one of them - go figure; in the US, I am black)). I do not see this distinction applied to any of the other continents, either.

    I find the singular distinction revolting and racist. And just because there are Africans (irrelevant of nationality) who use the term does make it right: I know plenty of blacks Stateside who often use the "n-word," so does that justify its use? Or is the word inherently offensive, not only due to its history but because of the implicit dehumanizing, "otherizing" component of the word? Same ethnicity use is not proof of acceptability.
    *BTW, I only ever refer to myself as "Kenyan" when interacting with people who aren't; otherwise, I identify by my father's ethnic group. That's because the ethnic groups in Kenya are distinct: physical appearance, language, culture, etc. Identifying as Kenyan is just another level of homogenization but one that's understandable.

  61. @TAB - Hahahaha. Nice timing. Thanks for pointing out about the term "black African" because I was guilty of using the term just today (in the presence of a predominantly white group). I wonder why I say it. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I worry people might picture a white African (because many white Australians in my city seem to have white African friends (e.g. white Zimbabweans, white South Africans) when they do have African friends)...which, as you point out, makes little sense.

  62. Ooops! Meant to say:

    And just because there are Africans (irrelevant of nationality) who use the term doesn't make it right:

    Unfortunate place to have a typo. :o)

  63. Hi fromthetropics!

    First off, I have to say how much I enjoy reading your posts! I relate a lot to your experiences, esp. since moving to Minnesota (a northern US state that exalts Scandinavian/Irish/German cultures ... I've heard, more than once, Italians, Spaniards and Greeks referred to as "not white." Even the French are suspect (wish I was kidding)). When I first moved here, I was stunned by the overtly racist, anti-POC comments many white Minnesotans felt no qualms about sharing with me. This site is really helping me making sense of a number of painful experiences. Much of what you've written reflects a lot of my experiences, even though we live in different parts of the world, and we are ethnically different. Maybe there's quite a bit of commonality in being a Third Culture Kid

    I'm def. familiar with white Zimbabweans/South Africans, who, in my experience, do identify themselves as white South Africans or white Zimbabweans (or, more perjoratively, "Rhodies," as in Rhodesians). I worked in Zimbabwe for a short while and I noticed the emphasis on "white" had nothing to do with recognition of, say, Shona or Zulu people as the original owners of the lands now known as Zimbabwe and South Africa, respectively. Rather, it stemmed more from a desire to elevate themselves above those "savages." (And, yes, they did verbalize those beliefs to me - to which I had to wonder, You know I'm black, right? lol...I guess not being a black person from those countries made me "safe" to share such racist comments with. But I digress.)

    I understand your point re: white S. Africans, etc. being the more common groups and wanting to distinguish who's who. But I never qualify African (or Kenyan, etc.) with black, and even the Americans* who think Africa = country assume that I'm referring to blacks. Maybe it's due to the relatively high East African (Kenyan, Ethiopian and Somali) population in the Minnesota.

    *I don't mean to imply I think all Americans are this way.


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