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Africa: Beyond The Stereotypes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1642 words Published: 27th Apr 2017

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In a single day 95 photographers document a wildly diverse continent bursting with energy and promise. Send 95 photojournalists around the African continent on the same day, and what do you get? Pictures and columns that belie the clichéd expectations, a prosperous South African family enjoys breakfast in a sparkling kitchen near Johannesburg, denim-clad girls giggle as they walk to class in Cape Verde. Africa, which is bigger than the United States, China, Argentina, Europe, India combined; contains 53 nations, 720 million people and more than 800 ethnic groups who speak more than a 1,000 languages. The 250 photos from each photographer barely even scratch the surface of the continents diversity. (magazine, 2002)

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Studying Africa

If educators had the time to survey their students before engaging students in the study of the continent, they would undoubtedly be shocked by (i) the lack of knowledge about Africa, which is the second largest continent in terms of both land area and population, and (ii) by the images of Africa held by the majority of their students. Africa is probably the least known and the most misrepresented of the continents. This is due to the simplistic explanatory constructs through which the media, government, and educational texts have brought understanding to events (social, economic, political) and practices (social, cultural, religious) in Africa. (Exploring Africa)http://graphjam.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/arbitraryuser.png

Common stereotypes

· Africa is the “Dark Continent”

· Africa is culturally monolithic

· Africa without history

· Africa is pagan

· Africa is uncivilized

· Endemic violence

· Endemic hunger/starvation

Behavioral Characteristics- African behavior is determined by primordial drives, Savagery, Tribal loyalty, Superstition determines attitudes and behavior, Weird cultural practices. Many popular images of Africa are based on stereotypes that present fragmented, inaccurate, and at times fallacious, images or representations of Africa. These images and misrepresentations become the basis of knowledge.

Given the lack of in-depth knowledge of Africa and the prevalence of generalized stereotypes to interpret Africa, Americans tend to use explanatory constructs to bring meaning and understanding to images and news from Africa. Common examples include the following:

· Tribalism- seemingly endemic conflicts in Africa are explained by primordial tribal impulses.

· Patrimonial structures and practices-African patrimonial structures encourage nepotism, corruption, and economic and political inefficiency. Therefore, they preclude democracy.

· Communitarian orientation- Anti-individualism precludes personal initiative, development, and modernity.

(Exploring Africa)

Sources of Stereotypes


European explorers, colonial officials, and missionaries created representations of Africa and Africans through narratives that were consonant with their beliefs and supportive of their agenda (e.g. Africans as uncivilized incapable of governing themselves).


News Media cover Africa superficially (crisis driven coverage). Reporters often have no background in Africa. Liberal use of inadequate explanatory constructs.

Entertainment Media perpetuates negative images of helpless primitives and evil pagans. The media glorify colonialism and European intervention. Currently, Africa is represented as a place of endemic violence and brutal but ignorant dictators.

Animalization of Africa through the many of nature shows on Africa that presents Africa as being devoid of humans.

Safari Industry promotes an orientation to animals and exploitation of non-representative African cultures (e.g. Maasai, Pekot, San, etc.).

Theme parks in united states that feature African themes.

Advertising-industry has built and exploited (and thereby perpetuated) simplistic stereotypes of Africa.

U.S Textbooks covering Africa often provide inadequate coverage, and use popular explanatory constructs. Feature pictorial images (predominance of animals and exotica).Highlight social and cultural representations of non-representative groups such as the Maasai and San.

(Exploring Africa)

African stereotypes- A Reaction from the Public

After generally refraining from criticizing media coverage of African news, it has becoming increasingly hard for some people to resist commentary. I suppose one can only read and watch so many stereotyped and misinformed news stories before it becomes too much to bear. Texas in Africa (an African blog spot), the ladies at Wronging Rights, among others have always been quick to stress the problem with bad reporting. For example: A story written by Jeffrey Gettleman on the drought currently plaguing Kenya. Gettleman writes: A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as pastoralist communities’ fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land. The twin hearts of Kenya’s economy, agriculture and tourism, are especially imperiled. The fabled game animals that safari-goers fly thousands of miles to see are keeling over from hunger and the picturesque savannah is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones. (Gettleman, 2009)

There is definitely a severe drought in Kenya and it is indubitably a cause of great concern for Kenyans dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. As Gettleman notes, the drought is also increasing conflict in some parts of the country, with farmers struggling for access to arable land. Such conflict, however, is not “ethnic,” but rather an instance of basic survival. Aside from this point, what I find most troublesome about Gettleman’s piece is his suggestion that the Kenyan economy will somehow crumble as a consequence of the drought. The unknowing reader comes away from Gettleman’s piece with an image of a completely impoverished, desert-like country on the brink of disaster – a stereotype of a “typical” African country. While Kenya surely does have its problems Gettleman’s imagery is highly misguiding. Technology in Kenya is expanding at a rapid pace, heralding much opportunity for development. Emphasis is also being placed on the country’s private sector as an engine for growth, as well as small-scale manufacturing. One doesn’t get any of this from Gettleman’s piece.

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African stereotypes and Social Psychology

Research by social psychologists strongly indicates that we as individuals find it difficult to hold conflicting or contradictory beliefs/understandings. Social psychologists call this aversion cognitive dissonance, the discomfort in holding contradictory beliefs or representations. Yet when we are exposed to evidence that contradicts an accepted image, we may not recognize or be bothered by the contradiction (e.g. Africans are primitive but not be flustered when introduced to Africans who are clearly very modern), unless prior representation is challenged. To give a simple example, many Americans believe that Africa is comprised of jungle, sparsely populated savannah, or desert. When shown pictures of modern African cities, individuals may accept that the cities are in Africa; however, if the dominant representation is not directly challenged in attempt to maintain cognitive consonance, students will maintain their prior perception. So in spite of pictorial evidence, many people will revert to their prior knowledge and understanding of Africa.

Debunking African stereotypes

It is important that educators advocate a feeling of understanding and appreciating other cultures and societies. So many people tend to judge other people’s actions and ways of life by their own cultural values. Educators need to steer away from this ethnocentric view. In teaching about Africa, stereotypes and biases naturally creep in. educators should be on guard to not perpetuate the beliefs that seem to come to mind. Words in describing Africa can be altered for example consider the table below.

Stop word

Substitute word




Ethnic group/ people





Witch doctor



National attire



Also educators should examine materials before hand for stereotypes and biases. Don’t show a collection of pictures that only show Africans dressed in little clothing or wearing masks. Urban and rural areas should be represented too. Educator should talk about the people and not just the jungle and its inhabitants. Often, seemingly subtle opinions and failure to represent the real Africa can do harm to the students who look to educators as authorities on something they will probably never personally experience. (Turner, 1995)

Works Cited

(n.d.). Retrieved 3 23, 2010, from Exploring Africa: http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu

Gadzala, a. (2009). China In Africa. Trafficking in African Stereotypes .

Gettleman, J. (2009, 9 8). Africa. Lush Land Dries up, Withering Kenya’s hopes , p. A1.

magazine, s. (2002, 12). Africa. Retrieved 3 2010, from http://www.smithsonianmag.coms/africa.html

Merryfield, M. M. (1995). ‘.

Turner, D. (1995). “teaching about africa”. Utah: early elemetary.


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