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Jun 30 2016
by Rudo Ellen Kazembe

7 Microaggressions that African Students are Tired of Hearing

By Rudo Ellen Kazembe - Jun 30 2016
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The persistently bleak narrative of the African continent has existed for over a thousand years. Heart of Darkness by Conrad is one of the most notable Western literature books that reflects this stereotypical mentality of Africa as a dark place with barbaric “savages” that, “...shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language.” The dismissive reduction of Africa has continued to prevail in our generation through microaggressions on various media platforms. Although Africa is the second largest continent in the world with 54 sovereign countries and a large population of 1.11 billion people, it is often subjected to essentialism through a single identity, whereby it is seen as a monolithic, poverty-stricken country with an abundance of diseases. The constant romanticization of an “impoverished Africa” has led to some African students being subjected to omniscient stereotypical images in their schools, colleges or universities.

1. Do you speak African?

If this question was applied to any of the other continents in a different context, it would be ludicrous. If someone asked, “Do you speak Asian?” or “Do you speak European?” how exactly would you respond to a question that exclusively claims that the whole continent that you are from only speaks one common language? There are an estimated 1500-2000 languages in Africa which belong to several major language families consisting of but not limited to: Creole, Austronesian, Afro-asiatic, Niger-Congo, Khoe and Indo-European. In the Guinness Book of World Records, the country of Zimbabwe is stated as having 16 official languages which are: Shona, Ndebele, English, Chewa, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Shangani, Chibarwe, Kalanga, Shangani, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Xhosa and Venda, which was codified by Zimbabwe’s constitution in 2013.

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2. If you're from Africa, why are you white?

Hundreds of years ago French, Dutch and British people settled in Africa, which added onto the rich diversity of the continent. Regardless of this, one of the aspects of the common narrative of Africa is that all Africans are black. This automatically excludes other Africans such as Afro-Arabs and white Africans. This exclusion is not only limited to race or ethnicity; it also overlaps to the lack of representation of North African countries in relation to the rest of the continent. In political, social and economic rhetoric, countries in North Africa such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are often associated with the Middle East (MENA) as opposed to the rest of the African continent. This reductive stance also adds to the ignorance of the continent’s rich diversity and history. Other North African countries that share a similar culture and dialect such as Western Sahara and Mauritania are long forgotten.

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3. Do you have Ebola?

According to the BBC, the Ebola virus epidemic that affected five countries in Western Africa was first reported in 2014. The three Western African countries that had the most widespread transmission of ebola were declared ebola-free by the World Health Organization in 2016. Since the ebola virus outbreak, there has been widespread speculation about the disease, and it has been generalized to the whole continent out of fear and ignorance.

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4. Did you have to walk for miles to fetch water?

Africa is not just a breeding ground of poverty as commonly highlighted by the media in music videos such as the Band-Aid Christmas song, which described Africa as “a world of dread and fear” where “there is death in every tear.” The aim of the track was to fundraise some money to help ebola victims in Western African countries such as Sierra Leone. However it perpetuated the white savior narrative of a “poverty-stricken Africa.” The constant repetition of the lyrics, "Do they know it's Christmas time?” dismissed the fact that roughly 62.7 percent of Africans are Christians and that they are well aware of the birth and celebration of Jesus. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said in her Ted Global Talk, ”The danger of a single story,” has resulted in people thinking that Africa is just a place with “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.” This narrative fails to tell the individualistic stories of many Africans that do not fit into the “poverty-ridden category.”

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5. Your English is really good for an African.

English is the official language in more than 20 sovereign states such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Liberia, South Africa, Malawi, Namibia and Rwanda in Africa. Some Africans even use English as a primary form of communication in social, political and economic spheres. Assuming that one has not learned English or does not speak English just because they are from an African country is sheer ignorance.

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6. Do you have a wild animal as a pet in Africa?

The African continent is famous for its safaris that have an abundance of wild animals ranging from the ferocious lion to the flamboyant peacock. A common depiction is that Africa consists of dangerous jungles, wild savannahs and that the majority of people keep wild animals as pets. This is far from reality. Most wild animals such as lions are too dangerous to keep within the household area; hence the reason why they are kept in enclosed animal parks or zoos, not homes.

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7. Do you speak the "clicking tongue language"?

Movies such as The Gods Must be Crazy (1980) popularized the fetishization of clicking tongue languages such as !Kung(!Xuun) with phonemic tones, that belong in the Kx’a family language. Most of the speakers of this language are the monolingual Khoikhoi and San tribes in some parts of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Most of the clicking languages have become extinct, but they are spoken by a few communities on the continent.

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With more campaigns such as “Africa is not a country” by members of the African Students Association of New York Ithaca College, greater awareness is being raised.

Hopefully, the notion that Africa is a country with a single identity will be dispelled. 

Lead Image Credit: My name is Yanick via Unsplash

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Rudo Ellen Kazembe - Lake Forest College

Rudo Ellen Kazembe is a staff Politics Writer. She is currently studying at Lake Forest College. She wrote for the national newspaper in Zimbabwe when she was in high school. She has had some of her work republished in Teen Vogue. She is an Editor and staff writer for her College newspaper. You can follow her on Instagram (@ellen_oxox).

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