Teaching about Representations and Stereotypes of Africa
Prior to undertaking a unit on Africa, it is important for educators to take cognizance of what their students know about 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.
Therefore, prior to teaching Africa, it is essential that educators understand and deal with the ways in which Africa has been and continues to be misrepresented, and stereotypically imagined in the minds of, many Americans.
Images of Africa
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 (or what we as educators term prior knowledge) that students bring with them to their study of Africa.
When individuals are confronted by a continual exposure to a type of image or misrepresentation, these images often congeal to form stereotypes or generalizations which individuals use to bring meaning to the thing or people imaged. Generalizations and stereotypes often become the basis for explanatory constructs that are used to interpret events or evaluate the behaviors, including the cultural practices, of others.
Throughout the prepared curriculum, we will be purposeful in confronting stereotypes and misrepresentations of Africa that are popularly held by many Americans. Consequently, from the outset we will challenge the representation not only that Africa is a homogenous place analogous to a large country -say China or Russia -but also that it is without history, stuck in a changeless socio-cultural present, prior to the coming of European colonialism. The curriculum will highlight the dynamic heterogeneity of African cultures, societies, economies, and polities.
Moreover, we will contest simplistic explanatory constructs through which our media, government, and educational texts have brought understanding to events (social, economic, political) and practices (social, cultural, religious) in Africa (see below).
Confronting stereotypes in the classroom
We are convinced of the utility of directly confronting stereotypes and misrepresentations in the classroom. 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. Yet when we are exposed to evidence that contradicts an accepted image, we may not recognize or be bothered by the contradiction (e.g. one might hold the belief that Africans are primitive/heathen but not be flustered when introduced to Africans who are clearly very modern), unless prior (and often deeply sedimented) representation is challenged. To give another 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 if asked on the next quiz if Africa has modern cities, in spite of pictorial evidence, many students will revert to their prior knowledge and understanding of Africa.
Consequently, we firmly believe that teachers must be aware of and understand the prior knowledge of their students and aggressively confront stereotypes, misrepresentations, and explanatory constructs that are misleading. With this in mind, we have identified the following stereotypes, explanatory constructs, and sources of misrepresentations of Africa and Africans.
I. Africa qua Africa
- Africa as the “Dark Continent”
- Africa as culturally monolithic
- Africa without history
- Africa as uncivilized-pagan/heathen
- Endemic violence
- Endemic hunger/starvation
II. Behavioral Characteristics
- Behavior determined by primordial drives
- Tribal (“communitarian”) loyalty
- Superstition-determines attitudes and behavior
- Weird cultural practices
Common explanatory constructs
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: In this construct, seemingly endemic conflicts in Africa are explained by primordial tribal impulses.
- Patrimonial structures and practices: According to this paradigm, African patrimonial structures encourage nepotism, corruption, and economic and
- Political inefficiency. Therefore, they preclude democracy.
- Communitarian orientation: This construct claims that anti-individualism precludes personal initiative, development, and modernity.
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 heathen and uncivilized-incapable of governing themselves).
- News Media cover Africa superficially (crisis driven coverage). Reporters often have no background in Africa (parachute journalism). Liberal use of inadequate explanatory constructs.
- Entertainment Media perpetuates negative images of helpless primitives, happy-go-lucky buffoons, and evil pagans. The media glorify colonialism/European intervention. Currently, Africa is represented as a place of endemic violence and brutal but ignorant dictators.
- Animalization of Africa via legion of nature shows on Africa that present Africa as being devoid of humans.
- Safari Industry promotes an orientation to animals and exploitation of non-representative African cultures (Maasai, Pekot, San, etc.).
- Theme parks in US that feature an African theme.
- Advertising-industry has built and exploited (and thereby perpetuated) simplistic stereotypes of Africa.
- US Textbooks covering Africa often:
- Provide inadequate coverage.
- Use popular explanatory constructs.
- Feature pictorial images (predominance of animals and exotica).
- Highlight social/cultural representations of non-representative groups such as the Maasai and San.
Return to Unit One