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On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes

During my first week in the United States, I went to lunch with a group of American students to whom I had just been introduced. Pleasantries were being exchanged around the room, as was some great food and conversation. Everyone was immersed in those typical introductory conversations that revolve around hometowns, majors, dorm choices and so on.

Someone then brought up the excellent idea that it would be a great thing if we could all share our Facebook usernames so that we could contact each other in the future. With everyone agreeing that this was indeed a brilliant suggestion, a piece of paper was circulated around the room by a girl who we shall refer to as Girl X.

Girl X went around the table and collected everyone’s details, and then just as I was about to append my own username to the list, Girl X snatched up the piece of paper from my grasp and haughtily declared: “Oh wait, you don’t have Facebook in Zimbabwe, right?”

As soon as those words penetrated my body, my appetite evaporated completely. I was stunned and disappointed. Not just by Girl X’s tragic assumption that being African somehow disqualified me from knowing what Facebook was, but also by the emphatic assuredness and certainty in her tone.

In her mind, she was absolutely convinced that my being African automatically made me technologically inept, and had extrapolated that assumption to reach the conclusion that I obviously had never used the internet, never mind dared to break new African ground by creating an account on a social networking website.

I quickly realized from that encounter that as an African in the United States, I was going to face a strenuous battle against the barrage of stereotypes that Americans have imbibed about Africa over the years. The media has conditioned Americans to think of Africa in the context of the exotic. If it’s not wild animals strutting leisurely against the background of picturesque plains, it’s mud huts, famished children, wars or despotic rulers.

It is no surprise that people like Girl X make the astonishing assumptions that they do, seeing as that is all they are ever exposed is the invariably negative narrative of African circulated in the media.

Hear us discuss more about stereotypes of Africans, and other issues of race and culture in America

So many bizarre and tiring stereotypes have been exposed in my interactions with Americans. I have had a woman offer to collect used clothes for me upon discovering that I come from Zimbabwe. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the gesture, but starting a charity drive for someone because they come from Africa? How does being Zimbabwean automatically flag me as a person that desperately needs (or wants) to be flooded with donated clothing?

I have had people ask me the full spectrum of thoroughly bewildering questions. How did you get here from Zimbabwe? (How else but on an airplane??). Did you live in a “real” house back in Zimbabwe? (Surely all houses are real - who can inhabit an imaginary house?). Is Simba your “real” name? It means lion right? (No, it doesn’t). Do people have cars in Africa? How come you speak such good English?

I have been quizzed about what “tribe” I came from, and whether or not I had partaken of any “tribal rituals” in my lifetime. I found it disheartening that the immensity of cultural pluralism and diversity in Africa had been boiled down to this very vague and vacuous notion of “tribal rituals.”

While these comments all made me cringe inwardly in disbelief, none of them topped a remark I received while eating in the college dining hall early this semester, when somebody (Let’s call him Boy Z) remarked, “It must hurt you to see people throwing away food when so many people in Africa are starving.”

This shell-shocking statement has re-emerged a number of times and I have been forced on many an occasion to suppress a disgusted facial expression or a sarcastic jibe in response to it.

Yes, Africa is not without dire problems, and there is certainly a lot of poverty and hunger on the continent. Yes, it is disappointing that so many people here waste perfectly good food that could feed people in need of it. But to reduce the whole continent to a one-line narrative that begins and ends with hunger and malnutrition is flawed and unhelpful.

The fact that when a person sees leftover food they immediately think an acceptable way to dispose of it would be to thrust it into hungry African mouths is emblematic of what is wrong with how people outside of Africa view Africans—as helpless targets for charity and largesse. It’s high time the world moves beyond these parochial, dated frames and seriously reorients the way it engages with African people.

There are so many more positive things to focus on: our young and thriving population, our fast growing economies (The Economist reported that in the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies in the world were African), the technological revolutions in Kenya and South Africa, the richness of our cultures and the beauty of our cities and landscapes.

One thing that is often forgotten by people like Boy Z is that poverty, strife and suffering—these things exist everywhere - not just in Africa.

Over Spring Break, I visited a small city in western New York that has experienced serious economic decline over the past few decades. The level of urban decay and dire poverty I witnessed there is comparable to, if not worse than, the poverty I have witnessed in various African countries.

Admittedly, I had my own misconceptions. I had thought before coming to the U.S. that every inch of it would be smeared in opulence — but this turned out to not be the case.

America, just like Africa, is made up of the dichotomies of poverty and wealth, struggle and comfort, luxury and squalor. It’s important to realize that Africa, America, and indeed any other place in the world, can never be completely and accurately represented by any one blanket perception.

We as Africans want and desire the same things as people everywhere—to labor and laugh and dream and aspire and ... just live. Only when people around the world realize the fundamental fact that we are all just human beings can people begin to move past the scourge of the stereotype that has convinced Girl X that Africans cannot use the internet and conditioned Boy Z to think of Africans only against the backdrop of hunger.

Only when we all first recognize, and take stock of, our common humanity can we begin to build the bridges of mutual understanding and forge the highways to genuine appreciation and illumination.