Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

Africans must confront prejudice and stereotypes

There are many things that Africans do which give Africa and Africans a bad name or rather there are things that folks with black skin do which tarnish the image of those with black skin. However, as one of the greatest pan-Africanists ever alive — Marcus Garvey — once argued: “The black skin is not a badge of shame … ” This is not to say that a white skin or a skin of other colour for that matter, is a badge of shame. The issue at hand, which this polemic is wrestling with, is that there appears to be many who see a black skin as a badge of shame. It could have been in this context that one of our extraordinary leaders in Africa, Nelson Mandela, has had a dream — a dream of “the realisation of the unity of Africa … of an Africa that is in peace with itself”. Without doubt, there are many things that Africans — especially our leaders — have to change in order to ensure that our “Africa is at peace with itself”. There are also many things that the rest of the world — especially those who see a black skin as a badge of shame — must change.

One of the main challenges that need confronting is prejudice against that which is BLACK and the endless disturbing stereotyping of Africa and Africans. There are many examples of this, some as ridiculous as recent reactions of some to the vuvuzela and Canada’s granting of asylum to a white South African — these are just some of the examples that highlight the symptoms of a deeper problem the global human society is facing. A few instructive examples could be highlighted to illustrate the prejudice and stereotyping that afflicts Africa and Africans. One of the examples relates to traditional customs and ways of life of Africans in particular. There are those that view the ways of Africa/Africans as barbaric and backward. On the other hand, Africans find themselves in situations whereby they have to conform to the Western norms and standards of what civilisation is or rather of what modern life is prescribed to be. Africans, because of their humility and not because of stupidity, tolerate ways of life of others.

For instance, many Africans have embraced the notion of civil unions. However, the rest of the world — especially the West — finds it impossible to respect cultures and traditions of Africans. This is a glaring case of prejudice and possibly hypocrisy as the west does not border to try to understand why Africans do things the way they do. Instead, anyone practising what could be his or her culture or religion or perhaps preference is simply labelled as backward and even disrespecting of human rights. Consultants or the so-called experts descend to Africa from Europe and America to lecture Africans about family planning and rights of women, as an example. Let me hasten to say that resourceful information, even from the West, is important. The processes of sharing of information should however be equitable: the paternalistic and patronising nature of lectures from the so-called experts, sent by former colonisers, is disturbing.

Another critical issue relates to racial stereotyping and this is a ubiquitous challenge faced by many people with black skin. There are countless cases of blacks getting arrested simply because they are black or African. There are countless examples of people of black skin denied opportunities simply because they are black or African. Though these are probably matters of empirics, but lived experiences of those with black skin are testimony, it would seem that blacks in many parts of the world are ill-treated simply on the basis of the colour of their skin. This stereotyping has resulted in more blacks in prisons, without even questioning whether the crimes they are said to have committed could have actually been serving non-blacks. A point could be argued that blacks are more likely to sell drugs to non-blacks or on behalf of non-blacks simple as a means of survival. The world has weakened most black people through the atrocious conditions that blacks have been confined or condemned to.

In the case of South Africa, a recent sad incident involving a young female athlete speaks volumes about accumulated stereotyping and prejudice the world over. The question remains as to whether the world would have subjected her to the same unexplainable humiliation if she were not of black skin. Mokgadi Caster Semenya, because of her looks and attributes, has had to endure insults and embarrassment simply because she won by wide margins in the recent World Championship Athletics’ tournament in Berlin. In essence, it occurred to many people that have an issue with blacks or Africans that it was unlikely for an African to be that talented even after Semenya proved publicly in front of the whole world that she was the best in the field. A conclusion was drawn that it must be something else and not her hard work and talent that allowed her to win. Further, because she is black the results of the so-called gender tests — the invention of the West to keep away Africans from competitive sports — were leaked to the whole world.

If you are black or an African, the world does not bother about the consequences of its actions against you. Simply because of the colour of her skin, Semenya was condemned to the worse form of humiliation any human being could ever handle. Because of race, every day remains a struggle. This has gone on for centuries, starting with the scramble for Africa, which entrenched the worst imaginable form of dehumanisation. David Diop’s poem The Vultures rigorously captures the injustices that Africans have been subjected to by “the vultures built in the shadow of their claws”. The Semenya issue reminded me of how Cornell West tackles the difficult subject of “black sexuality” in his powerful book Race Matters. He argues that there are myths that are held about black people and these “myths offer distorted, dehumanised creatures whose bodies, colour of skin, shape of nose and lips, type of hair, size of hips are already distinguished from the white norm of beauty and whose fearful sexual activities are deemed disgusting, dirty, or funky and considered less acceptable”.

As indicated above, there are many examples that could be used to illustrate the widespread problem of prejudice and stereotyping against those with black skin, and worse if they are African too. The world needs to confront this unending problem. The people that have prejudice towards blacks or Africa broadly need to confront their prejudice. They need to take the trouble to better understand blacks, their cultures, their ways of life, their thinking and so on. It is in the interest of the whole of humanity and the human race. As such, it ought to be a moral imperative. Then, there is a public policy realm: stereotyping is often exacerbated or maintained by certain policies or public policy actions. For instance, the deployment of safety officers to certain neighbourhoods and not to others could exacerbate stereotyping and prejudice. There is still a lot of thinking that has to go towards crafting ideal public policy responses that can mitigate stereotyping and prejudice, especially in countries with different races.

In the meantime, Africans in particular need to do something about this global cancer if Steve Biko’s assertions in his treatment of Black Consciousness are still relevant. Biko argued, for instance, that “it is not enough for whites to be on the offensive. So immersed are they in prejudice that they do not believe that blacks can formulate their thoughts without white guidance and trusteeship [because] even those whites who see much wrong in the system make it their business to control the response of the blacks to the provocation”. As a start, as practical as possible, Africans or blacks in general should stand up for themselves as Biko and others did, mindful of the possible consequences. Those with black skin need to action Garvey’s appeal: “The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.”

Both changing our actions and confronting the prejudice and stereotypes with maxim force, as a people with black skin, must be our immediate agenda. In particular, the leaders with black skins need to confront their weaknesses or errors — they give those with black skins a bad name. It might be necessary to quickly clarify the reference to “confronting the prejudice and stereotypes with maximum force”. This does not imply that those with black skin should carelessly go on the offensive. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, popularly known as Malcolm X, would be proud of us if we “believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their colour”. Therefore, those with black skin need discipline and principles. However, extraordinary circumstances may call for extraordinary action: no human being should be taken for granted or undermined simply because he or she has a black skin. It is reported that Malcolm X once advised, under extraordinary circumstances, that “be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”. Nowadays, it would be a must that whichever way prejudice and stereotypes are confronted, with whatever maximum force, is within international laws and conventions.

The other fundamental task, which is medium to long term in nature, should be about conceptualising a programme that would address what seems to need an urgent response. Perhaps starting with black Africans, some framework that guides how we approach human progress may have to be (re)configured. An Africa continent-wide programme that articulates the future of the continent as it pertains to who we are as Africans and how we interact with the rest of the world could be a good starting point in addressing rampant prejudice and stereotyping against us. The philosophy of African Renaissance could be an entry point. However, perhaps a concrete and practical programme that actualises African Renaissance could be a better way to go.

The difficult question remains though: what steps could black Africans take to culminate the programme referred to here. Among the things that could be done would be to allow a conversation among Africans in order to determine an ideal medium for devising a practical programme that confronts prejudice, stereotypes and related injustices visited on Africans by the rest of the world. One of the overdue things that black Africans must do, for those that have not done it, should be to go back to their roots — this is not about cultural/traditional gear or things such as those but it is about understanding one’s origin, culture and so on. Garvey argued, for instance, that “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. This also touches the issue of language: black Africans must guard against the possible extension of their languages!

With time, hopefully, Madiba’s “dream of an Africa that is in peace with itself” would be a reality. This noble dream can only be achieved if the whole of humanity rallies together to attack prejudices and stereotypes, with maximum force. Human society has achieved the impossible in the past. The world is indeed a much better place now than it was a century ago. However, the human race still has a long way to go in ridding itself of dreadful prejudices and stereotypes. “For one to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” as one of the greatest sons of the African soil, Nelson Mandela, advised. We, as humanity, can do it!