The Dilemma of Being African in Western Spaces

With 54 countries to boast, it is inevitable that African narratives are dripping with nuance. With a continent that is home to 3000 tribes and anywhere from 1500 to 2000 languages, complex does not even begin to describe the people of Africa. We are a multidimensional continent to say the very least. But our multidimensionality quickly becomes two-dimensional when we enter Western spaces, whether by media portrayal or in-person travels to Western countries.

Africans in America

The Perception of Africans in Western Media

In the eyes of Western media, Africans are not whole people. Africans are constantly needing to be saved. We are to be pitied, often looked upon with the question that asks, How could these poor people be in this unfortunate situation of poverty and disease? This vision of swollen stomachs, flies around faces, and African babies in the arms of white Westerners are virtually the only images of Africa that grace their TV screens and magazines. It is often thought that the terrible circumstances that happen in Africa are random and unexplainable. And it is these predicaments that the Westerners, especially those of European descent, come to our rescue. And in their practice of humanitarianism, we are to be grateful. It is in their philanthropy that we are to praise them.

The Perception of Africans in the West

When you live in Western countries and people find out that you are African, people are usually either disgusted by you (xenophobia), intrigued by you (fetishization and/or xenophilia), or surprised by you. The surprises are often manifested when African immigrants unexpectedly have a strong command of the English language when they are in English-speaking countries. And if the African speaks “good English,” it is often assumed that a Westerner taught them. Another surprise is the discovery of many Africans being educated and it is only assumed that if they are educated, it is because their education came from the West.

Hardly anyone ever thinks of Africans beyond these dismal narratives. After all, books like How Europe Underdeveloped Africa are not bestsellers. If more narratives like this became more mainstream, the White Savior narrative, one that asserts Westerners as the only hope for Africa’s restoration, would have to retire for good. The narrative about people of European descent arriving to Africa to perform acts of kindness would have to be replaced by one in which Europeans come to Africa in order to mend the wounds inflicted upon the continent by their ancestors. With this narrative, Europeans are actively aware of who they are in these spaces. With genuine understanding of the historical context of the African countries they visit, they will seek to decenter themselves and seek to empower and amplify the voices of African people above their own. With knowledge and understanding of the histories of African countries, hearing an African fluently speak English will be of no surprise. African history is marked with British colonialism plaguing the continent so therefore, the work of learning English is already done prior to many Africans’ arrivals to Western English-speaking countries. When it comes to Africans and their education, African immigrants in the United States are the most educated among foreign-born people, many of them having degrees prior to their arrival. And as they thrive in the United States they are also found to have the highest academic achievement. But unfortunately for many of those who are educated and African, The Root reports that is their reality:

At home they were doctors, lawyers, accountants or professors. Here they are cabdrivers, parking lot attendants, cashiers or nannies. They often live in poverty, though, as a group, they are more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher than any other immigrant group.

The average Westerner will look at their Africanness and juxtapose poverty with it. It will seem consistent with the very limited narratives about the African living in Africa. And in evaluating the realities of these Africans in America, they will think, At least they are here. It would be worse for them if they were still back in their homelands, almost prescribing a refugee view to their situation when they are not refugees. But given the expertise of many Africans in law, medicine, and other fields, the “search of a better life” would be to thrive in those fields in the Western context, not to start over. This is where the often romanticized and idealized “American Dream” falls flat for the African Immigrant. This is the side of the story that many Americans (and Westerners, in general) do not see. But despite the struggles Africans face on the mainland and abroad, 14 of the 15 most optimistic countries in the world come from our Mother Continent. Despite the frustration, discrimination, and conflict that exists in African countries, we still remain hopeful.

Africans in AmericaUnderstand that all of this is just scratching surface as to the things Africans face when being portrayed in Western media and when they are living abroad. If there are countless nuances to the African experience in the continent, the nuances that exist when living abroad as an African will remain nearly infinite. There are several topics to consider when an African is being portrayed and when the African lives abroad. But the following is true:

One dilemma of being African in Western spaces is to constantly see how your lived experiences differ from the mainstream narrative. 

And as more African voices begin to continue to speak on their lived experiences and as their voices are substantially amplified, those mainstream narratives will have to be challenged. Quite honestly, Africans have been telling their stories for a while now so no, they not just now “finding their voice.” Many have just failed to pay attention and amplify their voices.

How else have limited narratives of the African experience been shown in mainstream media? How have other marginalized groups been depicted in mainstream media that does accurately capture their narratives?

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  • This is all very true! In conversation and representation of my experiences in Africa, I try to tell people the other side of the story that they don’t see in the media. How educated and hardworking many Africans are, how innovative and creative, how capable.
    I try especially hard to be wise in which non-profits and organizations I invest in. Africa does need help in many areas, but Africans are the best ones to develop their countries long-term, not Westerners. Africans know what their communities need better than a foreigner of any color ever would, so partnering with Africans and equipping them to build their countries seems like a much better route to me. I don’t want to save Africa. I want Africans to be equipped to solve their own problems. They’ll do a better job of it than I could!

  • “I try especially hard to be wise in which non-profits and organizations I invest in. Africa does need help in many areas, but Africans are the best ones to develop their countries long-term, not Westerners.”

    YES!!! This is something I feel SO strongly about and seeing this being said by someone else is especially meaningful. It is commendable that you try to be wise with what non-profits to support when it comes to Africa. And soon enough, this space will allow the opportunity for Westerners to empower Africans in this way! Thanks for commenting, Emileigh! 🙂

  • This is a great article Mary. The constant struggle to enlighten others on the misrepresentation of Africans who live in Africa and abroad can be exhausting. It is also sometimes frustrating to observe “do-gooders” participating in discussions and aid programs in all the wrong ways. You made a great point in how Europeans need to be aware of who they are in these spaces of “helping Africa” and provided insight from the other side of the lens in how Africans are aware of their place in these spaces. I agree the growing volume of stories from all kinds of Africans will eventually redefine what it means to be African in all spaces.

  • It really can be exhausting on both of the issues you mentioned. And I am looking forward to the countless African stories becoming more accessible, thereby changing our cultural perceptions. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Dagny!