On Being an African in the US: Your Responses

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Simba’s impassioned post yesterday (On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes) has generated a lot of discussion around the impact of negative stereotypes, and how to begin to change them.

It was clear that Simba wasn’t alone in encountering negative stereotypes while living overseas – and that America isn’t the only country in which they exist.  Mada remembered what it was like to go to the U.K on a working holiday visa:

I remember one colleague used to come to me to give me updates on the wars going on in various places in africa and enquired on whether my relatives were ok. I told him several times the country I came from , Malawi had never experienced civil wars but this never got to him, to him africa was one big kingdom where everyone was related. I also remember how people didnt think I knew anything about computers but they later found out that I was more knowledgeable than them…

Commenter river_song (great name!) wrote on Reddit about an African friend in the U.S.:

I asked my best friend once what the most annoying thing that he’d had to deal with. He said what really upset him the most was how, to most people, there was just “Africa” and all the accompanying stereotypes or assumptions that go with it. There’s a huge variety of living experiences, quality of living, social and cultural heritages and political histories that no one considered. He said he hates the fact that to many people here, it’s like Africa was just one big homogenous place with tons of problems. Instead, it’s hundreds of different nations, tribes, cultures, cities, villages, towns, and people.

A number of other Americans chimed in to share their experiences getting to know Africans,and how it changed their point of view.  Justin wrote, “It’s pretty tough to find out anything “real” about Africa in the US,” but added:

I forwarded this to my daughter who’s studying in Africa and has found the experience- the city, the people and what she’s seen of the country amazing.

And Sheryl shared her own eye-opening experiences living in Zambia:

This was in the late 90′s, and the ironic thing was that I had never used email or the internet regularly until I moved to Lusaka. And just for the record, we used to travel to Zimbabwe for many of our getaways — to go to the cinema, enjoy excellent restaurants, and do some shopping.

One fascinating piece of the discussion was how the stereotypes differ in America and Europe.  Both share similar perceptions of Africa, and many commenters pinpointed media coverage as the source of these broad generalizations about the continent. But America and Europe have their own underlying cultural contexts that shape the discussion.

BlackGringa talked about the problematic role of race in general in America, writing:

Even in the discourse on race in the US “the black community” is presented as an amorphous, homogenized whole. The tone of one’s skin defines people’s character, culture, and origin as much as the slant of one’s eyes.

Shaun, meanwhile, explained that in his experience in the Netherlands, he felt issues of race were glossed over:

I think what makes the latent racism and stereotyping going on here in Europe difficult to deal with is that Race and ethnicity are “dead” topics in Europe. Many of the people I meet here assume that racism does not really exist, due to the fact that they do not consider themselves racists, nor are the people around them. What people fail to realize that the very way they position themselves in the discourse already presupposes many stereotypes.

It’s not just about Africa that negative stereotypes exist, though.  Commenter JP explained that he went to England with irrational stereotypes of his own about the U.K.:

I studied in the UK and though a colonial power of my home country, still many English lads and lasses had the most cockamamie stories about Africans. But as I analysed it further I realized that I too held many irrational stereotypes about the English and England. My white british friend went to study in Kenya and some of the questions he was asked or experiences he went through were majorly because of stereotypes the locals had of whites and the West. It goes both ways and such initiatives like yours that encourage cross-cultural exchange are very helpful in dispelling myths that exist about cultures and races.

And Sultan wrote that coming from Pakistan in 1972 to study in the U.S., he faced a similar battle against negative perceptions:

I was asked the most ridiculous questions including “Do you have fruit in Pakistan.” It seems not much has changed in 40 years.

But most of you seemed to feel that while negative perceptions are certainly prevalent, they are definitely not insurmountable.

isaaclw wrote that it is not stereotypes themselves that are harmful. Rather:

It’s the inability to step back and reconsider one’s stereotypes that’s really dangerous. …

Stereotypes are all around, and even those who are exposed to many different groups have developed stereotypes/prejudices. But that’s why it’s important to continue interacting with people who act and think differently, to change ourselves and them.

And Pearl of Africa pledged:

… as a personal commitment, I will keep spreading positivity around me and change my environment one soul at the time. I will challenge each one of us , to face up the little “defensive” person in us and get deeper in someones’s background, before profiling them!(-:)

“The old story of Africa still persists,” wrote Simba, “but I’m hopeful that it will soon be outpaced by the determination of young Africans worldwide to have it rewritten. Africa is changing so rapidly at the moment that it has became really inaccurate to still classify it as hopeless,if it ever was so.No doubt there are still serious problems, but I believe optimism and having faith in the possibilities can be a good first step in finding the solutions.”

There was only one point on which several commenters felt the need to disagree with Simba’s original article:

Oh and in Swahili, Simba does mean Lion.

- JP

Have you experienced any stereotypes while living or traveling overseas? Have you had stereotypes of your own dispelled? What’s the best way to change the narrative and create more nuanced perspectives?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

2 Responses to “On Being an African in the US: Your Responses”

  1. Richard N says:

    Its not just Africans that experience this. My wife is from Romania and gets it all the time. People speaking loud like she is hard of hearing. People asking if they have cars and things like that.

  2. Julwaity Neto says:

    Hi!
    My name’s Julwaity Neto and I’m from Sao Tome (Sao Tome and Principe), I’ve been in Brasilia-DF (Capital), Brazil for nearly seven years now and all I have to say is that things are not different on this side. I’ve experienced the same thing everyone shared above.
    Brazilians too, most of them see Africa as a big “messy” country with widespread poverty, wars and hunger. I once made a presentation on the issue – “The Hidden Sides of Africa” on the ‘African Liberation Day on May 25′ 2009 at the University of Brasilia (UnB). The idea was to try to make “africa” look like Africa. I’ll never give it up. With time and globalization people will eventually see It/us differently and properly.

Leave a Reply

The Student Union is…

A place to hear stories about studying in the U.S. Our bloggers have come from all over the world to U.S. universities, and they'll be sharing their experiences, advice and more.

Learn more about this blog »

Share your own story!
Tell us about your experiences applying to the US, studying in America, or doing an exchange, and we may include it on the blog.

Explore

Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.