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

Harare (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)
Harare, Zimbabwe. Would an American know that this is Africa? (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)

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.


  1. Thank you for this article, very interesting. It brought back memories of my first few years after moving to the United States. My father is from Barbados, my Mother from Jamaica, they moved to Italy a year before I was born. 18 years later (over 20 years ago) I moved to the States to study. It might console you to know that even European countries back then were not spared the kind of treatment you describe in relationship to Africa.

    Upon finding out that I had moved to the States from Italy a woman asked me the following question “I visited Italy many years ago (this was about 18 years ago now), and at the time they did not have proper toilets, do they have them now? To which I replied, that yes Italy had successfully made it into the 20th century with modern plumbing, we even had electric trains and Airplanes….. sigh. These days thankfully so many Americans have traveled to Europe that questions like that are no longer asked.

    The images of Italy that were on TV and in the movies were so very outdated at that time and full of stereotypes, but these days the images are more realistic. My foreign friends (from various countries) and I often joked about the backward image many Americans had of our countries.

    One of the funniest things I still deal with is the inability of many Americans and Canadians to believe that there are black people not from Africa in Italy and that I am one of them. I remember one time crossing into Canada on my Italian passport. The agent looked at it and then at me and said, where is your American Passport. I said, I don’t have one (at the time I was not yet an American Citizen). Then he said, well why do you have an Italian passport? I think the part that said Place of birth: Rome, Italy should have clued him in, but who am I to judge?

    But the stereotypes some Americans have are not only of foreign countries, when I lived near Ann Arbor, near Detroit, I remember a coworker looking at me in horror when I told them that I regularly visited the city all by myself. I am not sure what kind of urban warfare they though was going on in the city, but like with every major city in the US, you know which areas to avoid and you don’t go to certain places after dark by yourself, but there are places that are perfectly safe to visit in the city..even though they are filled with black people lol ;P

    But I think the moment that really made me smile was when I visited Vienna a couple of years ago, and as I asked for directions I struck up a conversation with a lovely young woman living there. After a while (and it made sense during the conversation) I asked her where she thought I was from, “But America of course” and I smiled, in my years in America I lost my European accent (not intentionally) and gained an American accent, and so now I get to see the world through the eyes of an African American, which has been an interesting journey to say the least.

    And that brings me to my recent trip to Kenya where I was also ‘seen’ as African American and treated to many of the stereotypes that some Africans have of African Americans but also to the hope that because I was black that I could understand some of the struggles that they have with dealing with some of the Europeans that they work with (a fascinating dichotomy) and a strong desire to teach me about their country and their struggles.

    All that said, my trip to Kenya was one of the most enjoyable that I have had in many years, and I love the people, the country is drop dead gorgeous, not to mention the food, the amazing weather and yes of course the Safari. And yes there is poverty on a level most Americans can’t begin to comprehend, but like everywhere there is also affluence, and the cities are all the amenities that you would fine everywhere else in the world. Each country in Africa I am sure is very different and I would like to visit more if given a chance, and to go back and spend more time in Kenya if at all possible.

    I wish more was taught about African History in Euro-centric Curriculum like the one I grew up in. As I read about it by myself I am in awe and in many ways angry about what I was taught as a child. I wish I had known as a child about the mighty Queens of the past, of the rich history of all the countries, of the civilizations now long gone… but it is never to late to learn 🙂

  2. Great article, Simba.

    Am in Nairobi (and of course am using the internet.)
    Thanks for that… fascinating bit. I agree its time the world realized that ours is not exactly that hyped-of, backward ‘dark continent’ they have been made to believe. Do some research guys, and you will discover that there’s far much more to Africa than you ever imagined. (Did someone just say that there are cars and airports ONLY in the capitals? OMG!).

    Maybe am wrong, but am not sure there is a country without internet , airports, ATM, or anything else (oh yes, we don’t have as much heroin and cocaine as America, and we don’t seem to trust our hospitals because we are also racist and very subservient) We are not all malnourished,infact some of us have too much food. Africa has one of the best climates on the world for agriculture, only that we lack capital to invest intensively like you do.
    Watch this space, the ‘real’ Africa could be miles ahead of your fixed mindset

  3. @ Joe Hepperle …..

    Wow..I’m .intrigued by your meager grasp of the world .

    1.Is it only “rich” kids that go to college in ‘your’ World,if not…which I’m sure isn’t the fact…..So.. what makes you think “Simba” is affluent….

    2. How do you conclude that only the capitals have airports and cars in Africa..
    How can one be so narrow minded..
    For starters…..Since you seem to believe that the rural parts of Africa…were basking in abject poverty……I’m poor and so grew up in a rural village,yet i can speak & write Dutch,Portuguese and English-I’m sure you can see that and i watched the premier of the Avengers just like you and your friends did and just so you know….I do have a facebook, twitter,my space and a Google+ account……………………………………………………My village has a landing strip.and…..in addition to my donkey cart, i do own and drive a car……….

    You seem to bright and young…so it doesn’t make sense that you make conclusions about Africa based on the few videos you view on TV…………..Or does the fact that some US citizens depend on food banks…..mean the US is a poor country…………..Don’t be misled…the fact that Sudan frequently experiences famine doesn’t mean that All Africans are malnourished…….Or Should i conclude that all Americans are in destitute…just because some people are homeless after Hurricane Sandy Hit……..?…………..Plz enlighten me…….

  4. I’m with Largo Lagg on this — “…Just because the capitals have airports and cars and you’re a privileged rich kid in your country doesn’t mean that we’ve got it wrong…”.

    The way for you to put a stop to these questions from your equally wealthy college student peers is accomplished by doing the following:

    1. Look them straight in the eye and say, “Look, the fact that I am here as a college student, with my expenses fully paid by mommy and daddy – just like you – means that I (Simba) am from one of the affluent families in my country. I don’t do ‘poor’.

    2. Look them straight in the eye and say, “Look, you don’t do ‘trailer trash’ here in your country, and I don’t do ‘trailer trash’ in my country. There may be poor starving people in my country, but I never see them in the affluent social circles I hang out with. I don’t see any poor starving people on the lush green golf courses that my daddy goes to. I don’t see any poor starving people in the expensive restaurants our family goes to to eat expensive food. And, I don’t see any poor starving people in our upscale mini-mansion. Even our two maids and our gardener have their uniforms and three healthy meals per day supplied by us.

    3. You (Simba) actively write letters to the US FBI, US Congress, and the two respective Ambassadors DEMANDING that they specifically put CHILDFUND (dot ORG) (formerly known as Christian Children’s Fund) out of business for the fraud that you claim they are perpretrating.

    The day I see Simba in the news here in the US, actively campaigning to shut down these “help the starving African children” donation collecting organizations, then I will believe that you really are being truthful. Until then, as Largo Lagg said, you’re just one of the privileged rich kids from your country, and you don’t ‘do’ poor.

    1. @ Joe Hepperle, I know are always those who are resistant to knowledge as yourself but the bible says my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Do you think every rich African you find is probably from the capital of a country. Come to my country Cameroon and you will discover that the richest people are even those from the rural areas. Largo Lagg and yourself are just capitalist who persist of painting Africa’s image and giving it a negative characteristics in order to promote your capitalistic agenda.Largo makes reference to some articles which is still the same point Simba is trying to point out here.That the fact that a lot of Americans believe in such pieces, have kept them in a myopic space. If you both want to know the good and the ugly in Africa, I challenge you to travel dudes before making your judgments on some fake statistics given by NGOs to sustain funding from donor organisations.

  5. Simba,

    Excellent piece. You raise some great points that underscore misconceptions about Africa and Africans that many of us face daily. It is really sad that the mainstream US media probably helps feed these misconceptions by their coverage of news about Africa. I can probably count the times, with one hand, that positive news about Africa is covered in mainstream US media. Yet we see negative news about Africa on a constant basis.

    The level of naivity is apalling. I have been asked several times what the capital of Africa is, as if Africa was one country. Sad indeed.

  6. I have lived in Zimbabwe all my life. What is quite disturbing is the patronising assumption that Africa is one country. We are as the

    swedes to the portuguese. a nigerian is as foreign to me as a german or chinese. We have as everywhere else, different layers that make the fabric of our society. we have the poor, the rich, the urban, rural, intellectual and technical.
    we have people dying of aids, cancer and diabetes, we have excellent hospitals and poorer state run hospitals. We have exclusive sports clubs and run down public stadiums. We have elite private schools (that may produce students who end up in the USA or New Zealand) and (almost free) Government Schools, Church run Schools (both have and continue to produce exceptionally brilliant individuals who can hold down a discussion with any academic from anywhere on earth), these produce a high percentage of the Zimbabwean students in colleges abroad. we also have universities, polytechnics. We have Schools of Nursing, Music.
    We have pay tv(we watch news from Cnn, Al Jazeera, Sabc Cctv) we have public tv. We have the internet, (fibre and satellite) We have shopping malls and mansions. We have squalor and opulence. We are a nation of individuals, each family unique. Some are immigrants, some native born. We have native white Zimbabweans and naturalised blacks from countries as varied as Gambia and Haiti. We have a Pakistani community, chinese community. We are a complete nation, anybody that seeks to define us using highly subjective and oft times downright mischevous figures from some report must know that Zimbabwe, as indeed any other nation, is too real, too vital, to be reduced into a surmised upon set of statistics.

    Anyone is welcome to see for themselves. We are only a plane away not caught up in some uncivilised time-warp.

  7. Simba, My compliments to you on a very interesting, well written piece – keep writing please! I’ve lived, worked and visited many places around the world including Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. My experiences taught me that whenever possible to remain patient and calm. Unfortunately, people everywhere make assumptions and stereotypes. Personally, when someone asks me a question with sincere interest, I don’t get offended, no matter how silly the question seems to me. Once in Namibia I was asked this, but in a friendly questioning way, “But don’t all American women sleep around with married men?” The exchange that you describe in the beginning of the piece are the types of exchanges that I find more challenging & upsetting. Hopefully, those with whom you are interacting at Oberlin are learning as much from you as you are from them. Best wishes!

  8. I can relate. Being from a very small village in Michigan, I became a high school exchange student to Brazil in 1976. I tackled my Portuguese, boned up on Brazilian history and culture, and felt at least somewhat prepared, though I knew I could never know all about such a rich and varied people and culture sitting in the Great Lakes.

    When I arrived, and for months afterward (until everyone in the city I stayed in knew me), I fielded endless (but sincere) questions. Some were simply questions about where I lived (it snows in Michigan, I have never seen it. How much do you get?) Then there were those like “do they still ride horses and carry six-guns in the Old West?” (It was amazing what Hollywood has done to the image of US culture.)

  9. Being human means being subjected to endless stereotypes: being a woman, a German, adolescent, appearing withdrawn, being a tiny bit better off than somebody else = envy,. Looking too well dressed for one neighborhood, too sloppy dressed for another. There are countless misconceptions we have about one another. Being religious, being atheist. Skin color is the most visible, but then people scrutinize everything else and make their conceptions without much thought. We barely have time to listen more than “how’s it” “fine”. Instead of letting us being played against each other, we should all look at the 1 % up there who are screwing us bad. George Carlin, you got it right!!!

  10. Great article! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I do workshops on race relations and one of the topics is on stereotypes and their impact. I’m going to use what you shared to help educate others. What’s funny is that when I read this article I thought to myself, “Have I ever asked these questions of someone from Africa?” Well, not that I can recall but that’s just because my memory isn’t what it used to be. I’m sure I have at one time or another. Thanks for educating us on your experience so we can all get better at looking at how we have internalized these messages and play them out in our everyday interactions. The bottom line is we have all done girl x and boy z behaviors.

  11. Simba – Maybe not so much of a stereotype as you think

    Now a ‘Factory for Poverty’
    By Ephraim Nsingo
    Rent in today’s Zimbabwe is denominated in foreign currency, driving many low income people into shack settlements like this one in Epworth, outside the capital,

    HARARE, Jan 20, 2009 (IPS) – Over 75 percent of the people in crisis-riddled Zimbabwe are living in desperate poverty, with children bearing the brunt. And with rival parties still deadlocked over implementation of a power-sharing agreement signed four months ago, things are likely to get worse before they improve….

    Simba, I’m sorry, but 75% poverty in Zimbabwe? Chances are 3 out of 4 that you and your family is destitute. You might live in a pocket of privilege back home, but clearly, the students’ impressions were not undeserved. And a shack is not a ‘real’ home. Try living in one, you’ll see what we mean.

    How about this on Africa in general:

    Africa: Poverty Level Still High, Says UN Agency
    By Masato Masato, 24 November 2010

    EVEN though most Least Developed Countries (LDCs) had their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growing during the past decade, the number of poor people remains on the rise, according to a new report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

    “GDP growth has not yet translated into people’s lives- poverty is still rising,” charged Junior Davis, UN Development Programme (UNDP) advisor.

    The report said that during the economic boom period between 2000 and 2007, the economies of LDCs averagely grew by over seven per cent annually, higher than an average growth for developing countries.

    However, over 50 per cent of the population in LDCs still lived in extreme poverty by 2007, just before the onset of the financial crisis.

    The absolute number of the poor in Tanzania, for instance, increased by 1.3 million during that period of high growth.

    In its 2010 report, the UN body has reaffirmed its earlier warnings in earlier reports that the growth process of LDCs was fragile and unsustainable.

    An LDC is one of the Least Developed Countries in the world. With per capita income of less than $500, by any measure, the continent is reeling from an unbelievable level of poverty. Notice that the growth is deemed unsustainable, probably because an impoverished and uneducated population cannot be transformed into workers and consumers overnight. Were the world to “reorient” how it deals with Africa, it is likely that starvation would occur on a massive and unprecedented scale.

    The wealth of the North in Africa is largely due to the proximity to Europe, and the availability of trade. Otherwise, oil, gold and diamonds accounts for Africa’s wealth in the southern part. The vast majority of Africa? Rural and impoverished, just like our stereotypes.

    Sorry, no sale here, Simba.

    Just because the capitals have airports and cars and you’re a privileged rich kid in your country doesn’t mean that we’ve got it wrong. You need to own up as to just how

    1. you wrote:
      “because the capitals have airports and cars and you’re a privileged rich kid in your country doesn’t mean that we’ve got it wrong. You need to own up as to just how”

      You HAVE got it WRONG and CHINESE don’t that’s why they are killing you guys in terms of partnerships for our resources you guys crave and need, and will fights debilitating wars for, kill sitting African heads of state for. wake up and smell the coffee Mister….

      all these articles you are referencing about ZIMBABWE, are 1) outdated, 2) only show the dark side. for a reason. The AID/NGO, Opposition media all survive on perceptions of poverty and doom. They won’t be money channelled to their directors(who need to earn a salary just like anyone) it’s not all poverty and gloom. i know how these people who write these articles operate, with flawed, sample populations for their statistics, lol. Based from NGO’s who’s whole purpose and financial well-being is dependent on the continued perception of poverty and ruin. For example they might go interview 100 ppl, most of whom may not have formal employment with say a multinational company, but do you know how many millions of ZIMBABWEans are self-employed in the informal sector? which economists argue is as large as the 7 billion dollar formal economy. This is but one of our reactions to the onslaught buy the illuminati-backed globalisation, military-industrial complex, and sanctions on the outside, and corrupt, incompetent governance on the inside. I’ve noticed after the formation of the Unity Govt, even the opposition This is but one of our reactions to the onslaught buy the illuminati-backed globalisation, military-industrial complex, and sanctions on the outside, and corrupt, incompetent governance on the inside. media is running out news, no violence, no chaos, no cholera…Even donors are pulling out of many initiatives cause when they come for a visit they see that their money is buying luxury houses and cars for the directors of these NGO’s and opposition politicians more than anything else.

      a few other facts you obviously don’t know about ZIMBABWE, we have a literacy rate of 90% highest in Africa, and pretty high globally, our smartest and brightest students actually come from poorer rural government and missionary schools…so to assume that Simba is privileged just because he’s there is pure ignorance. and arrogance. I’m actually offended. I mean both my maids and my gardener in Harare read the local newspaper The herald, which is printed in English, so how can some guy in America be befuddled that Simba can read English??when former president Bush barely could haha?

      Have you visited ZIMBABWE? obviously not, definitely not recently. I implore you, you’ll have a better idea of why most visitors never want to leave. Most of us don’t live in shacks by way– either brick huts which are houses, inthe rural areas, of modern houses. You’ll find satellite dishes on either mind you and everybody even grandma has facebook on her cellphone and whatsapp. and we send money mobile. looks at our companies, our workforce, our students….We’re a space to watch in the next decade, get off your high chair, put down your flawed little research papers and get to Africa dude!!!

      1. Wow..I’m .intrigued by your meager grasp world .

        1.Is it only “rich” kids that go to college in ‘your’ World,if not…which I’m sure isn’t the fact…..So.. what makes you think “Simba” is affluent….

        2. How do you conclude that only the capitals have airports and cars in Africa..
        How can one be so narrow minded..
        For starters…..Since you seem to believe that the rural parts of Africa…were basking in abject poverty……I’m poor and so grew up in a rural village,yet i can speak & write Dutch,Portuguese and English-I’m sure you can see that and i watched the premier of the Avengers just like you and your friends did and just so you know….I do have a facebook, twitter,my space and a Google+ account……………………………………………………My village has a landing strip.and…..in addition to my donkey cart, i do own and drive a car……….

        You seem to bright and young…so it doesn’t make sense that you make conclusions about Africa based on the few videos you view on TV…………..Or does the fact that some US citizens depend on food banks…..mean the US is a poor country…………..Don’t be misled…the fact that Sudan frequently experiences famine doesn’t mean that All Africans are malnourished…….Or Should i conclude that all Americans are in destitute…just because some people are homeless after Hurricane Sandy Hit……..?…………..Plz enlighten me…….


    2. Largo, you need to understand the definition of “poverty”.. These people living in rural areas make a few dollars a day, yes, but most of them are into sustenance farming and have everything they need! Just because they can’t afford hair dryers and iPhones doesn’t mean they’re desperate and miserable. They don’t have the same needs as urban families. Are Amish people ‘destitute’?. The images you see of starvation and disease are in cases of drought, natural disaster or civil war. Not 365 days a year.

      I grew up in an ‘affluent’ neighborhood in the capital and I had my own stereotypes about how rural people live. Last year I went on a service trip in the heart of a rural village and was shocked to see their standard of living. They weren’t living in high density conditions like we in the suburbs do. They certainly don’t live in “shacks” like you’re affirming. They had crops for miles and lots of livestock (all their food needs covered), clean huts and homesteads (sanitation problems non-existent). I ended up leaving envious of how close knit their families are. Grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles all living in one loving community.
      I encourage you to come to africa and decide for yourself!

  12. First of all, I really enjoyed the article. Now to my comments.

    I recently meet two African gentlemen at a conference we attended in Arizona. To be truthful, I was/am in the dark about the economies in Africa as are the vast majority of Americans.

    I point blank asked both men if what we see on television about Africa is fact. They both said, the places they came from did not have the hut living, disease ridden squalor that is shown in the media. They said that of course there are many parts in Africa where life is very hard but overall, many parts of there country are fabulous places to live and visit.

    The simple fact is that the media shows a high percentage of blight and despair when covering Africa. Rarely are we shown parts of Africa where people are smiling and businesses are booming.

    Until there are enough articles/movies/shows educating the world about the “real” Africa, the perception that the continent is in total disrepair will not go away.

  13. Let me also add that labels, categories, stereotypes, they’re all the same. When we start to know a few people a certain way, our minds make judgements about other things. It’s how we learn.

    You could say that I stereotype fire to be hot. And there is some fire that isn’t hot, certain chemicals burn at very low temperatures.

    So my point is that stereotypes/categories are difficult to fight, and sometimes useful.

    Now, when dealing with people, they are often dangerous, and hurtful.

    This is all to say that even people who interact with many different cultures, are a little bit racist and have stereotypes that they constantly have to recognise and reconsider. It’s the inability to step back and reconsider one’s stereotypes that’s really dangerous.

  14. Thank you all so much for sharing your insightful journeys and experiences with this issue of stereotyping! All your comments are so edifying and informative. I for one, am really convinced that persistent dialogue around these issues can help in moving the continent away from this changeless narrative of desperation to one of promise. The old story of Africa still persists, 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.

    Again, thank you all for your insights. I have really enjoyed reading your thoughts.


  15. Thanks so much Simba for this outstanding article. Originally from Africa, born in Europe , raised in Africa, college years in Europe and currently living and going to grad school in the US. As such, I like labelling myself as a citizen of the world I would like to share some of my experiences you. I am originally from Guinea West Africa but born in Italy where my parents where in diplomaticy. When 6 years old, we went back to live in Guinea.After graduating from high school, I moved back to Italy to pursue my college education. There starts the daily challenges! First of all, being from Guinea and the fact that there are other Guineas in the world( Guinea Bissau, Guinea Equatorial and Papua New Guinea) cost me several trips to admin offices to have my profile corrected, as I was automatically entered as coming from New Guinea( Maybe the one most of the people know about ?).
    Then come my college mates and the questions: have you met Tarzan?…… are you a princess? I bet you will be the head of state when you go back to your country ….as you have the privilege to receive a top notch education form “here”!
    All that is fine: sometimes I rather spot some ignorants( no offences, I am myself one in many areas!) and enlight them one person at the time. The most shocking part was when being introduced to an other”cool” crowd, the little sentence: “She is different, very smart and not like the “others” ! Thinking to make me happy, I was completely shut down.”Others” meant what? illetrates, uneducated, immigrants..whatsoever ???? I am so proud to be an African and do not wants to be dissociated from my people on such grounds. There is more to be proud of ,than to be ashamed off !
    I could spend hours telling about past good and worst experiences but 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!(-:)

  16. Wow, what a well written and poignant article Simba. It captures many of the experiences I have had here in the Netherlands as well. 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. When you point this out, together with the institutional racism at play, you are accused of playing the race card. This situation is only compounded for the Black man of African origin. I always have to explain my presence in Europe (scholarship), why my English is good, how come I do not look like I had a malnourished childhood etc. It is good when we tell our own stories and show that there is so much more to Africa than meets the eye. Thanks for articulation these perceptions so clearly.

  17. Thank you for this! I spent two years living in Zambia and experienced similarly annoying questions from people back home. 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. At that time, Zimbabwe was the best of all possible worlds!

  18. Nice article, Simba. Well done! I had a few interesting moments during my undergrad years in the US. Being from Zimbabwe AND being a non-British white was a bit much for some people to handle.

  19. Its so sad how the west have viewed Africa as a poverty-stricken continent.Because of the media they don’t see anything beyond a struggling Africa yet Africa and its are far much better than that.Lets stand up as Africans and change this misconception!!

  20. I had the same experience when I went to UK on a working holiday visa. People assumed that I had come because I probably belonged to a royal family of some sort to be able to afford an air ticket. 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 especially on complex spreadsheets and the like so they grudgingly asked for my help but wrote it down to the fact that I came from some royal african family and hence was more previledged than the rest of my african folks! I guess the problem is not them perse but the fact that thats the africa they know because thats the only aspect of africa that media covers, the poverty, the desperation etc, they dont show the various developments africa has seen. its always the villages that are covered, the wars and the misery so how can they know any different if they havent come to africa to see for themselves that yes although we have poverty in certain areas just like some poor European or American states or whatever, there is also an Africa that is developed and beautiful where people live just like they do. Hoping for the day when reporters will cover this part of africa..

  21. Great article, it brings up some very poignant topics that Americans seem to have trouble with – especially the problems with the embarrassingly dumbed down narrative of Africa that misses so much.

    On another note, I did want to point out that simba does in fact mean lion in Swahili, although I know that Swahili is not spoken very widely in Zimbabwe.

  22. To be fair these stereotypes exist in Africa about Americans too. 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.

  23. Sad but true. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. The real tragedy is that Americans have been given a false sense of superiority to the extent that they are incapable of seeing the outstanding societal problems within their very own country.

    Need to see individuals living in squalor without plumbing and food? Look no further than Appalachia!

    So glad to have stumbled upon this piece today as I’m struggling to overcome similar societal challenges as an American born African.

  24. Simba,

    Good article. 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.

    Oh and in Swahili, Simba does mean Lion.


  25. Thanks much for this writeup and I hope you’ll continue to publish regularly. 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. At the same time, she’s found many of the 20-something expats she’s have unfortunately carried their misconceptions with them. Her’s hoping more interaction will, over time, improve the situation. It’s pretty tough to find out anything “real” about Africa in the US- what little political and economic news there is here is really only covered on Al Jazeera, the Economist and other outlets most Americans aren’t exposed to. It would be a real service if you could do a writeup about good web outlets for news and information.

  26. I came to the US from Pakistan in 1972 and attended an International Program at a DC campus. I was asked the most ridiculous questions including “Do you have fruit in Pakistan.” It seems not much has changed in 40 years.

    1. Out of curiosity, what were the biggest misconceptions you heard about Pakistan? Was it similar to what Simba’s heard about Africa? Is there something unique about how America views other countries/continents, or does everyone have misconceptions and stereotypes about places they only get to know through the media?

  27. Thank you so much for this excellently written piece and the accompanying multimedia. Unfortunately, sterotypes of Africans and of black people more generally, are prominent around the world. Much of it comes from media and film, in which the violent/ narcissistic black character comes to represent all things black. 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. It doesn’t. It is amazing how ignorance breeds self assured commentary. For me, being African means being proud and being African in America means constantly opening up people’s eyes to the immensity, the diversity, and the beauty of that continent ….. with 53-54 countries and a gazillion people in it.

  28. Sad to hear that 15 years after I went to college and with the advent of the ubiquitousness of the internet, these views still exist.

    I’m American and when I went to school, all of my friends were African. I was the poorest one in the bunch. lol

    You didn’t mention the race of these Americans you encountered. I guess that some of them were “African-American”. What’s saddest is the stereotypes we, as Africans and people of African descent hold about each other.

    I can’t tell you how many times the ugly stereotypes of black American women has been shared with me by African men and vice versa. We have a long way to go, unfortunately.

    Welcome to the madness of the U.S. Please note we’re not all that dense. 🙂


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