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On meeting Taiye Selasi, stereotypes, and getting schooled

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Almost two weeks ago, I went to a lecture by Taiye Selasi, the author of Ghana must go fame, and I was super excited to meet such a brilliant author in the flesh. I had many thoughts on her talk, which is why it’s taken me this long to write about it. I was prepared to fangirl all over her talk, so it took me some time to get over the conflicted feelings I came away with. She’s a great speaker and I’m full of admiration. But there were also some elements of her talk where I thought she might take things a bit further.

She basically spoke about two things: Afropolitanism (she coined this idea in her 2005 essay Bye-bye Barbar) and notions of Africa and other “Southern” or “less developed” world regions. I’ll begin with Afropolitanism, which is in a way easier to discuss and perhaps less fraught. She said that it wasn’t until she met another author from ex-Yugoslavia who was living in Germany that she realised that the experience of rootlessness, conflicted (or lack of) identity and belonging – especially the answer to the question “Where are you from?… But no, where are you really from? You can’t be English/American/Nigerian, because you haven’t lived there long/have a different accent/have never lived there/etc.” – was much more universal than she had assumed. To me what she described sounded like the quandaries of many so-called third culture kids I’ve met. Of course, in the case of a third culture kid with an African – or indeed any non-North American or Western European – background this experience is different than if you were, say, a Norwegian or American third culture kid. In one case you’d envision a cool multi-cultural corporate or diplomatic background on behalf of the parents, in the other, a dramatic journey fleeing deprivation, hunger, civil war, organised crime, or any horrific combination of the former – although this doesn’t even necessarily have to be the case.

But the idea of differences between the experiences of how third culture kids from different backgrounds are received brings me neatly on to her second issue, that of how power is wielded through notions of “Africa”, “Latin America”, or the Global South and other “less-developed” areas of the world. Western Europeans and North Americans tend to form ideas about what “Africa” is like and what makes a typical “African” that reasserts us in the idea of our own superiority. We like to romanticise Africa and degrade it at the same time: we think of beautiful sunsets over lone trees in the desert, Giraffes, and colourfully clad women at the same time as we think of hunger, deprivation, civil strife, and disease (AIDS, Ebola). In a case I know better, Latin America, we think of pan flutes, colourful ponchos, roaming gauchos and caipirinhas at the same time as we think of corruption and drug lords. Taiye Selasi’s argument was that as we form these narratives, we also wield power and reassert “Western” civilisation as superior to others. As an International Relations scholar by training, I’ve been interested in notions of power and how language interacts with them, so naturally her argument appealed.

Yet I couldn’t help think of another variable that plays a role in addition to power in explaining why people form these notions, which is “ease of explanation”: in an ever more complex world, living with simplified narratives of the “Other” makes life easier, and people would like their life to be easy. We feel overwhelmed by the whole world and its seemingly unresolvable problems in our living room when we watch the evening news: terror attacks, civil war, organised crime, economic crisis, climate change… It’s all a bit much and I think that this is part of the reason why we like to resort to simplifying notions that make it easier to explain or assimilate all these issues. It infuses them with an element of essentialism: that’s just “how they are” in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia… you name it. And if it’s “just how they are”, that makes it so much easier for the Western news watcher to remain sitting on their sofa and writing the news off as inalterable and entailing no need for action on their behalf. Stereotypes and simplifications make it easier to un-complicate issues and go on with life.

I’m not trying to defend stereotypes or placing cultures into neat little boxes at all. On the contrary – I completely agree with Taiye Selasi that this is not how things should be. I just think that the desire for simplification is an additional explanation for the perseverance of the notions she had described. So I asked her what she thought of “ease of explanation” as an additional variable to explain stereotyping, and we slightly hit it off wrong, I think. Because her answer made me look like a defender of stereotypes to a room full of about 200 people (I can tell you that it is not a nice feeling to be schooled by someone who talks really well in front of a full lecture hall): she said that this was no excuse, that even if you lived in a remote village of Germany or a small town in the middle of the US, have never left your country and have no desire to, you could now – thanks to the Internet and your public library – find out about what is really going on in other cultures and see each individual as a human person, not a representative of a stereotype.

As I said, I agree that this is how it should be, but sadly, I don’t think that’s how it is. The beauty of simplifying heuristics to those who use them is that it does away with the need for additional explanation and curiosity. It places things into neat little boxes and provides you with the satisfying feeling that you don’t have to wrap your head around a million complicated details because presto, you’ve got it figured out. This is why it’s so bloody difficult to get rid of stereotypes in the first place!

Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that indeed many remote places even in the Western world don’t have public libraries or at least don’t have good public libraries because our governments like to view free education as a luxury good and the first thing to go when money is short. The real problem is that many people live in environments where asking questions, googling, and reading are not encouraged. Unless something really triggers you to go out and investigate, many people’s surroundings encourage living in a world of simplifying notions, especially when, as Taiye Selasi rightly pointed out, the media promotes them as well. Right now, a very small proportion of African countries are affected by the Ebola outbreak, but listen to the news and you’d come to think it’s about to do away with the entire continent, that it’s an African “thing”, and that it was somehow inevitable because, well, this is Africa. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t seem like an environment that promotes curiosity and differentiated thought.

Ultimately, I think we had a misunderstanding because I spoke to her again after the event when she signed a book for my Mum, and she said she hadn’t taken my question as if I had defended stereotypes. Though I did have some people come up to me and say that they also thought she’d misunderstood me, so her answer apparently did give that impression. I’m not sure, but was really glad to hear that not everyone in the room had misunderstood me! The way we spoke afterwards made me think that she did see my point. She does seem to be a tireless optimist though, in that she thinks it’s possible to effect large-scale change in getting people to develop a much more differentiated view of the Global South in general and Africa in particular. Personally, I think we have to try, but I also think that debunking stereotypes completely is an almost impossible task. They’re just way too handy and entrenched.

What do you think? If you’ve made it all the way through this post (or even if you haven’t), I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

One thought on “On meeting Taiye Selasi, stereotypes, and getting schooled

  1. Pingback: Chika Unigwe: On Black Sisters’ Street (2009) | Books, Bikes, and Food

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