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Five Common Stereotypes About Africa

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Five Common Stereotypes About Africa

Masai women

Dylan Walters/Flickr.com
Updated May 30, 2011

In the 21st century, there’s never been more focus on Africa than now. Thanks to the revolutions sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, Africa has the world’s attention. But just because all eyes happen to be on Africa at the moment doesn’t mean myths about this part of the world have been dispelled. Despite the intense interest in Africa today, racial stereotypes about it persist. Do you have any misperceptions about Africa? This list of common myths about Africa aims to clear them up.

Africa Is a Country

What’s the No. 1 stereotype about Africa? Arguably, that Africa’s not a continent, but a country. Ever hear someone refer to African food or African art or even the African language? Such individuals have no idea that Africa’s the second largest continent in the world. Instead, they view it as a tiny country with no distinct traditions, cultures or ethnic groups. They fail to realize that referring to, say, African food sounds just as odd as referring to North American food or the North American language or the North American people.

Africa’s home to 53 countries, including island-nations along the continent’s coast. These countries contain diverse groups of people who speak a variety of languages and practice a wide range of customs. Take Nigeria--Africa’s most populous country. Among the nation’s population of 152 million, more than 250 distinct ethnic groups live. While English is the former British colony's official language, the dialects of ethnic groups indigenous to the West African nation, such as Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, are commonly spoken as well. To boot, Nigerians practice Christianity, Islam and indigenous religions. So much for the myth that all Africans are alike. The most populated nation on the continent certainly proves otherwise.

All Africans Look the Same

If you turn to popular culture for images of people on the African continent, you’re likely to notice a pattern. Time and time again, Africans are depicted as if they’re one and the same. You’ll see Africans portrayed wearing face paint and animal print and all with nearly pitch black skin. The controversy surrounding singer Beyonce Knowles’ decision to don black face for French magazine L’Officiel is a case in point. In a photo shoot for the magazine described as “a return to her African roots,” Knowles darkened her skin to a deep brown, wore splotches of blue and beige paint on her cheekbones and leopard print clothing, not to mention a necklace made out of bone-like material.

The fashion spread sparked public outcry for a number of reasons. For one, Knowles portrays no particular African ethnic group in the spread, so which roots did she pay tribute to during the shoot? The generic African heritage L’Officiel claims Knowles honors in the spread really just amounts to racial stereotyping. Do some groups in Africa wear face paint? Sure, but not all do. And the leopard print clothing? That’s not a look favored by indigenous African groups. It simply highlights that the Western world commonly views Africans as tribal and untamed. As for the skin-darkening—Africans, even sub-Saharan ones, have a range of skin tones, hair textures and other physical traits. This is why some people pegged L’Officiel’s decision to darken Knowles’ skin for the shoot unnecessary. After all, not every African is black-skinned. As Dodai Stewart of Jezebel.com put it:

“When you paint your face darker in order to look more ‘African,’ aren’t you reducing an entire continent, full of different nations, tribes, cultures and histories, into one brown color?”

Egypt Isn’t Part of Africa

Geographically, there’s no question: Egypt sits squarely in Northeast Africa. Specifically, it borders Libya to the West, Sudan to the South, the Mediterranean Sea to the North, the Red Sea to the East and Israel and the Gaza Strip to the Northeast. Despite its location, Egypt is often not described as an African nation, but as Middle Eastern--the region where Europe, Africa and Asia meet. This omission stems mostly from the fact that Egypt’s population of more than 80 million is heavily Arab--with up to 100,000 Nubians in the South--a drastic difference from the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Complicating matters is that Arabs tend to be classified as Caucasian. According to scientific research, the ancient Egyptians—known for their pyramids and sophisticated civilization—were neither European nor sub-Saharan African biologically, but a genetically distinct group.

In one study cited by John H. Relethford in the Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, ancient skulls belonging to populations from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the Far East and Australia were compared to determine the racial origin of ancient Egyptians. If Egyptians did indeed originate in Europe, their skull samples would closely match those of ancient Europeans. Researchers found, however, that this wasn’t the case. But the Egyptian skull samples weren’t similar to those of sub-Saharan Africans either. Rather, “the ancient Egyptians are Egyptian,” Relethford writes. In other words, Egyptians are an ethnically unique people. These people happen to be situated on the African continent, though. Their existence reveals Africa’s diversity.

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