A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of replying to a stranger’s comment on a friend’s Instagram. The picture revealed an insecurity about a part of her body. But the caption emphasized the sincerity of confidence in her appearance, still combined with the desire to see changes to her body.
I liked the post and many others did too. But lo and behold, in the comments section, another woman gave her a sort-of-compliment and then told her the post was tantamount to #firstworldproblems.
Many people took the commenter to task on her insensitivity, as well as her constricted worldview where people who are not in the “first world” (a term I utterly despise), are the only ones who may struggle with their appearance.
The commenter, completely absorbed in an all too familiar self-righteousness, as part of her responses, went on to essentialize people in marginalized identities, including people in “third world countries.” She included that women in the Congo – in relation to some brutal realities experienced by said women – did not experience body insecurities issues.
In all my convictions to avoid arguing with strangers on the Internet, I was moved to respond to her condescension. I curtly told her that as a woman from one of those, “third world countries,” her conceptions of what constitutes the “third world” is patronizing and inaccurate.
She – presumably a White, American, middle-class woman – then tried to combat my viewpoint with what essentially came down to her checking my privilege. The irony of this interaction, completely lost on her.
I chose not to reply because firstly, this was not what the post was about. And secondly, my reaction would have gone from curt to something worse. I know myself well enough to know when to choose silence, and I try my damn hardest even in all my passions to keep debate, civil. This was neither the place nor the time.
From this minor interaction that had nothing to do with Africa and Africans, she had still chosen them as people to be pitied and condescended to. It is an interaction I have combated in all my time living in the United States. And it is an entirely exhausting experience.
Africans, in the American imagination, are seen as connected to Black Americans. Or we are utterly forgotten about and made invisible insofar as the country’s relationship to the continent. Or we exist in a space that is negative: A place of disease, war, and strife. In this global age, the single story being told of Africa and Africans is combated, but it still remains.
Now I do not wish to speak for all of Africa or for all Africans. But when you live in the United States, you often find yourself feeling like you have to. Mostly due to the ignorance of many Americans who cannot comprehend the continent is made up 54 countries. And within any one country itself, the ethnic groups are plentiful. Consider my home country Nigeria, where there are over 250 ethnic groups. Do remember: We did not choose our borders.
Particularly in reference to the portrayal of Africans in a negative light, there is a white savior mentality that often accompanies it in this part of the world. Africans are seen as people in need of “saving.” Nigerian-American author, Teju Cole so aptly referred to the manifestation of this mentality as The White Savior Industrial Complex.
I often have to remind people in the West, that Africa is not poor. But it has been robbed and pillaged and devastated for the gains of the West, who now look down on much of the continent and its people with contempt on one hand, and a frustrating paternalism, on the other.
Poverty is not an accident. And the poverty that exists, and is experienced by some Africans, is not an accident.
Confronting and solving the diverse set of problems that exist on a large-scale in African countries will take a concerted effort, and is the work of many generations. And there is a way for the West to participate in doing so – not out of benevolence, because it was an initial “benevolence” that wreaked much havoc to begin with. But out of righting the wrongs of history, and the need for sensible global, economic, decisions that realize in greater equality for all human beings.
The problem with this of course is trying to shift attitudes in this part of the world from that of a zero-sum game to a more equitable perspective. But economic perspectives aside, a shift in socio-cultural perspectives is needed. To pity Africans, and to essentialize and constrict our stories, is to believe that we are inferior.
Additionally, it has always struck me as perplexing, as well as made me both wary and vigilant – that many Americans who want to “save the Africans,” are the same troupe that ignore Black and Brown bodies that are marginalized in this country every day. I am distrustful of such a perspective for many reasons, but mainly a simple one: Charity begins at home.
I write this of course as privileged African who can admit my privileges, and one who for all intents and purposes, does not like to play armchair philosopher to other marginalized people and their problems. Africans are engaging in their own survival – many are thriving in spite of history and the present. Many need support and solutions. But Africans will never need your pity.
So by all means, express dissatisfaction about your body if you must. Feel free to engage in criticism in how and why people choose to. Or whatever.
But do it without talking about the women in Congo, or any other part of Africa. They are people – some of whom experience the exact same things as you. They are not figments of your imagination, and they are not to be used for your pedantic condescension.