Respecting culture abroad and the dangers of ‘Othering’

By Aissata Barry

Special to the Denisonian

I received messages from a Denison Alumnus of African background who felt infuriated by offensive Facebook statuses and pictures. He sent me screenshots of several posts, which showed several pictures of American students in Ghana surrounded by shirtless dark African children as well as captions of “saving the Africans.”

My first glances at the images resulted in my usual ironic, distasteful laughter whenever I read blogs, or watch the ($1 dollar day) advertisements depicting primitive Africans waiting for their “Western” saviors to rescue them.

However, this laughter was not a laugh of irony, but a laugh of embarrassment, disappointment and anger. The images I saw had faces of people and names that I recognize and some that I even know. The people who choose to post pictures of naked African children are my Denison peers, whom I see around campus and even share classes with. To express my frustrations, I wrote a Facebook status with hopes of sparking critical dialogues on issues of representation.

 

The poor Africans, the hungry babies, the huts, trees, tribes. The Dark and exotic faces, the uneducated Africans. Worm eating, elephant and lion hunting Africans. The above list comprises some of the common stereotypical representations of “Africans” that I have been noticing on fb… I have seen so many photos or statuses that are just ignorant. I have no problem with people posting about their experience in “Africa” but making stereotypical posts is unnecessary and shameful…. to my Denison peers, I just want to tell you that you should know better. Whether you are at Denison or in Central Africa, you should remember that being an autonomous thinker and a discerning moral agent is still important. #‎yeaammad‬ #‎Denisonianscandobetter‬ #‎yougotolearn‬ #‎nottosavethepoorAfricans‬

 

The hashtags speak to the tremendous disappointment and anger I felt. However, I proceeded to almost making excuses for those who posted these pictures. You might know about the common excuses reserved for privileged individuals, who are characterized as “innocent unaware people who intend to do no harm.” My thoughts on finding excuses for these students was not to defend their actions but to protect my initial belief that all Denison students are discerning moral agents. I even decided to check out blogs of other Denison students studying or  “volunteering” in various parts of Africa. I was extremely disappointed to find not only stereotypical pictures but also negative depictions of new experiences in Africa.

One Denison student studying in a Western African country wrote a lot about her new experiences. However, her language of choice to depict “difference” is “othering,” as it contributes to the portrayal of Africa as a dark continent with backward, and poor people.

A particular part of one of her blogs, states, “(country name) is also considered a ‘water culture,’ which means that they basically do not use paper for cleaning. That means no paper towels, no toilet paper, etc…I’ll leave it up to your imagination to figure out how they use water instead of toilet paper.” Such wording led me to the question: what is it about using water instead of toilet paper that requires special imagination? Her observations were definitely correct, the country she was in has a water culture and people do not use toilet paper, but they also do not walk around with feces on their bodies all day.

To assist you with imagining what using water to wash yourself looks like, I will simply say that it varies. In my country Senegal, restrooms have water containers. The purpose of using water to clean oneself instead of toilet paper is to assure cleanliness at all times.

The point of highlighting a particular wording in a blog is not to point fingers nor compare this student’s experience to mine or to other African students on campus, but to show that the impact of our choices of language or images to represent the “other.” The utilization of “western” cultural categories such as toilet paper to imagine the usage of water in a western African country portrays a relation of cultural dominance between the “West” and “Africa.”

Sadly, as Denison students make the choice to post stereotypical representation of Africa through their Facebook posts and blogs, they too are following the steps and style of depictions by the same people who colonized African countries and its people. Posting pictures of naked children might get you the likes you wanted on Facebook and perhaps some “ooohhs and ahhhs” from family and friends, but it can never solve “Africa’s” problems. We must aim to represent our experiences without contributing to the harmful, stereotypical depiction of Africa as a place without any possibility. So reflect on the objective of your images or words before you post them.