The phrase “shithole countries” is now part of an ever-expanding lexicon of cringeworthy terminology that will undoubtedly be chronicled in historical texts describing this dark period in American politics.
President Donald Trump’s recent comment that the United States should take immigrants from Norway, rather than “shithole countries” including Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations, is another reflection of his ignorance and racism. It comes on the heels of reports that he said Haitians “all have AIDS” in a June meeting about immigration.
Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah doubled down on the racist sentiments behind the remark, saying that “President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation,” implying that whiteness is a precondition to assimilation.
Trump’s remarks and the underlying implications behind them do not exist in a vacuum, however. It is, indeed, necessary to acknowledge and reckon with the cultural and social framework in which Trump’s remark came to be. Throughout media, publishing, pop culture, and the international development world, harmful narratives about developing countries, particularly those in Africa, persist, and play a role in upholding structural racism.
As Washington Post Global Opinion editor Karen Attiah pointed out in a recent tweet, “There are going to be a lot of outraged media think pieces about Trump’s ‘shithole’ comments. But lets not forget how the media has long dehumanized Africa and its people by only covering war, poverty, disease, and political malaise. That is, if Africa is covered at all.”
True to form, some Fox News commentators have defended Trump’s comment, with Greg Gutfeld saying on the air: “You’ve got to ask why can’t citizens stay in their country and fix their country? Why is it that they can’t do that? How do you describe a country where it’s impossible for you to fix it?”
Beyond the unsurprising racism of Fox News, esteemed outlets such as The New York Times have made editorial decisions that uphold racist tropes.
For example, in a piece for the Washington Post titled “The New York Times shows how to fail miserably while writing about Africa,” Attiah wrote about the August 2018 New York Times piece, “With Conrad on the Congo River,” by Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff. Jasanoff travelled the same path as Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad in order to “offer a modern-day look at Congo (and, by extension, Africa) through the colonialist gaze of Joseph Conrad.”
In an accompanying video for the Washington Post, Attiah deconstructed the tired tropes and imperial narratives that are often used to frame discussions about African countries. She cited Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s indispensable satirical piece in Granta on how to write about Africa, which instructs writers to “Treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving.”
As Wainaina’s piece suggests, the bulk of reporting about African nations mute the continent’s diversity and development and describe it only through the lens of famine, political upheaval, disease and violence. The fact that Africa is referred to as a monolith is part of this trend. As the Washington Post’s Andy Baker enumerated, the consequences of this are dangerous: “Critics have made numerous speculations: misinformation, stereotyping, validation of white privilege, excessive fear of foreigners and immigrants and even mishandled foreign policy interventions.”
These stereotypes and misconceptions have an impact on the kind of aid that developing countries receive. Rather than capitalizing on the agency of beneficiaries, aid efforts often project helplessness onto them, which can result in misguided fundraising or in-kind donations. In a 2012 piece featured in the blog “Africa is a Country” writer Caitlin Chandler wrote about a satirical Norwegian group calling itself Radi-Aid, which launched a charity appeal to ship radiators from Africa to Norway in a “a serious critique of misguided development, and of the Western media coverage which often accompanies it.”
Colonial narratives about Africa have also trickled down into our pop culture. In 2015, Taylor Swift’s video for “Wildest Dreams” showed the singer in a “white colonial fantasy” of Africa, one that featured very few black people. In a piece for NPR’s “Goats and Soda,” several writers pushed back against this romanticized view of Africa, pointing out that “Across the continent, we are in the middle of an exciting African boom and a technological and leadership renaissance of sorts, led by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the formerly colonized and enslaved.”
As we respond to Trump’s barrage of ignorant remarks (which are unlikely to end anytime soon), we must remain cognizant about opposing the pervasive stereotypes that help give rise to his misguided perspectives.