“Africa in Translation” author discusses ongoing stereotypes

by Shaun Manning on February 16, 2012

AfricaSara Pugach, author of Africa in Translation: A History of Colonial Linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814-1945, guest blogs about the stereotypes that continue to pervade discussions about Africa and the conflicts taking place on the continent.

In today’s world, people often like to believe that we have gotten beyond the racial stereotyping and prejudices that blighted the past and led to atrocities like the Holocaust.  Yet the stereotypes and prejudices of the past have not disappeared, and continue to inform how different groups are discussed in the media and other venues.  Think about newspaper articles and television reports on events in Africa or other parts of the non-western world – African conflicts are often referred to as tribal, or as driven by ancient ethnic hatreds.  Africans themselves are described as primitive, at least in comparison to Westerners.

Very few African conflicts, however, are actually driven by ancient ethnic hatreds; ethnic identity is often very shallow, and many sub-Saharan African ethnic identities first developed in the colonial era, primarily in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Moreover, Africans are decidedly not more primitive than any other people.  So why do the stereotypes persist?  Where do they come from?  How are they perpetuated?

My book, which looks at the development of African language studies in Germany and South Africa over the course of more than one hundred years, attempts to answer some of these questions by looking at how, in classifying African languages and cultures, German missionaries and scholars came to attach very specific characteristics to individual African groups.  Certain language structures were deemed primitive – and so were the people who spoke them.  The categorizations were not necessarily racial in a biological sense; in fact, the stereotypes that were developing were more often about cultural than physical difference.  Nonetheless, these stereotypes were extremely harmful, since they perpetuated the notion that African cultures were less advanced than European ones, and needed European guidance – colonial control – in order to reach the same heights that the Europeans had.

These stereotypes also led, inexorably, to the idea that because Africans were so different from Europeans, they would never be able to share the same kind of facilities, or receive the same kind of education. German discussions of African language and culture had a lasting impact in South Africa, where separate development and a belief in the immutable difference between Africans and Europeans, became the central plank of apartheid ideology.  While defining racial difference as culturally determined may seem less pernicious than casting it in biological terms, in the end cultural and biological racism both have extremely deleterious effects.  Today it is widely accepted that race is a social construct, not a biological fact.  I agree, but urge recognition that it is still a very powerful social construct.  Further, it is only by unraveling the history of race as a social construct that we can begin to dispel the very potent and enduring prejudices that it maintains.  This book represents a step in that direction.

Africa in Translation is available now from the University of Michigan Press.

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