Five Common Stereotypes About Africa

Sun rising over savannah, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Anup Shah Getty

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.

Africa Is All Jungle

Never mind that the Sahara Desert makes up one-third of Africa. Thanks to Tarzan films and other cinematic portrayals of Africa, many mistakenly believe that jungle occupies most of the continent and that ferocious beasts roam its entire landscape.

Black activist Malcolm X, who visited several African countries before his assassination in 1965, took issue with this depiction. He not only discussed Western stereotypes of Africa but also how such stereotypes resulted in black Americans distancing themselves from the continent.

“They always project Africa in a negative light: jungle savages, cannibals, nothing civilized,” he pointed out.

In reality, Africa houses a wide range of vegetation zones. Only a small portion of the continent includes jungle, or rainforests. These tropical areas are located along the Guinea Coast and in the Zaire River Basin. Africa’s largest vegetation zone is actually savanna or tropical grassland. Moreover, Africa’s home to urban centers with populations in the multimillions, including Cairo, Egypt; Lagos, Nigeria; and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. By 2025, more than half of the African population will reside in cities, according to some estimates.

Black American Slaves Came From All Over Africa

Largely due to the misconception that Africa’s a country, it’s not uncommon for people to assume that black Americans have ancestors from all over the continent. In reality, the slaves traded throughout the Americas originated specifically along Africa’s western coast.

For the first time, Portuguese sailors who’d previously traveled to Africa for gold returned to Europe with 10 African slaves in 1442, PBS reports. Four decades later, the Portuguese built a trading post on the Guinean shore called Elmina, or “the mine” in Portuguese.

There, gold, ivory, and other goods were traded along with African slaves—exported for weapons, mirrors and cloth, to name a few. Before long, Dutch and English ships began arriving at Elmina for African slaves as well. By 1619, Europeans had forced a million slaves into the Americas. Altogether, 10 to 12 million Africans were forced into servitude in the New World. These Africans were “either captured in warring raids or kidnapped and taken to the port by African slave traders,” PBS notes.

Yes, West Africans played a key role in the transatlantic slave trade. For these Africans, slavery was nothing new, but African slavery in no way resembled North and South American slavery. In his book, the African Slave Trade, Basil Davidson likens slavery on the African continent to European serfdom. Take the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa, where “slaves could marry, own property and even own slaves,” PBS explains. Slaves in the United States enjoyed no such privileges. Moreover, while slavery in the U.S. was linked to skin color—with blacks as servants and whites as masters—racism was not the impetus for slavery in Africa. Plus, like indentured servants, slaves in Africa were typically released from bondage after a set amount of time. Accordingly, slavery in Africa never lasted across generations.

Wrapping Up

Many myths about Africa date back centuries. In the modern day, new stereotypes about the continent have emerged. Thanks to a sensationalistic news media, people worldwide associate Africa with famine, war, AIDS, poverty and political corruption. This isn’t to say that such problems don’t exist in Africa. Of course, they do. But even in a nation as wealthy as the United States, hunger, abuse of power and chronic illness factor into everyday life. While the continent of Africa faces enormous challenges, not every African is in need, nor is every African nation in crisis.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Five Common Stereotypes About Africa." ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/common-stereotypes-about-africa-2834943. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2017, June 14). Five Common Stereotypes About Africa. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-stereotypes-about-africa-2834943 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Five Common Stereotypes About Africa." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-stereotypes-about-africa-2834943 (accessed January 20, 2018).