Opinion |

Telling Ourselves We Don't Have to Care About Africa

In the brouhaha over Trumps description of Africa, its time to honestly contemplate why we see African countries as places we don't have to care about

Efrat Yerday
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Asylum seekers protest in Jerusalem, January 26, 2017.
Asylum seekers protest in Jerusalem, January 26, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman
Efrat Yerday

From time to time, when I read newspapers or watch television, I come across the expression the African country. Sometimes I wonder whether its a phrase the writer uses to express himself in high-flown language, like the use of furthermore, or a type of euphemism like saying Im opposed to the exclusion of women instead of I oppose trafficking in women.

I believe its both, and more. Theres no question that many people consider the African continent a shithole, but only U.S. President Donald Trump can say it so loudly and clearly. Others use more sophisticated expressions like the African country.

This expression has an element of high-flown language. Its not a country in Africa, its not an African country – its the African country, with the definite article. That certainly doesnt enhance Africa, it only enhances the writers language.

The expression the African country with the definite article is telling us, in effect, that it makes no difference whether its a Christian or a Muslim country, or if its located in the north or the south. Its an African country, and thats the only thing thats important to know.

Transporting the specific place under discussion to the back of beyond via the general, abstract expression the African country lets us downplay the relevance of the emotions likely to come to the fore as you read. The writer (knowingly or not) posts a warning sign for the readers, cautioning them against becoming emotionally involved.

Africa is a continent that doesnt interest anyone (a shithole, if you remember). So instead of readers activating – not to say wasting – their emotions, the writer signals to them that this is the African country and they can reduce their emotional involvement about whatever topic might be at hand.

Why isnt France, for example, called the European country? Because France isnt a European country. Its France. For France we have to mobilize our best emotions and intelligence. (See the difference between the coverage of the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the coverage of the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria the same week.) France is very familiar to us: Israelis, Frenchmen, Germans. Theyre all alike.

The expression the African country not only distances us from the continent that includes over 50 nationalities and hundreds of languages, most of whose heritages predate the European country France. It also lets us situate ourselves – we Israelis living in the Middle East, in a country where half the people originate in the Middle East and Africa – closer to Europe.

In fact, we both take part in the Eurovision song contest and are part of the OECD. True, we may be at the bottom of the OECD in areas like education, and among the top in terms of corruption, but hey, for us thats enough.  The African country lets us tell ourselves that if only we werent stuck here, in the Middle East, we would be Frenchmen or Germans, or at least Italians or Spaniards.

In Israel there are small African countries: in Lod, Jaffa, south Tel Aviv, Kiryat Malakhi. In the Israeli shitholes there are usually brown or black citizens as well. The moment writers of articles choose to inform their readers that theyre referring to an Ethiopian or an Arab, they can permit themselves and their readers to lower their emotional energy and transfer the content of the text beyond their moral and ethical concerns.

Efrat Yardai is a lecturer in the course Black Identity in a White Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.