Imagining Africa as the Market for Profiting from Whiteness

A second commentary in our series on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa, this time from Lisa Ann Richey. Lisa is Professor of Globalization in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Currently, she leads the research projects Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things (2016-2021), funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (FSE) and Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania (2019-2024), funded by the Danish Development Research Council (FFU). Among other books, she has authored Celebrity Humanitarianism in Congo: Business, Disruption and the Politics of Development with Alexandra Budabin (forthcoming); Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World with Stefano Ponte (2011); Population Politics and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics (2008) and edited Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power (2016).  She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes, new transnational actors and alliances in the global South, development theories and representations, global health and gender. Lisa was the founding Vice-President of the Global South Caucus of the International Studies Association (ISA). She tweets as @BrandAid_World.

The full collection of posts in this series is available here.


I distinctly remember the first time I learned about Clive Gabay’s research on representations of Africa now published as Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press 2018). I was sitting in the audience of an African politics panel at an international conference, and Clive put up a slide showing the cover from The Economist from 2000 headlining ‘The Hopeless Continent’ (p. 204). He quickly switched to the cover from 2011 with the visual play on ‘The Kite Runner’ and its eternal optimism entitled, ‘Africa Rising’ (p. 205). This visual transition from covering Africa as ‘nothing but a nihilistic swamp of pre-modernity’ to Africa as ‘colourful, joyful and optimistic’ (p. 203) left me troubled. Not just intellectually, irritated by the audacity of The West to continue to frame all things African in stereotypes where the range of options for young men runs from militarized to infantilized, but emotionally, feeling angry at the sensation of guilty pleasure produced by the juxtaposition of the photographs. The images themselves, as Gabay describes, couldn’t have been more different in their depictions of a continent through the bodies of its masculine youth. Yet, the magazine covers had strange similarities beyond their gender, as they were both highly-crafted, beautiful covers.  While the second ‘rising’ cover with its beckoning light and natural aesthetic (where even the dirt is a photogenic hue of red clay) was obviously linked to the editorial line on Africa’s possibilities, it was the first ‘hopeless’ cover that was surprisingly appealing.  Sure the young man is holding a rocket-launcher, but the expression on his face— notably the large and central focal point of this image—appears to be one of delight. There is nothing in this image to suggest that its referent object, a young African man, is hopeless. Quite the contrary, he looks full of agency, just not the kind WE want in our imagined Western civilization built upon Europe’s ‘exceptional institutional genius’ (p.12).  Instead, we prefer the happy kite-flying child, viewed from a safe distance so as not to disrupt our gaze and imaginations with any possibility of a real, feeling subject. The Economist imagery embodied the realization of modernization’s ideal movement from the constraints of savagery to the open-space flow through dreams that were . . . Ours. Divorcing the roots of Western societal wealth from systems of slavery and imperialism, Gabay shows us, ‘it has been possible to generate a belief in the universal utility of this system for the whole world’ and this universalism (not the system itself) is what Gabay calls ‘Whiteness’ (p. 13).

In most simple terms: Eurocentrism+Narcissism+Modernism=Whiteness

So how we feel about the covers of the Economist is raced. And thus, any history of Whiteness must engage deeply with the politics of affect.  Because, it is OUR feelings that count. And we feel White. These White feelings consist, predominantly, of anxiety, and this anxiety has a history. Specifically, Imagining Africa argues that ‘over the past century, we have seen the arrogance of elite phenotypical white supremacy slip, all the while that the centrality of Whiteness to the imagination and mechanics of international order has been maintained’ (p. 236-7).  Gabay’s book provides a remarkably documented, deeply political history of the international relations imaginaries of Africa.  After the publication of Imagining Africa, all scholars of African international politics, colonialism, media studies or humanitarianism should be expected to account for the question of Whiteness in their analysis.

Imagining Africa succeeds in racing globalisation as a dynamic social process that needs to look not just ‘inside’ the engine room of Whiteness, but ‘outside’ at how Whiteness is both broader and narrower than race. Talking about race by white people has become an academic trend (reminding readers as Gabay shows that the possibility of not engaging with race is a constitutive power of Whiteness). Last year, Robin DiAngelo put White Fragility on top of the New York Times bestseller list.  In her 2018 Presidential Lecture—“#HerskovitsMustFall? A Meditation on Whiteness, African Studies, and the Unfinished Business of 1968”— to the African Studies Association, the largest association of scholars of Africa in North America, Jean Allman chronicled the marginalization of African scholars by white North Americans from the founding ideas and practices of Melville J. Herskovits to the constitution of the leadership of the association to this day.  She gave a similar lecture to the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). As the historian Marius Kothor pointed out, ‘the enthusiastic reception of Allman’s talk highlights the fact that even the work of calling attention to the racism within African Studies is racialized.’ Indeed this review is written by yet another participant in the increasingly common genre of white people talking about white people talking about Africa. From the arguments in Gabay’s book, we can understand how the materialities of race and representation in Africanist communities are intimately wedded to the imaginaries of Whiteness. In this reading, while bringing in more African scholars and their work remains necessary, it will remain insufficient as long as Africa is constituted through the powerful dreams of Whiteness. In this history, Africa may remain an abstraction extracted in parts according to those which are ‘consumerist, Modern and entrepreneurial, a denial of difference that leaves other forms of dynamic African cultures ossified in museum ethnology and art exhibitions’ (p. 219) and a few panels at conferences dedicated to ‘inclusion’.

But indeed as Gabay documents in his discussion of the ‘post-crash Africa rising debates,’ there is a vicious, indeed psychologically maligned circle of dependence between Whiteness and imaginations of Africa. Given the breadth of scholarship engaged in this text, it is surprising not to see the work of Ilan Kapoor and his colleagues on Psychoanalysis and the Global considered here. Gabay explains how ‘an idealized fantasy of Africa is constructed to address anxieties concerning Whiteness as much as these anxieties themselves constantly undermine White self-confidence—thus necessitating the construction of further idealised “Africas”’ (p.216).  Kapoor would further argue drawing on Lacan that we actually enjoy the suffering caused by Whiteness in a sort of libidinal economy. This brings us further to understanding the deep anxiety identified by Gabay when he says: ‘Africa has thus always served as a site where, inspired by White anxiety and fragility, people self-identifying with Whiteness (the belief in the universality of a mythologized European institutional genius) have sought to remake better versions of the West’ (p. 33).

This psychodrama between Africa helping the West in a constant quest for self-improvement makes it into a bull market for profiting from the peddling of Whiteness. This is perfectly illustrated by Chapter 6 on ‘Afropolitanism and the White-Western Incorporation of Africa.’ In this chapter, Gabay inventories examples of how ‘Africa’s “being in the world” is selectively packaged for majoritarian audiences’ (p. 199). The packaging and marketing of both Africa and its potentiality for salvation of the Western self is something that has become increasingly popular, and now products are sold with no sense of irony whatsoever that a charitable percentage of their profits will be donated (notably not reinvested) into ‘African causes’, what Stefano Ponte and I have termed Brand Aid. I am convinced after reading Imagining Africa that perhaps Saving Whiteness is the #1 bestselling African product as these myriad anxieties about White vitality become increasingly popular with both white supremacists and their liberal nemeses.  One of the most compelling features of this book is the overall critique of Whiteness that implicates us and our friends, even our ‘Black friends,’ as well as our enemies.

One chapter I look forward to reading when the book is updated for the next edition is the relationship between Whiteness and cosmopolitanism.  As an International Relations scholar, Gabay is well-placed to walk us through the historical and theoretical intertwining of the concepts. Afropolitanism to me is the perfect place to explore the limitations of cosmopolitanism in grounding political struggles around the relationships between Africa and the West. While as Gabay also notes, Afropolitanism has been heavily criticized since its inception on class grounds—the elite bias of Afropolitans is clearly empirical, but is it theoretically meaningful? In case studies demonstrating the Afropolitan as a trope of the performances of celebrity humanitarianism, the possibilities of what Jabri calls the ‘assertion of presence’ were limited and tended to work with decreasingly efficacy the more cosmopolitan and less local they became.  Could this be because the more radical possibilities of Afropolitanism would involve the fundamental destabilization of what Gabay calls Whiteness? Can we move beyond a Eurocentric notion of cosmopolitanism and if we do, will this have any possibility of countering the globalized power of Whiteness?

Returning to the pictures of ‘Africa’ gazed through the Whiteness of The Economist covers, it could be useful to reconnect the political economy of when Whiteness is valuable and who will reap its profits.  Today, together with holding the right conversation at the local farmers market and breastfeeding, reading The Economist has become the newest Veblen good in the contemporary competition over how the rich signal their wealth through inconspicuous consumption.  So, when we see the magazine in the hands of Africans around the world, we should stop to ponder over whether this is simply another indicator that ‘Whiteness is catching on and transcending territorial and even phenotypical boundaries’ (p. 241)?  Thus, capitalism in its ever-transforming material and ideational forms is perpetuating a myth of White virility that is best left to history. If the cover image of this book is to be taken seriously, the ‘Man with anxiety peeking through blinds’ resembles a puppet trapped inside a Matryoska style mummy, opening one layer, to peer out into the world.  Gabay succeeds in tracing in a grounded, documented, justified way, the fluidity of White power as both structural and agentive:  taking the classic sociological understandings and turning the gaze back on international relations of Africa. It is absolutely worth the peek out into the world of Whiteness.

One thought on “Imagining Africa as the Market for Profiting from Whiteness

  1. Pingback: A Response | The Disorder Of Things

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