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.

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