Africa, Beyond Our Wildest Dreams – Harvard Crimson
Last month, Taylor Swift released the music video for “Wildest Dreams,” her latest single. The video catches Swift in an ill-fated romance, but it also finds her perpetuating an ill-conceived, exclusionary, and deeply exploitative ideology.
Swift, playing a ’50s starlet in a period romance, romps across an African savanna teeming with wildlife but notably devoid of Africans. This is a perverse colonial nostalgia. The landscape, the sunset, the moment—they belong to her. “Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful,” Ugandan activists Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe wrote in response to the video. Swift glamorizes colonialism even though “the [European visitors] depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans.”
But Taylor Swift is not the only one advancing colonialism and white supremacy. Many of our interactions with sub-Saharan Africa retain a disturbing colonial tinge. Africans will represent nearly 50 percent of the world’s population by 2100, six of their economies are among the 13 fastest growing in the world, and a middle class is emerging. Africa is changing. We haven’t, but we must.
The West’s reflexive attitude towards sub-Saharan Africa centers on a white savior complex that tasks white Westerners with “fixing” or “rescuing” people of color. As the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole describes, the white savior complex satisfies “white egos [and] the emotional needs” of white people, dismissing Africans as primitive and denying them “agency… in their own lives.” It is a permutation of the primary justification for colonialism: that white colonists were “civilizing” the world. Cole writes: “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”
The white savior complex is also an empirical disaster. Farmland is abundant in sub-Saharan Africa, but aid programs send food instead of promoting cultivation. (Foreigners and foreign companies, meanwhile, snap up land and force out small farmers.) Famous buy-one-give-one companies, like Toms shoes, have flooded markets with free, mainly Chinese-made apparel, harming East African shoe-making sectors and other industries. And animal giving programs, like the celebrated Heifer International, promote heavy meat consumption even though homegrown alternatives—like Teff, Ethiopia’s protein-packed grain—are much more sustainable and efficient. The imposition of ill-fitting Western solutions is devastating.
Meanwhile, our economic interactions preserve the injustice of colonial relationships. “The wealth of the West,” Richard Drayton summarizes, “was built on Africa’s exploitation,” and this exploitation remains entrenched. Foreign-owned companies abuse African workers and African environments, enrich cruel leaders who are not democratically elected, and take home massive profits. Western companies have also imposed Euro-American principles of urban planning. If burgeoning African cities want investment, they are forced to forgo their own, tailor-made ideas and conform to visions of hyper-Western skyscrapers. American economic policies, like the African Growth and Opportunity Act, have only facilitated the neocolonial relationship whereby companies extract what they want from Africa, impose loaded Euro-American standards of modernity, ravage land, and ruin lives.
Geopolitically, we continue to treat sub-Saharan Africa as though it were a satellite to be controlled. China’s recent investments in African infrastructure and natural resources are troubling because of their often exploitative, imperialistic nature—but the media have framed them primarily as threats to Western influence. In China’s Second Continent, Howard French writes that China’s state-run companies frequently refuse to hire African workers, instead relying on Chinese migrants. As such, aid projects like highways and stadiums don’t reduce unemployment or transfer skills to Africans. When Africans are hired, they are frequently underpaid, harassed, and denied the protective gear that migrant workers are given for mining and chemical work. Western leaders insist that their anxiety over Chinese expansion comes from these exploitative business practices, but aid projects funded by the U.S. are contracted out to the abusive Chinese companies, too. We are fixated on colonial power and control, but Africa is not ours to fight over.
Africa does not belong to the West. Africa does not exist to fulfill a colonial fantasy of galloping wildebeests and a gallivanting Swift. It does not exist to absolve American guilt or to satisfy our thirst for oil. It does not exist for America or China to control it.
Africa belongs to Africans, and they are the ones solving problems through effective and ingenious innovation. It belongs to Africans, who demand justice and win change. It belongs to Africans, who redefine modernity. The West has got to progress beyond colonial entitlement and exploitation, because Sub-Saharan Africans are building a future far beyond Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.”
Ted G. Waechter ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.
Africa, Beyond Our Wildest Dreams – Harvard Crimson