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It’s time to take your blinders off
US President Donald Trump’s comment on not wanting people from “shithole countries” may be outrageous and racist, but history shows that his views haven’t emerged in a vacuum. The Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor, Karen Attiah, called it like it is by noting that “This TV-loving president is a product of a media culture that has systematically covered places in Africa and places like Haiti only as war-ravaged, disease-ridden and impoverished — when these countries are even deemed worthy of coverage at all.”
In a short yet informative piece, Attiah sketches out the Western media’s biases while reporting on these so-called ‘shithole’ countries by citing examples of tone-deaf, white saviour reportage from the not-so-old past, and then countering them with examples of positive news that go by unremarked. As she pointed out, “Only with Africa coverage can programs such as “60 Minutes” get away with parachuting American journalists to Liberia to report on ebola — and not interview a single Liberian on camera for the story.” But stories about mobile payment services like M-Pesa (which is sort of the Kenyan predecessor to the American Venmo) don’t fit the backward, ‘shithole’ narrative, so they are ignored in favour of more dire Ebola coverage or what have you.
The New Yorker’s Robin Wright also pointed to very basic facts about countries in Africa that seem to have escaped Trump’s notice. In her words:
“Nigeria has built a vibrant film industry. South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid is a model for nations worldwide. Egypt includes a quarter of the Arab world’s population. Rwanda, once ravaged by genocide, is today a model for gender equality in politics: the East African nation has the world’s highest percentage of female lawmakers—more than sixty per cent. (As of last month, the United States ranked ninety-ninth among a hundred and ninety-three countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.)”
These should be banal, everyday facts but their absence in mainstream media narratives (both Western and Indian) make them interesting, surprising snippets that are meant to enlighten and delight us in the face of heavy news cycles. Stories about social progress have been there all along and aren’t rare victories, but everyday achievements that are expected from good governance and in functioning states (two other things we don’t expect to see anywhere on the African continent or anywhere that isn’t the US or western Europe).
Obviously, we in the ‘shitholes’ have found some amusing, subversive ways to tackle American exceptionalism (re-writing headlines about the US the way Western media approaches stories from Africa is perhaps my favourite gimmick) but it’s hardly enough to undo the decades, if not centuries, of biases that we’ve all internalised thanks to the news we read, the shows we watch and the media we consume in general.
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A brief history of Haiti
A quick history lesson or two seems like a good place to start. And that’s exactly what Jonathan M. Katz wrote as a response to Trump’s comment. Katz’s piece in the Washington Post is a highly-condensed history of Haiti starting in 1804, when the nation won independence by revolting against its French colonisers. But winning independence by defeating Napoleon’s famed army wasn’t enough – the new country was effectively frozen out of the global economy by France as well as slaveholding countries like the US (a successful state run by former slaves wasn’t a palatable narrative for then US President Thomas Jefferson). Eventually, Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million gold francs (equalling billions of dollars today) to appease unhappy landowners who lost their properties when France lost Haiti.
This set off a cycle of impoverishment as Haitian politicians shovelled money from their economy into France’s. And once that payment was complete, Haiti had to pay off the US-based banks it had borrowed from to pay France in the first place. This manifested into enough of an excuse to eventually prompt US troops to march into Haiti’s national reserve, remove all its gold and take it back to the vaults of the bank that we now know as Citibank.
The US also occupied Haiti for 19 years, during which Haiti’s government was replaced with US-sympathisers, its military forces dissolved and its institutions weakened. According to Katz, “The occupation ended in 1934. Haiti had some new roads and buildings, a legacy of scars and abuse and a new U.S.-made economic and political system that would keep wreaking havoc over the decades to follow.”
It’s difficult to put this better than Katz did, so here’s the most cutting paragraph from his piece:
“So in light of all that history, to be convinced that Haiti just happens to be a failed “shithole” where no one would want to live, you’d have to know nothing about how Haitians view their country and themselves. You’d have to know nothing about the destructive U.S. trade policies that continued past the end of the dictatorship, destroying trade protections and, with them, local industries and agriculture. You’d have to not know about the CIA’s role in the 1991 coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or the U.S. invasions in 1994 and 2004. You’d have to know nothing about why the United States sponsored and took the leading role in paying for a U.N. “stabilization mission” that did little but keep a few, often unpopular, presidents in power and kill at least 10,000 people by introducing cholera to Haiti for the first time. And you’d have to not understand the U.S. role in the shambolic response to the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake — which was a mess, but possibly not in the way that you think.”
‘There’s always been this history of favoring some over others’
Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and seemingly all of Africa as ‘shithole countries’, but such racial singling out has been a common and near-constant feature of US immigrant policies for years now. Time interviewed Mae Ngai, an immigration historian at Columbia University, for an overview of the US’s immigration policies over the years.
At their most patriotic, many like to claim that the US is a nation of immigrants. But if it seems like the immigration system is rigged – that’s because in many ways it is.
According to Ngai, the US first started clamping down on its borders in the late 19th century with the arrival of Chinese immigrants. Until then, the influx of European immigrants had passed by largely unremarked and unchallenged, but the Chinese (who came to the US looking for economic opportunities just like the Europeans) triggered the “racialization of economic competition”. There used to be such a thing as the Chinese Exclusion Act between 1882 and 1943, when it was repealed to appease China as an international ally. Until Trump’s Muslim ban, the Chinese had the “dubious honour” of being the “first and only group to be singled out by name for exclusion,” says Ngai.
Another ‘fun fact’ from Ngai: When millions from southern Europe moved to the US at the turn of the 20th century, Italians were subjected to the same damaging stereotypes that Trump used for Mexicans during the presidential election. And so the very workers that ushered the country into the industrialised age were called criminals and accused of stealing jobs from ‘Americans’. Around the same time, the US government started setting quotas on immigration and numbers for specific countries were decided upon racial privilege. As Ngai told Time, “Great Britain had a huge quota, as did Germany, but Italy and Hungary, had tiny, tiny quotas, and that was an attempt to stop that immigration. There’s always been this history of favoring some over others.”
In 1990, the US introduced a ‘diversity lottery’ that was “actually meant to bring in more white people” by targeting countries whose people were not migrating to the US in large numbers. But prosperous Europeans weren’t the ones to take the bait, Nigerians, Ghanians and others from African countries were.
So, as interviewer Olivia B. Waxman put it, “At various times in the past, America’s immigration system has openly favored some countries over others, with the system set up to specifically keep out immigrants from ‘countries that are doing badly,’ as Trump put it … often for reasons that were based on prejudice.”
Sure, all the concern about the politics of representation can feel overblown at times. After all, how important can Hari Kondabolu’s documentary about The Simpsons’ Apu really be? Turns out, it’s very important. Stories – news, fiction, non-fiction, photographs, movies, whatever you can think of – construct narratives of their own but also teach us to view things in a certain light. They shape our imaginations and our ways of viewing the world. A quick image search for ‘Haiti’ on Google, Instagram and Flickr results in a wave of photos all depicting destruction, flooding, poverty and poor infrastructure – that’s not the case because the entire country looks like this, but we on the outside have internalised that viewpoint, so we instinctively notice that over intact roads, well-constructed buildings, happy people.
Single stories and photographs depicting the problems of ‘shithole countries’ have piled up over the years – both news and entertainment have actively perpetuated narrow lenses to view everything that isn’t in the US or Europe. How long will we trivialise the fact that such biases haven’t just been psychologically damaging but also politically and economically harmful?
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