It seems that in 2018 no news-cycle is ever complete without the all-too-familiar backlash to the backlash. On the 12th of January, the Washington Post reported that US president Donald Trump reacted to an immigration deal that would involve receiving more immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti and African countries by asking, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He reportedly also stated that the US should instead receive more immigrants from countries like Norway.
The outrage from the left was swift. And though many called Trump’s racist remarks indefensible, of course, there were many on the right who were quick to come to his defense. Their tirades were tiresome but predictable. ‘Go move to Haiti. Or Liberia. Oh, you won’t? Why is that?’ asked conservative blogger Mike Cernovich. On Fox News’ Ingraham Angle, Ann Coulter stated, ‘as long as these countries are such fantastic countries, maybe we can cut off the foreign aid to all of them and use that for the wall’.
In the midst of this, several took to social media to post photos of scenic places from their so-called shithole countries and #myshithole posts began flooding Facebook and twitter feeds. It was decidedly a very millennial reaction for the internet to embrace the insult ‘shithole’ in this triumphant way.
And then slowly but surely, some liberal voices began to provide the inevitable backlash to the backlash. ‘What’s with all the outrage?’ they asked. They wondered why one would be mad that Trump said this, but not mad that so many African’s live in such poor conditions. Writing for Al Jazeera, Sisonke Msimang argued that the beautiful pictures that well-off, ‘middle class’ African’s shared on social media hide the fact that African countries are, ‘in fact, terrible places to live for poor people.’
‘The “Africa as paradise” social media posts are a sort of creative non-fiction then. Of course, the Cape Town skyline is beautiful, but we also know that life in Crossroads or Nyanga or any of the many sprawling townships that ring that city, is hard.’
But no one was pretending our countries were paradises when we posted the pictures of our gorgeous landscapes and skylines. No one was denying the hardship that millions of Africans endure or the corruption that plagues our governments. We however felt the need to open people’s eyes to the fact that the (well-known and well- documented) problems and difficulties that many African’s live through, do not constitute the whole picture- as it became clear that too many people, including some in very influential positions of power, believe this to be the case.
But even though one might concede that the #myshithole response might have been a bit flippant, this new backlash nevertheless misses the point because our outrage was not simply because of Trump’s insult about the state of many of our countries. Let’s take a closer look at Trump’s statement. While discussing official policy, the president of the United States implied that because Africans come from countries where life can be difficult, we apparently have nothing to offer and should not even be considered for immigration. You see, his comments did more than just point out that our countries are a mess. His comments broadly dismissed the intelligence, talents, and skills of millions of African individuals as essentially worthless because of our country of origin. In one broad swoop, our worth as individuals was so easily dismissed and we are outraged because we are tired of our value and worth constantly being overlooked and dismissed.
If indeed, as many of his supporters have claimed to be the case, Trump was simply using crass language to propose a shift to a merit-based system of immigration, then this implies that Trump believes that one’s ‘merit’ is determined solely by one’s country of origin and that the kind of ‘merit’ he is looking for simply involves having blond hair and blue eyes.
Others ask why we are so irked by Trump’s statements. After all, he’s a known racist who started his presidential campaign calling Mexicans rapists and thieves. How are his comments any different from the hurtful racist things we Africans hear all the time? Why allow the words of a known racist to affect us so much?’
The problem with this argument is that it views Trump’s statement from the point of view of the individual, neglecting the fact that this particular individual is also the president of the United States- the head of the structures, institutions and armed forces that concretely affect the lives of millions of people, not just in America but around the world. Though making it clear she disagrees with Trump, in her article, Msimang seems to downplay his comments by referring to him as a ‘discredited man’ who has ‘hurt some feelings.’ But what she fails to see is that Trump is not simply a powerful man hurting feelings but a world leader shaping policy. And Trump’s words are not only troublesome because his opinions risk being woven into official state policy, but because, when bigots and racists hear the thoughts they would normally not dare voice in public echoed by the commander in chief of the largest military in the world, they are emboldened and empowered. And once again this has concrete ramifications on the lives of Africans all around the the world.
Others wonder why we are so obsessed with what America thinks of Africans. Those Africans outraged by Trump’s comments are likened to schoolkids jumping up and down begging America to pick us in a game of pickup basketball crying, ‘look at us America, we have lot’s to offer, pick us!’ Shouldn’t Africa focus on Africa and not mind what Westerners make of us?
To this I say, African countries do indeed need to look within, tackle corruption, promote intercontinental trade, and lift ourselves out of the poverty that many of our countries are plagued by. We are certainly capable of this and do not need to look to the West to accomplish this. Our undeniable value has nothing to do with the West and we do not declare it boldly in order to gain validation from America. But to deny the unrivaled position of social influence and power that America has to affect the lives of individuals is folly. When the leader of America speaks in this way he normalizes the everyday discrimination that holds us back, and knocks us out of the running for jobs even before the interview.
The suggestion that we have no ‘merit’ because of where we come from is more than just painful but dangerous, especially when these opinions are held by people in high positions power. I am one of the fortunate middle-class Africans Msimang referred to who shared beautiful photos of my city using the #myshithole tag on social media. But in spite of the privilege of my social status and the many opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have access to, I cannot list the number of opportunities, professional and otherwise, that have been shut off to me simply because of the color of my passport. Consider now how much grimmer the situation is for those with more talents and fewer opportunities. What chance do they have to succeed in a world where policy is shaped by those that dismiss people so easily and claim they have no merit because of where they are from?
This is why the outrage is important. We Africans need to fight back against such attitudes that dismiss us before examining our potential as individuals, whether this be in the context of immigration or any other context. We are not ignoring the fact that our countries have problems that need solving. We can acknowledge these issues, strive hard to overcome them and at the same time be proud of our cities’ coastlines. We need to engage in debates about what needs to be done to improve things and take action, but at no point do these issues give any Western government the right to insult or disrespect us. At no point does the money our governments receive in foreign aid from the US give conservatives the right to look down at us and disrespect us. And most importantly, at no point does the fact that we come from places where life is difficult negate the fact that our value is unquestionable and that we have innumerable talents to offer.
Itunu Kuku is a Nigerian writer and photographer. Born in Lagos in 1989, he later spent several of his formative years in Zambia and the Philippines. In 2013 Kuku moved to Dakar, Senegal and now calls the city home.
Kuku’s first short story, “Saliou’s Dream,” was published in 2016 and is available on Amazon. His thought-provoking writing has previously been published on various online platforms including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and True Africa.