Obama Visit Challenges 'African Woman' Stereotype
Two weeks ago, on an official trip to Africa, Michelle Obama gave a speech encouraging 76 young sub-Saharan African women participating in the Young African Women Leaders Forum in South Africa. They gathered at the Regina Mundi Church in the black township of Soweto, where 35 years ago, in June 1976, South African youth nonviolently protested Apartheid laws affecting their education. Many of those students lost their lives in the ensuing government-issued police open shooting. Today, Regina Mundi is a memorial to those who refused to sit idly by as their country and people continued to suffer under Apartheid.
It was here that Michelle Obama had the opportunity to share words with 76 young women. Washington Post reporter Krissah Thompson, who traveled with the First Lady, writes that she challenged them to ensure that women are no longer "second-class citizens," fight the "stigma" of HIV/AIDS, and "stand up and say violence against women" is a "human-rights violation." It has been refreshing to have young African women highlighted not as refugees of war, victims of violent rape and female genital mutilation, contagions of HIV/AIDS, or recipients of monthly dollar pledges. For one day a couple of weeks ago, the world was offered a glimpse of another African female population: dedicated, persevering, brilliant women committed to using their gifts to highlight awareness, nurture justice, and improve the conditions of their respective countries.
As a person of faith, I think often about the power that our cultural imaginations have to draw us either closer or further away from a God-centered imagination. No one can deny that the way we visualize, imagine, and depict people in any culture has repercussions for how we engage one another. Westerners are predominantly exposed to stories or images of African women as victims in desperate political, health, or socioeconomic situations. This influences how we imagine we are called to be in relationship with our sisters spread throughout the 53 countries in Africa. While it is important for the West to acknowledge the legitimate needs of Africans caught in political and socioeconomic strife, an unbalanced portrayal of African women risks the danger of fostering an "us / them" mentality that underwrites the notion that we Christians are called to go and help the "helpless non-Western other" (quotes mine). For many in the West, this plays out in a gentile condescending relationship that entails reaching out to "those less fortunate than ourselves," and imagining African women mostly as potential benefactors of Western compassion and generosity.