According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, structures of power infiltrate discourse, knowledge and ‘regimes of truth’ has reigned true for nearly the entirety of humankind’s existence. However, power relations are toxic when this power, usually enforced through class or racial hierarchies, continues to disempower the more marginalized groups. In this post, I am going to describe how power relations inform knowledge production and perpetuate narratives that uphold destructive hierarchical power structures in the context of our narratives surrounding the great continent of Africa.
Narratives begin first as knowledge and its generation. Knowledge, of course, is not immune to the influence and infusion of uneven power. Questions such as, “Who produces this knowledge?” and “How does this influence the way see this topic? Whose agenda does this help and whose does it hurt?” help break down epistemic power divisions that people accidentally or otherwise perpetuate.
Unfortunately, often times knowledge production leads directly to a ubiquitous narrative that society and culture latch onto before a proper criticism has been conducted.
An example of power-informed knowledge perpetuating narratives in the environmental field has been in the discussion surrounding desertification and the expansion of the Sahara. Global Environmental Management (GEM) is the mainstream, neo-colonial conservation strategy, which blames the desertification problem on overpopulation and overgrazing. In contrast, the populist narrative acknowledges the influence of foreign intervention, global capitalism, and climate change in augmenting desertification. GEM only focuses on the biophysical science behind desertification and fails to understand the social and political relations that connect with biophysical processes. The result is neo-colonial policies that restrict grazing for pastoralists who have engaged in this livelihood for generations. The ramifications of the chosen narrative can be severe and potentially a) fail to effectively resolve a problem, and b) not consider the social impacts of the policy on already marginalized groups.
Unfortunately, power (and money), usually dictate which knowledge is valued and the narratives that coalesce begin to enforce such power structures from which they were conceived.
Another example examines how power-infused narratives are particularly compelling in unintentionally influencing the West’s perception of Africa. Specifically, past representations of East Africa (through movies and books) clout how Westerners view and desire to experience the pristine wilderness during safaris or jungle expeditions. In addition to Lion King being a beautiful example, BBC’s Africa, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, fails to illustrate that Africa is far beyond just savannahs and jungles — it is filled with people, livelihoods, and culture. Can you imagine creating a docuseries about nature in North America or Europe with the title of just the continent’s name? That wouldn’t happen. But Sir David also fails to mention the name of a single African country until episode 5 — inadvertently implicating that geographic and socio-political diversity within Africa doesn’t actually exist or isn’t important in the minds of the West.
Along with the colonial legacy of “exploring the unexplored,” this narrative of uninhabited wilderness influences how we desire to experience our safaris and other African touristic ventures. As a television critic had stated,
“The real fallacy and sadness of the safari isn’t the death of animals, it’s that it implies an Africa without Africans. This is the only foreign holiday that liberal people go on hoping never to meet the natives.”
This quote is extreme, but it illustrates how a tainted perception can erase identities and further paint Africa in this narrative of homogeneity and barbarism.
Our perceptions of Africa are further shaped by calls to action. The Arms of the Angel ad where Africa is portrayed as completely poverty-stricken and dependent on our assistance ignites this superhero White Man’s burden call-to-arms in which we must save the poor from themselves (*cough cough* sound familiar?). This ‘colonialist ethic’ subjects local communities to the mercy of transnational institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, who use conditionality and high-interest rates in their loans to create financial dependence, perpetuate power relations, and impede growth and development — of course, this is a multifaceted issue, which has more layers than your typical onion. In the end, no child is “saved” from systemic poverty but we, in the West, have the added luxury of feeling good about ourselves.
While issues are complex, and the knowledge and narratives used to inform decisions are complex as well, it is crucial to acknowledge and continually be aware of how power relations are exerted at all phases along the knowledge-narrative-policy cycle.
Perhaps we will have the hindsight to critically evaluate our choice in terms of its consequences for perpetuating uneven power structures.