Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Reflection: Don't Judge a Culture by its Cover

My awareness of the ways book covers can reflect and reinforce stereotypes of gender - which I touched on in the last post - has come largely from those who seek to point out the way race or 'foreign' locales are represented on book covers.  The cover of a book tells somebody what to expect in reading it, but what happens when the cover doesn't reflect the content, but rather a preconceived stereotype of the setting, characters or content?

Here are two specific examples where entire cultures have been essentialised down to a single image or trope.   First, we have the classic I'm-a-book-about-an-Arabic/Islamic-woman-therefore-I-must-be-oppressed-and-have-no-individual-identity:


There are some excellent discections of the 'Veiled Woman' cover, including 'Translating for Bigots', 'Don't Judge Books By Their Cover - Especially Arabic Works in Translation''Why So Many 'Saving Muslim Women' Book Covers?' and 'Book Covers Promote Orientalist Portrayal of Muslim Women'.  All of them touch on the book covers as a vehicle for Orientalism, which: 
"...considers the way that the Middle East and Asia are represented in Western novels, biographies, and artworks.  Commonly, these depict places lost in times past, inclined towards despotic rule, and prone to odd cultural rituals that can be both pleasurable and symptomatic of weakness....The Orient was a powerfully pictured but vague location that the Westerner believed he could control and enjoy, penetrate and posess, and  hide in....The implicit goal, which repeats across time in politics, media and the popular imagination, was to reaffirm cultural difference and render things 'Oriental' marginal to the West and subordinate to Western international relations."   
-- Extract of 'Post-colonialism' by Christine Sylvester in The Globalization of World Politics, edited by Bayliss et al.
The ways small cultural artifiacts, such as book covers, can reinforce hierarchies of power between countries, communities and individuals in the international arena can be demonstrated using the I'm-a-book-set-in-Africa-so-I-must-feature-a-sunset-over-the-savannah:

The 'Acacia Tree' covers exemplify Sylvester's first example; that Africa exists within a timeless bubble of primitiveness (none of the examples feature any buildings other than small, mud huts).  As with the Arabic example, this image is developed prior to knowledge of the book's content and the views of the author (both often trying to subvert stereotypes, not reinforce them).  With regards to Africa, this is sometimes called 'Black Orientalism' or 'Afro-Orientalism', but it can also just be classified as Orientalism because of its commonalities with the ways Asia and the Arab world is stereotyped.  No matter what the region, these stereotypes have real-world effects.

In this case, they establish Africa as a homogenous place and thereby illegitimate the experience of being Xhosa or Yoruba, Shona or Kikuyu, from urban Africa or a particular region of the continent.  As a prime example, I just googled Kikuyu to make sure I was spelling it right, and except for one Wikipedia page listing all the pages that Kikuyu might refer to (5 out 7 were related directly to the ethnic group), all of the other options on the first page of my Google results refered to a species of grass.  The Kikuyu make up 22% of Kenya's population - the largest of any single ethnic group - and yet the Western world is more concerned with a native Kenyan grass that was named after them.  

Ebola illustrated the real world implications of such ignorance beautifully.  Although Europe was closer to the Western African outbreak than Southern Africa, tourism in the South took a seroius downturn.

Secondly, the Africa-as-timeless trope denies the reality of the continent's colonial history and the impact this continues to exert today.  Surely, if a Western country doesn't recognise the Rwandan genocide as a partial byproduct by colonial hierarchies that turned Hutu and Tutsi from fluid ethnic groups to castes, then making a decision about whether to intervene becomes simpler.  Ditto the coming African Debt Crisis and many other international affairs issues.  The flip side of this, I suppose, is that the depiction of Africa as primitive and backward allows for neo-colonialism; the West (and other powers, such as China, which has developed massive oil, crop and other interests in African nations) can intervene without international condemnation.  

So, while it might seem that covers featuring acacia trees or veiled women are fairly unimportant in the scheme of things,they are one small cog in a very big machine that determines the way we think about the world.  

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