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Romanticising whites-only Africa isn’t new, creative, or clever – it’s dangerous

Audrey Sebatindira
Audrey Sebatindira  /  8 Comments

Taylor Swift is, once again, facing backlash for a racially insensitive music video. I get that it might be hard to see the insensitivity in ‘Wildest Dreams’. It does seem harmless enough, merely a pop star’s fantasy. And even if you do think it’s a bit off that on this African savannah there is not one single black person, you could put it down to an attempt at historical accuracy. All the real racism was left in the 1950s, after all, when they didn’t hire black people on film sets. Swift and her director were simply trying to be true to the theme.

However, neither of these arguments evince an understanding that the video was not produced in a vacuum. If this was a “post-racial” world where all stories were given equal value and histories were not erased, there’d be fewer problems with the video. Unfortunately, we don’t live in this ideal world.

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The main issue is the way that the video romanticises the colonial era. It hides the true horror of colonisation, focusing on a love story rather than, if we’re being historically accurate, the mistreatment and exploitation of Africans in which those love-birds would have been engaged or complicit.

This is a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s been done a number of times before (see ‘The English Patient’, ‘Out of Africa’, etc.), which actually makes the video even less forgivable. Swift has made herself part of a history where the truth of colonialism has been all but erased in dominant cultural discourse.

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Consider how strange it is that a lot of people will know the plot of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and other fictional stories set in colonial Africa, but will know nothing about the actual genocides committed by Europeans across the continent during that same period. These fictional love stories are so frustrating because they are valued more than the whole truth, and the truth in its entirety is important because the legacy of the violence of colonialism lives to this day.

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As pointed out on NPR, “[s]cholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced to colonial strategies.” If we keep allowing the darker side of colonialism to be drowned out by fictional white people, it will continue to be the case that only scholars are aware of the consequences of colonialism.

It’s also worth pointing out how entitled it is that a Westerner’s idealised version of Africa contains no Africans. More than that, it’s insulting. Especially in the context of a world where Westerners rarely seek to respect or even understand Africans. We’re so much more than the war-torn poverty porn that’s fed to non-Africans. We’re fuelling our own cultural, economic, and technological boom and writing our own stories. But not only are these stories not prioritised (and therefore not heard), if Africans aren’t deemed necessary to a story set by others on their own continent, they’re simply erased.

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I quite like Taylor Swift. But her racial politics need work, and she needs to stop hiring teams that think up problematic ideas, or fail to notice when Taylor’s ideas pose a problem. It’s great that she donated to the African Parks Foundation of America. It’s not a justification for the video, though; she hasn’t paid for the right to engage in harmful colonial fantasies.

Ignorance, which is clearly the problem here, is understandable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise it for causing or perpetuating harm. Ultimately, this isn’t just about Taylor Swift. It’s about getting people to see how abhorrent it is to whitewash a continent that was attacked and exploited by white people. This backlash, when critically engaged with, will introduce to some the history of Westerners glamorising colonialism, using it as the backdrop to dull, romantic encounters. It will help create a precedent showing that we’re no longer living in a time when casual racism in mainstream media will be dismissed or ignored. It can only be a good thing.

  • Guest

    I don’t understand the fuss about the racial issues that people have with this particular video. The subject or storyline of this music video is the thin line between reality and fiction in relationships, with the movie set as a backdrop of the story that is told through song. Coincidentally, I can imagine that many artists can relate to how this theme is portrayed in the video; it looks like a really confusing situation on a relational level - which should transcend race.

  • Guest

    You know there are some black people in the video, right? Just on a matter of fact.

  • Clue’s in the name…

    Lawrence of Arabia is set in the Arab peninsular, not Africa. It is based on historical events (albeit embellished).

    It also features the mass slaughter of Turks, instigated by Lawrence and presented with harsh realism, as well as several sympathetic Arab characters. Feisal and Ali are presented as more admirable than Lawrence in many respects. (The real T. E. Lawrence’s views on race are certainly outrageous to modern ears, although more advanced than most of his British contemporaries’. But for that you want his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, not the Peter O’Toole film.)

    Yes, Lawrence wants to be a ‘white saviour’. But it is a story of his failure to do so, and includes nuanced exploration of the synergies between Lawrence’s sexual masochism and his obsession with heroism. Naturally the film has its flaws and ambiguities, but it’s not bad for the pre-intersectional era. Great cinematography too. Do watch it sometime.

    Your historical perspective remains, of course, far superior to Taylor’s; one poor example does not a bad article make, but clarifying was iresistible.

  • Michael85

    Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t set in Africa you racist cunt.

  • Zarathustraman

    If the video attempted to convey a political message about colonialism, it would suck. However, the video was historically accurate. It portrays two rich people who had a great time and didn’t give a sh*t about black people. And showing videos and movies like that isn’t going to bring back colonialism anymore than movies about Medieval Knights are going to bring back the Middle Ages.

  • Thor fenris

    I hope you are against ALL historical romances since they invariably romanticise the past which as we all know was somewhere that horrible things happened.

  • Get over yourself

    Not every piece of media needs to push a political agenda…. Nor does it push an agenda by neglecting to push an agenda….. Just because a lighthearted love song set on/in a 1950’s movie production that itself is portraying colonial Africa neglects to showcase the plight of colonial Africans doesn’t mean that the artist singing the song is racist.
    Furthermore this love song was set on/in a movie production in the 1950’s where as you said it yourself black people would not have been hired. It is not Taylor Swift’s or anyone else’s responsibility to shoehorn a scene depicting a black person being turned down for work on a film set in the 1950’s or even more absurdly the atrocities befallen colonial Africans into a love song.
    Doing so would have been off putting and destroyed the message/vision of the song.
    Not to mention that it would have been some fucked up inception level bullshit to boot.
    Also Lawrence of Arabia was neither fictitious nor set in Africa….. Seriously read the Goddamn title….. It also was nowhere near as romanticism of colonial times.

  • FootballFan*

    Please dont write anything ever again. You have some of the dumbest opinions in the history of the human race and we would all feel better if we never had to hear them ever again. The logical fallacy at the center of this is so large as to be laughable.