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January 07, 2005

How Racist Ideology Works

The savage African, the trope of global racism, was carefully nurtured by European and American writers for centuries. In the mid-20th century, the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion was pictured as the epitome of this brutal savagery, so much so that when the trope of African savagery was borrowed to indict the black power movement in the US, writers like Tom Wolfe would borrow the image in his famous piece Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

But surprise-- the Mau Mau savagery is a myth. As the Economist details in a review of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of the End of Empire in Kenya, the number of British settlers killed?

At the time, westerners became aware of Mau Mau from reading grisly newspaper articles about the murder of white farmers. In fact, although thousands of Africans died in the conflict, only 32 white settlers were killed by Mau Mau in eight years.
In fact, the true savages were the British:
Tens of thousands of Africans were arrested and detained without trial in a series of squalid camps across the country. Thousands more—1.5m indeed, or the entire Kikuyu population, according to one of these books—were barricaded inside barbed-wire villages on the reserves, in an effort to starve the rebellion of food and military supplies.
Read that paragraph again. At the height of the Cold War, when the West was condemning Stalinist gulags, the British were creating gulags for black Africans.

And no one remembers, because it is more useful to imperial ideology to keep an image of savage Africans than of British gulags.

Posted by Nathan at January 7, 2005 07:10 AM