Academics Think The Term ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ Is Racist


What countries really makes up sub-Saharan Africa?

It’s a term used regularly in the media, most recently in relation to Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg’s, visit to Nigeria, so at least we have to accept that Nigeria is part of sub-Saharan Africa.

What other countries are in sub-Saharan Africa?

According to the UN, sub-Saharan Africa consists of all African countries that are fully or partially located south of the Sahara (this apparently excludes Sudan, even though Sudan sits in the Eastern portion of the Sahara desert).

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The classification also contrasts with North Africa, whose Arab states are part of the Arab world. Some other countries like Djibouti are geographically part of Sub-Saharan Africa, but they are Arab states and a part of the Arab world, so again they are really not. It’s all just a little confusing.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The UN Development Program lists 46 of Africa’s 54 countries as part of sub-Saharan Africa. The African countries which do not make the cut are Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia. The World Bank, however, has 48 countries on its own list after adding Sudan and Somalia.

Both classifications make little geographical sense, for one instance, Eritrea is deemed sub-Saharan but its southern neighbor Djibouti is not, so what makes one country sub-Saharan and not another, if not geographical location?

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Columbia University anthropologist Brian Larkin says that the term spread as a replacement for the racially charged phrases ‘Tropical Africa’ and ‘Black Africa’ that were used until around the 1950s. According to him, racist colonial theories considered northern Africa more developed culturally. He said:

“It divides Africa according to white ideas of race, making North Africans white enough to be considered for their glories, but not really white enough.”

Another African Studies professor, Rosalind Morris, at Columbia University states rightly that:

“Sub-Saharan Africa is such an enormous catchphrase that it’s almost useless, Nigeria as a state doesn’t look anything like Kenya as a state, doesn’t look anything like Botswana.”

A 2010 petition was actually launched by a US diaspora group who found the terminology quite ‘disparaging and contemptuous’ and although the petition did not gather much momentum, it is representative of the anger or lack of understanding that most Africans both home and abroad have for the term.

Sub-Saharan Africa

There are more appropriate geographic markers for grouping countries in Africa – Central Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa – and there’s also the more appropriate and decidedly easier way of just naming the country or countries in question.

Saying “sub-Saharan Africa” does not make one sound more intelligent and if these people who study Africa are anything to go by, its really just insulting.