Things You Should Not Say to An African

There is so much we say to people about their nationality and place of origin without noticing how offensive those remarks are. As an African who recently moved to the United States, I have learnt that the life I grew up living is so far from what the rest of the world thinks about us. I learned this through the questions I get asked, through the manner at which people speak to me and how people act around me.

One of the first things I was taught when I moved here from South Africa was how to use a microwave. A microwave. I remember thinking to myself later that night, ‘What could they possibly think we use back home to heat up our food?’ A year and a couple of months later, I have endured so many awkward moments which, by the way, were only awkward for me because the person talking to me would find it appropriate to say and ask just about anything they want and expect me to not be offended.

My African friends and I find some sort of comfort in sharing and laughing at all the things people say to us out of oblivion and ignorance. Amongst other things, here are a few that you should refrain from saying to someone who is African…

Is that your real hair?

Africans are well known for switching up their hair into completely different styles every time. We use hair extensions (fibre), wigs and even just our natural hair. In as much as it can be tricky to distinguish the difference between the three, when you actually come to think of it, why do you need to know and why don’t you already know? This question never sits well with us, it comes off as condescending and rude. If it’s not a compliment that you are about to say, it’s best you don’t comment on our hair at all.

Are you used to seeing wild animals?

Here’s a fun fact, wild animals live in the wild. So, you asking if we are used to seeing wild animals implies that we also live in the wild otherwise how else would we see them so often? I am always so confused when I see people get surprised about the fact that I live in South Africa yet I have never seen a lion, cheetah, hippo, rhino, ostrich or any of those wild animals people assume we have roaming around our yards on a daily basis. I myself have seen them on National Geographic just like the rest of the world.

How come your English is so good?

Now you might be thinking that this is too ridiculous to be an actual question we get asked but I have been asked this at least twice since I moved to the United States. I’ll quote exactly how the question was asked the first 2 weeks I moved here, “So wait, if you are from Africa, how is your English so good?” Not only did the person asking me not realize that they have just insulted me and where I am from but they were actually patiently waiting for an answer. I remember wondering how I am supposed to speak. Stuttering out of shock, I answered. We learn English from grade 1 in South Africa, depending on which school you go to, everything is taught in English up until you graduate from college hence why we speak ‘good’ English.

Do you know who *inserts name of popular person/thing* is?

I never really understand the idea that Africans know nothing about the world. I am quite convinced that the moment you tell someone that you are from Africa, they assume you have been living in a hut or a cave your whole life so now you need to be educated about everything and everyone in the world because you haven’t had access to technology to keep you updated with what’s happening. We know celebrities, we have access to the same TV shows you watch, we eat just about the same things you eat, we use the same technology you use. Although I have to admit that I will never get used to the fact that in USA there are drive-thru ATMs.

Say something in your language

People say this with gleaming eyes, anticipating on a performance so they can be entertained. Refrain from asking Africans to say something in their language just to be fascinated then call over your friend and tell us to say it again. If you have no intentions of actually learning our languages then why ask us to perform for you? It’s our mother tongue not a talent to be shown off.

I have always wanted to visit Africa

If there is anything that annoys me the most when I tell someone that I am from South Africa, it has to be them responding with, “I have always want to go to Africa!” One of the reasons why I can’t stand hearing that is because Africa is not a country, it’s a whole continent with 54 countries. 54. So when you say you have always wanted to go to Africa, where exactly are you planning on going? You don’t ever hear people say they want to visit North America, they tell you where exactly they want to go because they are well educated about the places in the world. Also, don’t ask us what it’s like in Africa because what you are doing in this case is expecting us to speak on behalf of 54 countries and hundreds of tribes that we don’t know much about.

Can I just call you *inserts simplified version of our name*?

No. Absolutely not. Yes Africans have names that are hard to pronounce but you learn them. Just like how you know how to pronounce the word ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ with no problem, you can learn to say our names too. I myself have a difficult name (Mbalenhle — beautiful flower in Zulu), the ‘nhl’ is a clicking sound. However, growing up I was just called ‘Mbali’ and no, the ‘M’ is not silent. Unless a person tells you that you can call them ‘K’ instead of their full name, you have to learn it. Ask them to help you pronounce it instead of deliberately butchering it and when you forget how to pronounce it, which you will the first few weeks, you ask them to remind you.

If you think you have said at least one of these to an African, don’t feel bad, just don’t say it again. Instead, educate yourself on all the things you are inquisitive about. Read about it, watch documentaries and Africans are friendly people so they wouldn’t mind educating you too based off their own experiences just so long as you are not being rude about it and genuinely want to learn.

Growing up, we learn only about the history of Africa, the slavery, living in caves and learning to make our own weapons to hunt down animals. When we turn on the tv, anything that’s got to do with Africa is the wild and poverty. Which is why people tend to look down on Africa and africans as a whole, there’s more to us than that though. Take some time and educate yourself.



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Mbalenhle K

Mbalenhle K


I spend too much time on social media then come here to talk about what I have collected