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The Issues of Cultural Relativism and Culture Takeover in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” This great proverb was a favorite of the influential author, who wrote Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. Achebe realized the value of storytelling. As a writer, the story of the hunt must be recorded, not only to glorify the hunter, but to reflect the agony of it and the bravery of the lions. Perhaps this proverb is where Achebe drew inspiration for his novel Things Fall Apart. Achebe became a historian of lions with his first novel, as he tells a story of travesty and loss, that shows the devastating effects of colonialism on a Nigerian village. Many say Achebe wrote this novel in response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s novel follows a white man and his journey through Africa. Both novels are centered around ideas as old as time: colonialism and imperialism. These two ideas seem to be the causes in a chain of events that have led to the racism and discrimination in colonized countries. By using Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and modern and historical examples of culture takeover, the detrimental effects of colonialism and imperialism will be discovered throughout this essay.

Along with the resources, wealth, and power Western cultures exploited from other countries, the idea of a white savior complex stemmed from the intense period of colonialism. While it may not be blatantly pointed out, both novels express this idea through their plots. In Things Fall Apart, the white colonizers abruptly interrupt the Nigerian culture of Okonkwo and his family. The colonizers impose their own culture and Christianity on Okonkwo’s community. This is disguised under the idea of missionary work, when in reality it is the truest form of colonization. From a young age, we are taught that the West is the hero of the world, fighting oppression and bringing democratization to every state, but in reality there is a developing white savior complex. Western countries believe that they are helping developing nations, but there is an underlying self serving purpose. In both novels, this is shown.

The colonizers have the same attitudes of civilizing the savages. If there is true help wanting to be done, then westerners must distance themselves from ethnocentric beliefs. There is a fine line between trying to help a foreign community and imposing ones own culture on another society. These themes from the novels are present in real life as well. For example, one of the most prominent periods in US racial formation would have to be the early periods of the colonization of the United States. Native Americans, African Americans and Mexican Americans were all victims of the racial conflicts during this time (Fitzgerald). During this time period these groups were being forced to leave their homes and willingly surrender to the white man who thought it was his duty to bring civilization to these “inferior races”. Many times these groups were killed for resisting and if they were not killed, they were treated very differently because they were thought of as uncivilized savages. Because of their racial inferiority, these marginalized groups were forced into slavery and largely exploited by whites. This exploitation led to years of discrimination and left very little room for these marginalized groups to be able to prosper in a pressing society who never viewed them as equal. Today we still see a reflection of this attitude. Many times radicalized groups like undocumented immigrants are being exploited, forced to work laborious hours for little pay similar to the system of slavery that blacks faced.

Also the attitudes of white superiority are still reflected in today’s society, for example the idea of white privilege. If there was not a sense of white superiority in today’s society than the argument of the existence of white privilege would not be valid, but it is. White privilege is prominent in our society today and it acts as evidence against this idea of color-blindness. Some scholars argue that we are living in a color-blind society, but this is simply not true. The very existence of white privilege in our society is an indication that we are not a color blind society. In order to avoid situations like those included in Heart of Darkness and Things Fall apart, cultural relativism must be used in approaching foreign cultures. To illustrate a modern example, Rachelle Cassman wrote an article on Female Genital Cutting (FGC). In her article, she provides various arguments defending and opposing FGC. The main argument that Cassman is trying to convey is that if we are going to take a stance on the eradication of such practices as FGC, then we must do it with a cultural relativist approach, otherwise we will not succeed. FGC is still a prominent practice and is a part of many cultures all around the world. Its practice imposes a variety of questions about human right issues, health issue and gender discrimination. While these are all pressing issues, Cassman emphasizes the need to understand FGC in the cultural, religious, and ethnic settings that it is being practiced in. By analyzing the particular problem of FGC, the reader gains new insight as to how important it is to fully understand a community’s culture instead of simply making assumptions about a culture that isn’t ours. In her article, Cassman explains the importance of FGC in different cultures. FGC is a practice deeply rooted in honor, sexuality, religion and tradition. It is related to socio-economic status and affects the over-all acceptance of a woman in their own community. To many mothers FGC is crucial for the daughters marriageability and economic future (Cassman 135). So in effect, there are various factors that surround the practice of FGC, many of which Western feminist are not aware of.

This is one of the main reasons why Western opposers fail at eradicating practices such as FGC. They focus mainly on the human rights violations and the health issues that FGC causes, ignoring cultural context and essentially come off as arrogant to natives. While, it has been documented that women who have undergone FGC are more likely to contract HIV, experience painful menstruation, urine retention, painful intercourse and fatal pregnancies; the way that Western opposers articulate their arguments can many times leave the natives feeling judged (Cassman 137). They perceive Western opposers as condescending; and they feel as if they are only trying to impose their own western culture on them (Cassman 140). This is where the reader learns the importance of cultural relativism. One must not believe that certain cultural practices are “bad”, simply because one’s culture does not accept it. If this is the instance, then it is confirming the belief one culture is superior to all others. It is crucial that all cultures are seen as equal. A community cannot be helped if it believes it is being oppressed. They must be shown that one understands the cultural importance of their traditions and practices. Cassman provides examples of where and how FGC was successfully eradicated and explained why in some cases it was not a successfully stopped. In Egypt the original ban against FGC was overturned and only reinstated once educational programs were put in place to educate the public on the religious myths surrounding FGC (Cassman 150). In Senegal the implementation of Tostan, an educational program, caused the women and the men of the community to begin a new wave of FGC intolerance.

The main point that Cassman makes is the importance of the implementation of education. Cassman argues that to try and eradicated FGC solely on the grounds of human rights laws is ineffective. She writes “culture may change law, but law is not going to change culture” (Cassman 145). The main point of this argument is that without the full understanding of FGC and finding a balance between “cultural integrity and international human rights”, FGC will continue to be practiced and perpetuated. By implementing educational programs, the community learns about the harmful effects of FGC and the myths that surround FGC, of course, this education has to be very specific to the community. It must be approved by local leaders and the actual people of the community. This is not only true in the case of FGC, but in any case. When addressing any particular cultural practice that is being debated, it is important that there is an educational standpoint as opposed to the condemnation and emphasis on the illegality of practices. The second point that Cassman makes is that these educational programs have to be carried out by the local community. She writes “It is crucial that African Women are empowered by African Women so that trust and credibility is established, and the message is respected.” This reflects the idea that many times natives are skeptical of the intentions of Western feminists and humanitarians. These communities will not respond well to condemnation of their practices and so it is best they be addressed by their own communities not foreigners who believe to hold all the answers and solutions.

It is crucial to analyze cultural practices within the context of that particular culture and be sure to not to let one’s cultural biases affect his or her judgment. In Things Fall Apart, the idea of cultural relativism is completely ignored. The Igbo culture is completely taken over by the European colonizers. By using the guise of religion, the Europeans slowly enticed more members of the culture to convert. Eventually the culture dissipates, and resembles the culture of a European town. In Things Fall Apart, the reader sees the culture falling apart through Okonkwo’s eyes. His resistivity to accept the European culture can come off as unprogressive to white readers. While he was trying to remain loyal to the Igbo culture, his flaws were accentuated, as he poorly managed his disapproval and resistance, which led to his demise. Some may see Okonkwo as stubborn and unwilling to change, but as Cassman argued, when a foreign culture is suddenly imposed on natives, there is not much else to think of it as besides oppression. In Okonkwo’s eyes, he is the hero of his story: the savior of his culture. This is what Achebe was trying to address by writing Things Fall Apart in response to Heart of Darkness.

In Heart of Darkness, the novel shows a look into the lives of natives after colonization. It focuses solely on the perception of Marlow, a white sailor. Conrad uses Africa as a mere setting for the self discovering journey of a white man. Achebe explains, ‘Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.’ While humans have innate predispositions and schemas associated with people, places, and objects, each one seems to slightly differ from the next. For example, we all imagine something different when we hear the word Africa. Perhaps some imagine it as an ominous land, full of jungle as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or other imagine it as nothing more than a developing country in need of saving. So the real question one should be asking is what is the real Africa?

For Americans as a whole, little is known about Africa. 400 years of slavery, and Americans don’t know much of the country they enslaved, besides the few things people learn by occasionally glancing through the pages of newspapers and hearing about genocide, AIDS, malaria or civil war, no one delves deeper than what they are presented with. Popular media does not improve mat¬ters as accuracy is not the priority. Various derogatory terms such as: native, tribe, savage, jungle, pagan etc. are often used to describe traditional Africans. In addition, a survey by a major American Museum presents a number of widely held misconceptions about Africa. Keim has, however given reason for this misrepresentation by saying that ‘we often use ideas provided by our culture instead of investigating things for ourselves’. Keim concludes that the way Americans constructed Africa reflects upon who they are in relation to Africa. As Conrad present his light on Africa, he frequently uses the word savages, wild, cannibals, etc. to describe the Africans of the story. Cannibalism and tribe, among other words are used as derogatory terms to describe Africans. The description of Africans as cannibals was not based on careful studies and research in Africa, but merely on deeply prejudiced ‘Dark Continent myths’. This derogatory term is offensive in the sense that it distorts reality and justifies exploitation.

The use of tribe to describe Africans has long been rejected because it is confusing and inaccurate. The myth of Africa as tribal relies on outdated concepts formed during a more racist and imperialist era. A textbook definition of tribe and historical background clearly shows that the term does not fit for Africa at all. Keim addresses the origin of the derogatory term ‘The Darkest Africa’, one of the stereotypical western views of Africa. This term was employed by Conrad as well in the title of his novel. Africans who were known for their confidence, adventure and wisdom have been described as primitive, who practice the darkest of customs such as: cannibalism, ritual murder, incest, witchcraft, and incessant warfare. This dark view about Africa is so predominant that nobody bothers to ask if there is truth behind the tales. With regard to western views of Africans, Africans were regarded as savage and bad men. This was as a result of the racial consciousness on the part of the westerners in their bid to reduce Africans to the low¬est form of humanity. However, recent research has shown that the image of the ‘Dark Continent’ is a later fabrication developed in the nineteenth century as Europeans became increasingly interested in both science and African conquest (Keim 36). In antiquity, the racism is not a significant issue since color differences were regarded as geographical accident.

As Americans, we have an expectation of what the real Africa is to be. From the American point of view, Africa is expected to be a survival of the fittest jungle with poverty, sickness, starvation, warfare, corruption and a continent that cannot rise above itself. Africa is therefore presented as a troubled, helpless, exotic and sexualized continent. Through this continued mentality, Americans developed a white savior complex and thought they could be of help to Africa, through what they called ‘a civilizing mission’, Americans aimed at helping African societies to look more like their own. The various ways they provided help were authoritarian help, market help, conversion help, gift giving help, participating help, and military help. However, it is unfortunate that these types of assistance turned to be problematic for Africa, as they replicated the error of measuring Africans by what they lack.

Works Cited

  1. Keim, Curtis A. Mistaking Africa : Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. Westview Press, 1999.
  2. Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and evolution of a worldview. Routledge, 2018.
  3. Stam, Robert, and Louise Spence. ‘Colonialism, racism and representation.’ Screen 24.2 (1983): 2-20.

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The Issues Of Cultural Relativism And Culture Takeover In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart And Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from
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The Issues Of Cultural Relativism And Culture Takeover In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart And Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 Oct. 2021].
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