This week the first lady of the United States, Melania Trump, was in Kenya for a “stop” on her “Africa tour“. Her decision to appear at Nairobi National Park wearing a white pith helmet, crisp white shirt and light brown jodhpurs made headlines in international media, which correctly described the pith helmet as a symbol of colonial rule.
So much about the concrete history of white supremacy is poorly remembered or conveniently forgotten. As such, it may be difficult for many to understand why the US first lady chose to dress up in the costume of a colonial settler in Kenya in 2018. To begin to understand the historical resonances she was tapping into (consciously or otherwise) it’s helpful to consider the pith helmet in terms of its material history. What is a pith helmet? Who wore one and why? How has it come to stand as such a pungent emblem of empire? What cultural meanings are attached to the pith helmet, and should we think of the US first lady’s decision to wear a pith helmet as a scandal?
White Europeans have long been obsessed with the supposed relationship between race, culture and climate. We have persistently tried to stabilise racial difference as a natural and scientific fact, rather than a set of social and cultural ideas that are perpetually being formed, always contested and re-ordered.
Nineteenth-century colonists were supported by leading scientific and medical opinion in their belief that solar radiation in “the tropics” attacked white people’s nervous systems and rendered them infertile. Other symptoms of exposure were thought to include laziness, depression, outbursts of excessive passion, insomnia and memory loss. This notion of warm climates as profoundly hostile reflected the deeply held conception of the colonies as, in every sense, another world.
Pith helmets were often worn by colonisers alongside other protective paraphernalia, such as red vests and “spine pads” (a quilted piece of cloth) worn down the back of the shirt to protect the nervous system from the feared “actinic ray”. Some even wore pith helmets and spine pads indoors, since even beneath a tin roof they considered themselves in constant peril from the tropical sun. Spine pads were a standard issue item in British Army kit in the early 20th century.
Conveniently for wealthy whites in the colonies, other medical recommendations included forbidding whites from doing manual labour outdoors (they were to undertake supervisory roles only), vacationing to cooler climates at regular intervals, and the repatriation of white children from the colonies after the age of five (typically to an expensive private boarding school back “home”).
The pith helmet was part of a pseudoscientific discourse that enforced class, as well as racial domination, since only the rich could follow such medical advice.
The pith helmet is sometimes used to denote a “frontier” spirit of adventure and intrepid exploration. This is wrong. In fact, their historical social role was to emblematise white fragility and anxieties, as well as blurring the distinction between white civilians and the colonial police and military, who also wore pith helmets.
Colonialism extracted labour and resources from “natives” by ordering colonial societies through extreme and everyday forms of violence. But it was always necessary to insist that despite enjoying the protection of colonial states armed to the teeth in order to immiserate and exploit subject peoples, it was whites – and white women, in particular – who were the most vulnerable group in the colony.
In this sense, the pith helmet represents not only colonialism, but whiteness, too. We might think of whiteness as an identity that always noisily insists on its own vulnerability (despite social and economic realities to the contrary) as the principal justification for the oppression of racialised others.
Kenya provides an especially compelling historical example of this dynamic. The anticolonial uprising of the Land and Freedom Army in the 1950s (more widely known as the “Mau Mau” due to colonial propaganda) became notorious for “savage” violence against white settlers.
Through sensationalised news coverage, Hollywood films and salacious novels, the notion of “Mau Mau” as a black bogeyman butchering white women and children was widely popularised. In fact, just 32 European civilians were killed during the whole affair. White settlers responded to these losses by explicitly calling for genocide, rallying to demand the colonial government exterminate the entire Gikuyu people.
We now know more about the scale and brutality of Britain’s counterinsurgency in Kenya thanks to recent historical scholarship and the landmark court case brought to the High Court in London by elderly Kenyan victims of colonial torture in 2009 (the UK government eventually admitted to the torture and paid out compensation).
Exact figures are contested, but it is known that tens of thousands of Kenyans were killed by colonial forces during the uprising, while hundreds of thousands more were detained in concentration camps and fortified villages, subjected to routine brutality and forced labour. Rape and castration were common forms of torture, and many victims of such atrocities are still with us today.
My own view is that the US first lady’s decision to wear a pith helmet was appropriate and should be taken seriously. The regime she represented in Kenya is a white supremacist one. Her husband campaigned successfully under the fascist slogan “America First,” and has since implemented his “Muslim ban” and encouraged the detention of migrants, including separating children from their parents and keeping them in “tender age” cages.
The policies and ideological grounding of the current US administration – and the bogus fears animating its supporters – represent a continuation of earlier forms of imperialism. There is no attempt to disguise the fear and hatred towards people of colour, at home or abroad. The pith helmet makes the connection quite clear.
No country in the West has adequately reckoned with the historical reality of colonialism. Until such a reckoning takes place through broad-based education and memorialisation, it is difficult to see how Western societies can ever move beyond the powerful investment in whiteness that so disfigures our common political, social and spiritual life.
Like Melania Trump, too many in the West look at today’s world not as it really is, but through a veil of racial and colonial delusions. As the writer Nanjala Nyabola reflected on the US first lady’s visit to Kenya: “We joke, but it’s deeply disturbing to see someone who seems to believe that your whole life is some kind of colonial fantasy hellscape.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.