This term I’m taking a class on African anthropology. The teacher has a great grasp on culture, and I enjoy the class. With the students, though, it’s a different story.
The first day, the teacher asked us to write down the stereotypes that we associate with Africa. Then she asked us, “were those stereotypes mostly good or bad?”
“Bad,” we said. I mean, we’d all written down stuff like “poverty” and “danger.”
“Why do you think the stereotype of Africa is this way?” she asked.
In my mind, this negative view of Africa comes primarily from well-intentioned people who see something bad going on in Africa and think that Americans should be informed of this to help out in some way. And it works in a sense–aid money is earned for Africa–but people don’t always realize the huge negative effects of perpetually seeing another place in such a negative light.
I expressed this, but to my surprise, I was the only one in the class thinking along those lines. Everyone else who spoke seemed to say some variation of the sentiment, “oh, it’s racism.”
Now, I’m not saying that the colonialist and racist attitudes of the past have no effect on how we operate today. But just saying “it’s racism” is problematic in my opinion. Primarily because it pins the blame on an intangible enemy, and gives people the idea that if they’re not racist they’re not contributing to the problem.
In the next class session, the teacher began to talk about the nuances of culture. She asked us, “If you’re driving to school one day, thinking about whatever you’re thinking about, and if someone in Africa is going to school and thinking about what they think about, do you think you’d be thinking about the same types of things?”
Personally, I think we would be thinking about the same types of things, and I expressed this to my class. I mean sure, the specific things we thought about might reflect our culture, but that diversity happens even in our own classroom. When I go to school I, as a Mennonite, might be thinking about the next church potluck, while someone else in the class might think about getting together with his friends and drinking beer. Still, we’re both thinking about hanging out with our friends.
So many of the things people think about are universal things. Worry about grades and money. Daydreaming about the guy you like. Frustration with family relationships. Jealousy. Fear. Happiness. Loneliness. Everyone thinks about these things.
However, I was the only person in the class who thought that we’d pretty much be thinking the same things. Everyone else who spoke said that we’d mostly be thinking different things. No one gave specifics as to why until, after I’d spoken, one guy countered it by saying that those people would probably mostly be thinking about where their next meal was coming from. Are you kidding me?
I didn’t say anything back, because I really don’t want to be that girl who’s like, “I went to Africa for a few months eleven years ago, I know all about culture, everyone should listen to me.” But seriously? Starving people do probably think about food more than you do, but to say they don’t think about anything else is stripping them of their humanity.
And also, not everyone in Africa is starving.
And also, if this hypothetical person is going to school they probably have at least somewhat of an income stream.
And also…. Dear class. In the first class meeting, you insinuated that the pervasive negative view of Africa is not your fault at all, because you’re not racist. In the second class meeting, you showed that you view Africans as fundamentally different than you. How does that compute?
I know that this is somewhat of a pot and kettle situation, because I, too, struggle with ethnocentrism. I’ve studied a lot about culture, but I’ve never gotten to know another culture in-depth, and I’ve never learned another language.
Still, this lack of basic knowledge on how negative stereotypes are formed and how they can be combated–and the importance of viewing people as first of all, human–it really disturbed me.
Cultural understanding is HUGELY important. When it comes to wars, and poverty, and pretty much every pressing world problem, if people can’t understand and communicate across a culture there is a very large possibility of well-intentioned people making things worse.
Yesterday’s MOP post: https://jasmucker.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/mop-april-2-an-apology-and-a-poem/
Monday, Mom will post at: http://dorcassmucker.blogspot.com/
Photo stolen from my sister Amy’s facebook. It has nothing to do with Africa but it’s related to culture so that’s why I chose it.