Blast, the evening is running out and there is a continuous rant about culture that is buzzing through my brain. It’s difficult to turn brain rants into coherent blog posts. But I shall try.
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.
that was a good rant, and not at all rant like, but a good stream of coherent thought.
I’ve been struggling some with this issue myself. In reading various African American bloggers they seem to be saying that being colorblind (not thinking about our differences) is ignoring the problems of racism and white privilege. That somewhat surprised me since I thought I was doing well to treat everyone the same. Thanks for your thoughts which help prod my own. You made some good points.
Is there a culture that culturally understands other cultures and still retains its own distinctive culture or is it culturally unacceptable to retain a distinctive culture? Especially while living in some other culture? There was…actually is… this Man, well he was more that a man really, who wrote this Book… which explains how humanity is alike and also very different. We do, however, read this Book, though our own culture’s perspective unless we let this “Man’s Spirit” guide us as we read and apply its principles. What gets me, and this is truly my rant, is that, as the Universities and Institutions of Higher Learning develop more and more teachings and curriculum about cultural unity, we seem to be getting less real understanding and cooperation. (sigh) Good, thought provoking article.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Those are certainly lessons I had to learn at some point. Hopefully, if nothing else, your classmates are being pushed to figure out what they mean by “racism,” and whether what they mean is any different from what you suggested, and what’s wrong with thinking the developing world is populated by frustrated eating machines, not complex human beings. I’m optimistically wagering you’ve awoken nagging doubts for someone.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yours is an extremely valid thought. I live in Kenya. You have said it rightly. People are just people… With basically the same issues. While culture shapes our mindset, our basic Humanity remains the same:laughing, crying, the need for love, for worth…africa is a continent with many countries, many problems:the U. S. is a country of many states with problems. But if we look at ourselves
as people and not a cultural lable, you are so right. The young girl going to school here is thinking similar to you.
I had the fun of taking a young lady shopping for an important outfit. She could have been any girl anywhere. Sure, we were in tiny shopswith dirt floors, but she wanted a specific color, did it fit right? How about a jacket? What shoes were best?.. People are people. that’s why the same answer is good for all of us: people need the Lord. I really liked you brain rant.
I’m curious. Are any international students taking the class you describe in this thoughtful blog? I find Chimanada Adichie’s talk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” helps first year American college students form a more accurate picture of Africa simultaneously with starting discussions on how stereotypes are formed. A Google search for this talk leads to TED Talks and YouTube. I only show the first 9.5 minutes, which provides more than enough input for an ongoing class discussion, but you would probably be interested in the second half as well, which deals with issues of power. International students understand why I include this video when they discover some American students do not know Africa is a continent rather than a nation! Best wishes to you in your own transcultural experiences and in your classwork!
Sharon, everyone who has spoken up in class has had a very American accent. However, there is one guy who doesn’t talk much who might be an international student, I’m not sure. It’s easy for me to judge the attitude of the whole class by the few who speak up, but I need to remember that the ones who keep silent don’t necessarily share the opinions of the people who speak.
Thank you for recommending Chimanada Adichie’s talk, I look forward to hearing it!
Thanks to the TED talk, I have discovered Contemporary Nigerian Gospel music, which it turns out is pretty cool (some of it).
I think your right, Emily, that people basically want the same things, regardless of country or culture. To be loved, to be happy, to be well fed, to be safe. To make a mark on their world, to be understood, to be valued.
This was refreshing and well articulated!
I enjoyed this post – very well thought out and written! I wish my blog rants were so coherent! 🙂
Pingback: MOP April 23: Basic Complaints About a Semi-Bad Day | The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots