Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do Children Discriminate?

My ginger-haired one year old gets a lot of attention on the streets of Accra, his present home city.  For one, since our family doesn't own a stroller he's usually walking, while most Ghanaian babies his age ride wrapped onto their mama's back.  For another, he's got that red hair.

And of course, he's white.  White people comprise a definite minority here, and when walking even more so - whites tend to be of the wealthier set who take mostly to cars.

My boy also gets attention because he gives it; his favorite thing to do when out and about is to wave at everyone he sees.  Most wave back.  Some pause for a high five.

On a recent walk, my kid's friendliness so inspired one man he stopped to talk.  He had something he wanted to get across to us, and through a thick accent and English a mite garbled, we got most of it.

"We blacks," he said, "we blacks, we teach our kids to discriminate."  My wife and I are divided about whether he was saying that Ghanaians (in his opinion of course) teach their kids to discriminate against whites or between families/ethnic groups.  But his central message, as he continued to talk with a fair amount of passion, was clear - it's better to teach children to be accepting of and open to everyone.

"It is good," the stranger said of my son's impartial friendliness.  "He will live long."

One year olds, I'm pretty sure, don't see race.  But it might be a lot easier to teach children to discriminate - between things, or against people - than I think.  I do know that, for myself, learning how to 'see' and respond to race has been a lifelong, continuing experience.

"May he live to be 100 years before he is called up," the man said of my son, by way of goodbye.  And I hope he keeps his openness all those livelong years.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chuck 'em Where?

"Chuck 'em in the middle of Africa, they won't survive long…"

…said the guest on the BBC Radio talk show.  I was driving through Accra traffic and only had the station on for a short snippet, just enough to know the radio folks were talking about how we humans modify our environment to fit our requirements instead of adapting to survive whatever the surroundings.  How we are so fragile without our comforts.

It caught my attention, this reference to 'Africa.'  How the "middle of the continent" was somehow the de facto place on the planet where it would be hardest for us less hardiest of beasts to survive.

I suppose the guest didn't mean his comment to be derisive, but I took it that way.  I'll stop short of saying I was "appalled and disgusted" at the negative stereotyping.  It at least made me sad.

Never mind that the "middle of Africa" isn't a real place.  The continent is too varied - in both shape and culture - to have a middle.

What hit me the most was that there was no qualification of the use of Africa as the prototypical fearsome wilds.  The guest didn't say, "Chuck 'em in a jungle in the middle of Africa…," or "Chuck 'em in the middle of the Sahara…"  He simply assumed the whole place was so inhospitable and disease-ridden, so full of beasts of prey that no human, left to themselves, could survive.  Anywhere.

Now it's very true that there are a lot of wild places in Africa, places that, left to myself, I certainly wouldn't survive in for very long.  But when people talk about the continent's dangerous places I want there to be a specific qualifier, a discrete area, in the conversation.

If you don't know enough about this land to name a specific treacherous place, don't lump the whole shebang into the primeval heap.  (I do love mixed cliches.)

I recently walked through an example of survival here in the West African country of Ghana.  A kind of basic adaptability that the dude who said "chuck 'em in Africa…" probably wouldn't be able to pull off himself.

The used clothing market in Accra Central burned down barely a month ago.  But when I went through there last week, the place was already back to functionality.  In place of the wooden stalls with their corrugated tin roofs I saw a sea of umbrellas sheltering the traders, their goods piled on pallets to keep them off the mud.

Now that's a place I'd like to see the BBC commentator chucked.  See how long he'd survive.