Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On ignorance

Yesterday, I was having a conversation with an American about how Americans are perceived by the world. Like most Americans of my acquaintance, he was both interested and well-informed regarding non-American matters. He was also well-travelled. However, this doesn't change the perception that exists that Americans are insular and ignorant of matters beyond (and sometimes even within) their vast borders, and that somewhere between 80-90% of them (depending on your reading material) don't even own a passport. Materials like this do nothing to help that perception.

Countless people have stories to tell of how, on a trip to the US, they encountered a version of the line, "You're from Africa? I have a friend in Nigeria, do you know her?" I had a few such experiences myself. Most people don't even hear the 'south' bit in South Africa - they just hear Africa, and visualise "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" (just in case anyone is interested, there are lions in Africa, but tigers and bears are not indigenous to the continent). Like many others, I have had to deal with a surprised and somewhat skeptical, "But you're white!" These situations cause much hilarity when related 'back home'.

The truth is, that we have a situation of the pot calling the kettle black. Right here in the UK, I hear regular references to Africa as a country. Just yesterday, in a coffee shop on St Pancras station, I overhead a group of American tourists laughing at how ignorant English people are about America, "I said I was from New York and he said, "Oh, I went to San Fransisco once, I stayed in XYZ hotel, do you know it?" I mean, can you believe it? He had no idea how far that is!" Others in his group were quick to respond with stories of their own.

But notice the pattern: my illustrations have focussed on an ignorance of Africa. The Americans were laughing because people were ignorant about America. We seem to have this perception that people should know what we know, and a failure in this arena constitutes laughable ignorance. This strikes me as a somewhat arrogant stance to take.

I would hope that in this space, at least, we don't see a reason to laugh but an opportunity to impart information. Of course, not everyone wants to learn - I have been waved away many times by people who don't want their clear waters muddied by inconvenient facts about some unimportant little place called Africa. And that's their choice... and I guess, their right.

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