As funny as this is, it’s simple for us to recognise that it’s also a bit ridiculous.
As much as you (as a Canadian) are not a beer and beaver-toting voyageur conquering the polar bear infested snowscape with a hockey stick in your hand, it is foolish to reduce anyone else, anywhere, to the mere pieces of basic perceptions about their representative culture or region.
But we do this, unknowingly, and it is the not knowing that makes it dangerous. Because as we consume these tantalising “insights” about cultures and people, we then make judgments based on unrecognised assumptions, making them that much more difficult to dig out of their trenches when the time comes.
But we have to get a handle on our thoughts. Challenge them, prod them, get them to explore and march not in line with the status quo, but tramp their boots all over our most cherished stereotypes of “peoples” which we do not know. Because a person is a person, no less dynamic or static or ravishing or dull as us, our friends, our coworkers and family. Making anyone into any more or less than this is to do them a disservice. And to buy into this consumption of other cultures, whether it is vacationing in Cuba with the sun and the revolution or Vancouver with the mountains and the whales or Montreal with the festivals and the french or Kenya with the lion king safaris, we voraciously consume the people as destinations, not as distinct individuals but a homogenous vision of their “culture”.
This is how I feel when I show pictures of the cloth my tailor, Talhatu, fashioned into clothing for me. Yes, she was a tailor, and yes, she sews well and with popular Ghanaian and Togolese textiles, but that is not her entire identity, and Ghanaian fashion cannot be summed up with a picture of the vibrant cloth she works with. When you get to know her you see that she actually doesn’t care for yams, the dominant starch food in her region, she’s a mother of two bright but shy kids, she’s the granddaughter of the local chief and she’s being divorced by her husband. Ghanaians are not all like this, but neither are they simply comprised of their profession as farmer or tailor or shopkeeper, or their skin colour or the fact that they live on the African continent.
Ghana is a place where this hand-powered sewing machine works alongside stunning runway-quality Ghanaian fashion (pictures from Alex Fox’s Poia di Zorra).
This is some of the nuance and complexity I try to explain when I talk about Ghana, but it becomes difficult when I honestly cannot express the levels of detail I saw in people and situations, and the mountains of it I undoubtedly missed in the 4 short months I was there.
Something underlined when I start learning again with fresh eyes of a completely different region of the world. In this case, Latin America, which I had the absolute pleasure of exploring in my class at SFU, History 209. With a professor that understood this critical idea of simplifying people into unintelligble and meaningless stereotypes, the course was based around taking this romantic, impoverished, revolutionary vision of Latin America as a homogenous region and breaking it down by country, by class, by race, by gender, by political cant. And still we miss the breathtaking detail that creates the excitement and banality of everyday life. Until I saw the video below, I hadn’t realised that I was just replacing my broader, uninformed stereotypes with more polished, well-reasoned generalisations about groups of people. No less presumptuous, or incomplete, no matter how much more “educated” I am about the history of this complex region compared to the start of the semester.
And if you ever need to interact with these people, whether it is through travel, work, or let’s say international development, you are doing no favours by presenting yourself as someone so ignorant as to assume that you know their favourite cultural reference, or their views on their government, or their hopes and aspirations without asking them first.
Because really, how ridiculous would it be if someone came up to you and asked how your igloo lifestyle was being affected by global warming, or if you ever keep your pet beaver on a leash?