This may sound like a strange pairing but if you think about it, LOVE and HATE are similarly paired and we accept the comparison without too much debate. Why is this? Because the strange experience of strong feelings of love transferring into strong feelings of hate or vice versa is a shared experience. As hard as it is to explain, because we’ve experienced the feelings we accept the comparison. But how can there be a thin line separating a respecter of culture from a racist, albeit a covert one? Shouldn’t there be a large chasm separated by an impenetrable wall? To understand what I mean I have to use some examples that depending on where you live you may never encounter. You should however be able to figuratively place yourself in the shoes of the persons used in the illustration and thus be able to understand what I’m driving at.
Before I lay out the examples however I think first we must explain the difference between a standard and a cultural characteristic. A standard is a benchmark set by man in order to chart progress. The benchmark itself is not to be judged as right or wrong it’s just an honest realization of the way things are. ‘The way things are’, is a concrete fact. We can deny this reality if we want to, but we’re only hurting ourselves and postponing any necessary work that needs to be done in order to realize the goal of making things ‘the way they should be’. Now ‘the way things should be’ is admittedly a relative condition based on the collective opinions of the peoples living during that particular time period. Setting a benchmark and working to raise the standard of ‘the way things are’ has nothing to do with violating cultural traditions. It is possible to raise standards while keeping the cherished traditions of the culture in question inviolate. A cultural characteristic or trait, is an identifiable part of a particular culture. For example, a style of mask used by the Yoruba of Nigeria is considered a cultural characteristic. Within that cultural characteristic however can be applied various standards of quality. We can recognize the existence of good quality masks painstakingly crafted and made from sturdy materials and poor quality masks, which are just thrown together using the cheapest of materials. If we identify the poor quality masks as poor, we are in no way making a judgement on the Yoruba culture. Our judgement has nothing to do with the cultural character of the Yoruba people. People who don’t understand the difference between cultural characteristics and standards erroneously attack such judgements as racist and as a result the standard of quality of the Yoruba mask drops. Everyone notices the change but are afraid to say anything for fear of being called at best politically incorrect or at worst racist. It eventually gets to the point that people claiming to be Yoruba begin wearing paper bags on their heads with holes cut out for the eyes. If someone especially from another culture comments on the obvious change he is shouted down.
This same phenomenon has taken place in the African American community. Take for example the use of profanity and poor grammar. A person should have an extensive enough vocabulary to express his or herself without the use of profanity. We are all speaking English which has its own standards and rules of grammar. Like the Yoruba mask illustration once the standard of English begins to fall, everyone takes notice but no one says anything for fear of being called racist. Mistaking the poor grammar laced with profanity as a cultural characteristic, instead of what it actually is; a decline in standards, politically correct people invent the title Ebonics. If someone criticizes the use of Ebonics or profanity they are shouted down as being intolerant.
“Who are you to say profanity is bad,” you ask? “That’s just the way I talk!”
Well in the first place the root of the word profanity is profane which means vulgar or shocking. The very purpose of the words are to shock others by their vulgarity. If someone was raised speaking with profanity and doesn’t see anything wrong with it or doesn’t feel the need to expand his or her vocabulary that’s their right. However if a black person says, that’s the way black people are supposed to talk then he’s feeding into covert racist thinking. For a person of another race to insinuate that black people should talk in this manner he or she is being covertly racist.
I’ve even had White and Spanish people tell me that I talk like a white person or that I’m not black enough. Society has made the hiphop persona so mainstream that they feel they can say this to me. They perhaps don’t realize how racist they are being by saying black people are talking white when we use proper diction.
The same can be said about the use of the ‘N-word’, tattoos, and baggy clothing. These traits were born out of centuries of slavery and the current prison culture. However the politically correct have once again mistaken the decline of standards with cultural characteristics resulting in increasingly younger men and women permanently branding their bodies, habitually wearing extremely loose or extremely tight fitting clothing, and speaking in such a way that makes them unhireable.
But I digress…
Let’s leave the African American community alone and focus on the reason I started this article in the first place. Here in Africa a sharp decline in standards is being confused with cultural characteristics and contributing to the breakdown of the family structure.
In Central Africa there exists a custom among the Fang tribe of requiring high bride prices in order to recognize marriages. First let’s consider the purpose of the original custom. Like most tribal traditions it was set in order to maintain the stability of the tribe. A reasonable amount of goods were given by the groom to the family of the bride in order to compensate them for the loss of a valued member and also to show that he valued his bride to be. Such customs dissuaded any inclination of casual dating because if a child were born before the bride price was paid, according to the law the child was not his but rather belonged to the tribe. He had no rights over the child. For all intents and purposes he was not the child’s father though the child looked like him and had his blood running through its veins. Now let’s fast forward through slavery and colonization to our modern day. The Fang still enforce the tradition of bride price or dōtay but it has become unrecognizable from its original purpose. Not just the family head but each family member has a right to demand extravagant gifts in addition to large amounts of money and an ‘all you can eat and drink’ banquet dinner for the family lasting all night and into the morning. If the bride groom is poor, like many are, he has no way of appeasing the family and taking his wife. If he has children by the woman his poverty strips him of any rights to them. Both she and her children live in her parents home and look disdainfully at the person whose poverty makes him less of a man. His love for his wife and children, any idealistic notions of family values are dismissed by the family as nonsense. He has no money so he is not a real man. He has no money so his love for his wife and children is not genuine. Eventually even the man’s wife and children are convinced by the family of his lack of love. “If he really loved me,” she would reason, “then he would pay the dōtay and take me away from here.” In his frustration the man turns toward drink. This vice relieves him of any hopes he may have harbored of raising the money required to liberate his family. The new custom which is marked by materialistic greed promotes broken families and a breakdown in family values. This is a perfect example of how the lowering of standards not the custom itself resulted in the breakdown of the family structure.
In response to criticisms in my article “Why do you hate us?””I don’t hate you I just don’t care about you” one person commented that instead of criticizing I should embrace them as a culture. This type of abstract thinking is dangerous. Instead of teaching them the useful skills they need to succeed they are picking up the bad habits of the western world. For example the dog eat dog mentality, where instead of helping others to learn to succeed so everyone can be lifted up together, they are taught to look out for número uno. Given just a little bit of prestige they are lifted up and walk all over everyone else with heads held high and without a twinge of guilt because they aspire to imitate their western counterparts.
As an African American currently living in Africa I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon of covert racism which many of my readers may not be aware of. The following examples are hypothetical situations based on actual events witnessed by me:
EXAMPLE 1 : Tom, who is from an advanced western nation, claims to believe all men are equal. He considers himself a respecter of culture. He admires Africans because according to him, they are happy whether they have clean water, adequate food, malaria or typhoid fever. Tom gets a construction contract and uses a mix of skilled local labor and unskilled American labor. Bill was paid a decent wage as an unskilled American worker. Bill later recommends a friend of his to Tom for a future job and he accepts. Bill is pleased because his friend really needs the money and he is a capable worker so he feels it should be a good fit. When bill inquires from his friend how much he is making he was shocked to hear how little it was. On further investigation Bill finds out that all of Tom’s local labor, even the skilled tradesmen are being paid just above slave labor. Bill ponders, “Two hundred years after black people were sold off the coast of this region ironically the same inequality is being practiced only this time in a more subtle covert form.” Is Tom a respecter of culture or a covert racist?
EXAMPLE 2 : Dick, who is from an advanced western nation, claims to believe all men are equal. He considers himself a respecter of culture. As a foreigner he believes it is wrong to exert his opinion in a way that might change current cultural conditions. In his work as a guidance counselor Dick encounters many cases of shattered families as a result of the bride price situation. As explained earlier children are viewed as belonging to their parents or to the tribe depending on economic factors. Often times after a child finds stability in a home, he or she is suddenly uprooted and taken to live with other people because someone’s financial situation changes. In other cases parents abandon their children to the tribe and live as if they were childless. This shirking of responsibility sometimes allows couples to reap benefits that they would be disqualified from getting if they had children.
Dick sees that something is wrong in these scenarios, but once he identifies it as a cultural issue he decides not to say anything even though he knows it will have disastrous affects. A colleague guidance counselor who just happens to be visiting from another African nation also identifies the problem and calls for it to be corrected. Dick now joins in and voices his opinion that he too feels the situation needs to be addressed. He confesses that he identified the incorrectness of the reasoning but out of respect for their culture he didn’t want to impose his views.
My question is: what changed? The answer: the visiting counselor is African. He’s not from the same tribe or nation yet the simple fact that he is from the same continent motivated him to listen to the visiting speaker and correct the faulty thinking of the local tribe member. Is Dick a respecter of culture or a covert racist?
EXAMPLE 3 : Harry, who is from an advanced western nation, claims to believe all men are equal. He considers himself a respecter of culture. As a school teacher now living in Africa he observes other teachers doing their very best but not meeting the minimum standards he’s used to seeing enacted. He could suggest improvements in the way things are done in order to raise the standard of education but Harry feels that if he does so he will be affecting cultural characteristics. Another westerner working as a teacher’s aide also notices the flaws and out of concern for the welfare of the children he mentions it to Harry. Though he knows students will suffer, with eyes wide shut, Harry fails to identify the real problem. Instead he sees the aide’s suggestion as an attack on all teachers and defends his colleagues though he knows they are wrong. He even goes so far as to blame the students for not coming forward and asking for help. Is Harry a respecter of culture or a covert racist?
“Isn’t racist too strong of a word to use too describe these people albeit covert ones?” you ask. “No,” I respond. “In fact a covert racist is more dangerous than an overt racist because an overt or open racist is at least honest.” You don’t have to wonder where you stand with such people and though their views are extreme, for the most part they can’t be taken too seriously by the mainstream because they are too honest. They can’t easily be placed in influential positions because the collective memory of Nazi Germany is still fresh in everyone’s mind. They are fringe characters whose attacks can be dealt with in a direct manner. But how can you defend yourself against a subtle indirect attack from someone who doesn’t even see themselves as an attacker?