On November 28, 2012, National Public Radio aired a segment about this film called: Africa For Norway: Viral Video Pokes Fun At Stereotypes In Aid Efforts. Have you seen the clip referenced in the segment? If you haven’t, please check it out. It’s called Africa for Norway. You can click on the link, or view the video below.
At the end of the clip, you’re not supposed to be thinking “Oh, no! Those poor, freezing Norwegians!” Instead you’re supposed to be thinking something more like: “Oh, no! Are my attempts to advance social justice relevant? Are they based on stereotypes?”
Africa for Norway is thought provoking because it encourages us to think about how various service organizations that provide aid to people in Africa may, in fact, unintentionally introduce or reinforce existing stereotypes about people living in Africa. This brief film challenges the images we have constructed about African people. Rather than focusing on the poor and vulnerable, this film showcases the continent’s strengths and resources. It forces us to grapple with many questions, including: how would we feel if the majority of media coverage about us focused on our weaknesses?
By demonstrating how people in Africa have resources to share with a country such as Norway, we question why the notion that Africa has something that Norway lacks may or may not be consistent with our image of Africa. The sponsoring organizations posed the following question:
Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway”-video, and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?
What a good place to begin the conversation. So I now ask you the following: When we engage in service, whether the goal is to address an international, national or local need, what are some of the perceptions we may have of the people we seek to benefit? What are some ways in which we can examine these stereotypes and look beyond the financial needs of someone living in poverty?
There it was, in the news, soon after the results of the November 6 election were announced: bigotry in the spotlight, here in Mississippi, again. Headlines declaring a “riot” on the campus of the University of Mississippi (more often referred to as Ole Miss), with white Southern students shouting racial slurs and burning an Obama/Biden campaign poster. Black vs. white. Racial tension in the Bible Belt.
How do we encounter that experience?
There’s a long and complex history of civil rights in the South, and Jewish involvement in civil rights. Luckily, at the ISJL, in addition to studying and sharing the histories, we consider it an honor to have seen and participated in the great work of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (WWIRR) in action. The WWIRR is located on the campus of Ole Miss, right in the center of the recent controversy.
This whole incident is in “our neighborhood,” but all the more so in the WWIRR’s neighborhood. And community reaction and engagement around this is in my wheelhouse, and something I – and hopefully, the readers of this blog – care about. So I reached out to Dr. Susan Glisson, Executive Director of the WWIRR, to ask her about the situation that has caught national attention, the realities, and responses.
Here’s what she had to say.
Malkie: The WWIRR’s Position on Racial Reconciliation includes an emphasis on the importance of language and “how it is often unintentionally used to blur, divide, and polarize what are essentially similar efforts”. As I was thinking about the ways in which to describe what happened on the evening of November 6th, I considered my choice of words. (Do I call it an occurrence? No, that sounds unintentional. I guess I should call it a riot, but was it a riot? Does the word “protest” capture what took place?) Each word seems blurry in its own way. How might you describe what took place on the Ole Miss campus?
Dr. Glisson: I can only say now that one of the participants described his participation in the event as “defending his beliefs” in “the Republican side of campus, the Confederate side of campus.” So, I think it is clear that racial fears underlie what happened Tuesday night.
Malkie: You informed us that a walk took place on campus called We Are One Mississippi Candlelight Walk. Were you able to attend? What was the tone and message of this walk?
Dr. Glisson: I was there. It was serious and reflective, resolved and hopeful. The message is that love is greater than hate and that we refuse to go back to any old regime of bigotry.
Malkie: For some, these events will serve as an indicator that racism in Mississippi is pervasive. How would you respond to an individual who draws this conclusion?
Dr. Glisson: The results of the election clearly show that we are the most racially polarized we have ever been. Racism is pervasive throughout the country and I think the only question may be about degrees. We ALL have much work to do.
Malkie: Our blog is called “Southern and Jewish.” What would you like Jews in the South to know about the work of the Winter Institute?
Dr. Glisson: The Winter Institute works in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.
Malkie: Can you share ways in which you think Jews in the South can play a role in advancing racial reconciliation?
Dr. Glisson: There is a rich history of collaboration between Jews and civil rights activists; I hope we can rekindle that connection through dialogue and community building to repair the wounds of the past.
What are your thoughts on this incident? What do you think is the most constructive way for communities to come together to “repair the wounds of the past”?
Day in and day out, community engagement is my job. Specifically, working here in the South, my mandate is to pursue social justice in partnership not only with schools and nonprofits but also, very specifically, with Jewish communities.
So of course, this statistic caught my eye:
“When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality—twice as many as cite support for Israel (20%) or religious observance (17%).”
In fact, according to The Jewish Values Survey, 46% of Jews listed “a commitment to social equality” as most important to Jewish identity. Other qualities include cultural heritage and tradition (6%) and a general set of values (3%).
That should mean good news for the work that I’m doing. What does it mean to you?
Do these numbers surprise you? Do they resonate with you? Which of these qualities are most important to your Jewish identity?
 Cox D., and Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. The 2012 Jewish Values Survey, Public Religion Research Institute, (2012).