There’s one page I follow obsessively on Facebook: Humans of New York.
Brandon, the photographer and author behind HONY, approaches total strangers, takes their photos, and asks questions that are often incredibly personal. He doesn’t wait for strangers to approach and share their stories, instead he openly investigates and uplifts voices otherwise overlooked.
I’ve been following HONY quite some time now, and recently this page has been sharing stories far away from New York City. In partnership with the United Nations, supported by the Secretary General’s MDG Advocacy Group, Brandon is currently traveling to 10 countries over the course of 50 days, to visit faraway places and listen to as many people as possible.
When I opened the page today, there were several postings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each photo came with a unique story, informed by personal experience.
A question was on my mind that Malkie Schwartz posed to me when I first came to the ISJL, to begin my work as a Community Engagement Fellow: “What do you think of when you think about Africa?”
Most of the images I associated with Africa throughout my childhood had to do with Aid for Africa campaigns. Young children, malnourished, dusty, reaching out for food and help. This made me think. What if these were the only images you ever saw of Africa? What would you think of someone who came from there?
It’s difficult, and I think wrong, to see an entire continent as one-dimensional: needy, desolate, ravaged by AIDS.
This particular image from the HONY/United Nations project struck me. There’s a young man, standing in the middle of street, next to a poster of some young boys sitting on the ground, asking for food. In the caption that accompanies this photograph, the man says he does not like pictures like the one next to him. The man, credited as a Human of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, says: “It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this… This gives us no dignity.”
He’s right, and why can’t we elevate voices like his?
There’s a great campaign by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund that asks similar questions. They depict Norway as a cold, sad country that can’t afford to keep its citizens warm. They call for Africans to lend a hand and send radiators to Norway, to save the poor people that can’t help themselves. They ask, what if campaigns like this were the only thing you knew about Norway? What would you think of the country? Malkie wrote about this campaign awhile back, and it’s pretty eye-opening.
So here is my social justice challenge for the day, for all of us: go read a story about a company in Africa, learn about a local initiative. Think of positive adjectives to accompany the many negative ones we see in aid campaigns. Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes. We don’t like it when we experience it – we should actively work to avoid doing it to others.
It’s something I’ll be bearing in mind when it comes to Africa, and to my community engagement work here in the South, as well. Stereotypes are limiting. Stories open doors.
Three Jewish women walked into a nail salon….
This is not a joke, just what I did with two of my friends last weekend. These tired working moms needed a pedicure, stat! I have been to this salon countless times and am always my usual talkative friendly self to the unlucky soldier charged with trying to make my runner’s feet look presentable.
The nail technician that I am paired up with the most is Daniel, a young African American man who is married to one of the other workers, who happens to be Vietnamese. Daniel and I have chatted for hours over the time I have known him, about nothing and everything. I usually come in with a friend or two, and you can tell that he finds our banter amusing. We might even be on the list of his favorite customers.
On our last visit, my girlfriends and I relaxed and started chatting about something, and we must have mentioned something Jewish. At this, Daniel’s eyes grew big and he said, “Are you Jewish? I had no idea. You don’t look Jewish.”
There it was, the comment that no matter how many times you hear it is just puzzling. You don’t look Jewish.
This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes and yet also seems harmless enough when asked by sincerely uninformed and curious people. My friends waited for my answer, and I playfully responded that I actually do look pretty darn Jewish (as long as we are talking about stereotypes).
Daniel continued, “No, seriously. Tell me… how I would know if someone was Jewish? What do Jews look like?”
It was such an innocent question and yet so powerful, as it reminded me that there are still many people who know nothing about Judaism and have never met a Jew (even though San Antonio has over 9,000 Jews). Those of us living in southern small towns know this scenario well, and are often the token Jew of our classroom, or school, and almost every group of which we are a part. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like being signed up to be a group’s representative without being asked if you wanted the job. Some of us readily accept the charge of being the face of the Jewish community, while others are extremely uncomfortable.
While Daniel’s question was innocent, many of the questions that face us lonely Jews can be quite unpleasant. We are repeatedly asked questions such as: Why did the Jews kill Jesus? Are you OK knowing that you are going to hell? and even, Don’t Jews have horns on their heads? Sometimes these questions are like Daniel’s, from a combination of ignorance and interest, and other times they have a hurtful agenda attached.
To complicate matters, Judaism is something that is not always visible to others. I can conceal my Jewish identity if I want to, which perpetuates the situation of people not knowing many Jews. The more this happens, the more people are uninformed about Jews and the more uncomfortable I may feel exposing my Judaism to others in the future. It’s a cycle that can only change with non Jews educating themselves and with Jews being proud of being Jewish even when its not easy. These are both tall orders, and yet we have to start somewhere.
So I took a deep breath, and asked Daniel what else he wanted to know about Jews.
Have you been in a situation like this? What would you say?
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?