Simi Olurin ’19
“I’m Nigerian, like from Nigeria” I answer reluctantly.
Immediately, I’m greeted with the familiar blank, high school stare, and I know that she has no clue what or who this ‘Nigeria’ is.
I apprehensively swallow hard and mentally prepare myself for the dreaded reiteration that is now commonplace every time someone asks me where I’m from. I clear my throat and offer a pained smile, “It’s in Africa. West Africa,” and thus the game begins.
The party lights illuminate her face that is now filled with pure glee from having heard the name of the essentially notorious continent. “Oh my god,” she squeals, “I love Africa!”
I know exactly what she means, but really, what in the world does she mean? She loves Africa. Really? All of it? All fifty-four countries, all of the governmental structures, every single landscape that makes up the vast continent—and no, it’s not all just a desert as many before her have asked, because naturally, I would know.
The pained smile persists, and through almost-gritted teeth I play into the cosmic joke that is someone with miniscule exposure to other cultures trying to somehow associate with the first brown person they’ve talked to in a matter of weeks.
“Have you ever been?” I ask. I despise myself for even raising the question that I already know has one of two excruciatingly repugnant answers.
“No, but…” she began. Ah yes, the beginning of the end. “I really want to go. Like see all of the animals and stuff, like the zebras and lions. Oh and I love giraffes!”
A perfect answer to a question that I in no way, shape, or form, asked: what’s your favorite animal? But of course that’s her response; it makes sense. All anyone my age really knows about Africa are all of these ‘starving kids’ that their mothers keep telling them would be happy to have their left-over vegetables, and the safaris that apparently span the entire surface area of the great landmass. I guess an enthusiastic response about the animals is better suited for a party atmosphere than a solemn after-school-special style conversation regarding the former.
But really? Why are those the only two options about an entire continent in the first place? I know for a fact that if this interaction had found a Eurocentric crux, then she definitely would not have assumed that the entire continent as a whole was just one giant zoo. No, definitely not. See, she would know at least some history, granted some of it may just be the classic stuff about ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, but still that’s something. I don’t really blame her for assuming that all there is to Africa are the safaris, because in all honesty, it’s not her fault.
In my fourteen years of education, I’ve had about three weeks combined of a history course dedicated to African history, and if I’m going to be completely honest, it’s more like a week and a half because I don’t really think I can count that “African” drum circle we did in second grade as a full-on history lesson. Whose history was that exactly, all of Africa’s? That’s sure how the label of the unit made it come across. I’ve had about a month or two of Asian history in my time at school.
I’ve never had any sort of history lesson on South America in any way. I remember having to color in a map of the different countries, but I wasn’t even tasked with trying to remember where each nation was actually located. This, sadly, is in complete contrast to the approximate three years I’ve had had spent on European history and the six I’ve had on United States. Six years! Almost half my tenure as a student was spent discussing the history of a single country that is less than three centuries old. I can’t help but feel that some of the time allotted to these could have been dispersed among the other areas of the world that people my age have almost no knowledge about. I don’t understand how a third of our lives are spent within the walls of an institution in which a paradox thrives; as we learn more, our ignorance is emboldened through an intentional neglect.
It’s funny, because as I look into this girl’s eyes, a girl who has no clue the mental anguish conversations like these bring me, I realize that I can’t really say that I’m much different than her. Granted I’m not one to pick out the one ethnically unique person in a crowd and proceed to probe into their background, but I can’t say I would always know when a simple attempt at making conversation at a party could become incredibly insensitive. I like to think that I would practice better judgment when it comes to these types of situations given my experience dealing with them for my entire life, but I can’t guarantee that a seemingly harmless inquiry wouldn’t make someone else feel incredibly out of place.
On a certain level, it’s not all a kid’s fault, as schools place the notion into their minds that what they’re learning in school is all there is to know. But when it comes down to it, we must be vigilant against forces of ignorance; it is well within our power to open our eyes.
Maybe that way I won’t have to hear about another damn giraffe.