Racial prejudice hides in the oddest places

I love to travel. I was scheduled to go to Tanzania in Fall 2020, my fifth trip to Africa. I’ve been to Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, and South Africa. Something had always bothered me a bit about the Tanzania trip; but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then came the pandemic. The trip was cancelled. I wasn’t disappointed … not really.

As COVID restrictions lessened, friends asked if I planned to reschedule the Tanzania trip. I didn’t. I now know what had been missing all along. The trip to Tanzania had been largely about animals. I wanted to learn about the people, the culture.

Travel in many African countries is centered on animals. Visiting the Serengeti plains and viewing exotic animals was to have been the focus of my trip to Tanzania. I hadn’t sought that. In fact, I had already been on a safari in South Africa, but I’d never thought of that trip as a trip about animals. My friends and I had planned everything.  It wasn’t a tour package. We curated it ourselves. We learned about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, David Webster, Steve Biko and Bishop Tutu, the Zulus and the Xhosa, apartheid and the truth and reconciliation hearings – the people, not the animals, were at the core. The safari was just a small add on. But when Tanzania became the destination for my new traveling group, every trip package we examined, from multiple tour companies, focused on the Serengeti plains and what was often referred to as “Africa at its most primitive.”

If you’ve been to Africa or have started planning a trip there, did you notice that?

Primitive Africa. I am of an age when Africa, for many, was defined largely by Tarzan, a fictional white man raised since infancy by apes in the jungles of Africa. Movies and books about Tarzan only feature native Africans as servants carrying crates for white people exploring the jungles. The image of Africa has changed, somewhat, particularly with the fictional depiction of the fierce, sophisticated, and technologically advanced Kingdom of Wakanda in the 2018 movie, Black Panther. But even with this evolving image, is culture and civilization what comes to mind for you when you think of Africa? What is your image? What do you know about African countries? How did you learn it?

Our formal education about Africa remains very limited. I bet you that most well-educated Americans, whether of the age of Tarzan or of Wakanda, can tell you an awful lot about the political, social, and historical reality in western Europe. Western civilization. That’s the focus of textbooks used in schools,  the coverage of major world events in  newspapers, and what is reported on on televised news. Our education is Eurocentric. Our sense of other parts of the world is not driven by formal education, but by cursory classroom exposure or fictionalized presentations. Since that education happens so subtly and nominally about some places, we are often unaware of just how skewed and unbalanced an education we’re receiving.

COVID, while limiting my travel, offered me uninterrupted time to learn.  I watched, and you should too, the PBS series  Africa’s Great Civilizations. Over six hours, historian Henry Louis Gates introduced me to African civilizations and culture — art, history, accomplishments —  that I had glimpsed here and there but never taken the time to fully explore. This is what I had wanted in my Tanzania trip.

Even something as innocuous as travel is racialized. Vacation options continue to underscore Europe as a land of culture and contributions while presenting Africa as a land of beauty and majesty, majestic landscapes and beautiful animals, that is. For the African culture and contributions, sadly, with most tour companies, you still have to dig for those add-on experiences. Primitive, not cultured or civilized, continues to be the projected and marketed image of much of Africa.

Quick quiz:  There are 44 countries in Europe and 54 in Africa. How many on each continent can you name? For how many, do you know the name of the current leader?