The next day after the incident with the enraged man, we were in another area of Uganda working with a group of village women, all HIV positive. They are a part of Shanti Uganda's microfinance initiative, and they all earn money from making beaded necklaces and bags. We were having a wonderful and playful day with them, making beads, doing yoga, having lunch, singing and dancing. At one point, I was walking through the bush and heard a woman from our group shout joyfully, "Look at the adorable little monkey!" I stopped for a moment and turned to look for the monkey, whom I assumed came searching for some available food from our picnic. As I turned to look, I didn't see any animal, only a beautiful young African child whom the woman was playing with. I stared in horror. I thought, "She didn't just call that child a 'monkey,' did she?" It seemed too unbelievable to have been true. This woman, who I knew well, is educated, incredibly kind and thoughtful. She worked very hard to raise the money to come to Uganda, and I considered her a real leader in her community. I could not imagine that she would actually use that racist word anywhere, let alone in Africa!
Monkey? This is a word that was, and often still is, used to insult, hurt and humiliate African people all over the world. This culture has known more than 400 years of oppression and slavery, chained in cages, beaten, raped and sold like animals. White people, like us, denied them their basic rights for profit. We traumatized and dismantled a culture as a result, often using not just whips, stick and chains to break these people into submission, but words as well. Monkey? There was no way. I shook my head, succumbed to massive denial, and thought that I must have heard wrong. I walked away.
Later, I saw the little girl skipping with some friends repeating over and over, "Monkey, monkey, monkey..."
A day later, Nikki, our assistant, and an African-American, pulled me aside needing to talk. She is a yoga teacher from Indiana, has a rich history of alcohol and drug abuse and is deeply committed to recovery. She is someone who has excellent processing skills, which is why she works so closely with us on these trips. I was surprised when she told me that she just had a nasty and public confrontation with one of the participants and needed to break it down for me. Nikki was visibly upset, ashamed by the way she had handled the situation, but she also felt justified under the circumstances.
"So," Nikki said speaking about the same participant I mentioned earlier, "I'm sitting on the bus and I hear her say 'What sweet little monkeys!' so I turn and look out of the window and see a small group of African children playing." "What the f***!" Nikki thought, and then went off on the woman. "Are you out of your f**king mind? Did you just call those black children monkeys? That is absolutely racist, unbelievably offensive, and I am shocked that I am hearing this come out of your mouth!" Instead of apologizing, the woman was confused and got defensive. She said she had no idea what Nikki was talking about. "I always call children 'monkeys,' all children. It's just an affectionate term I use. It's what I call my own children." Nikki asked incredulously, "You're telling me you don't know how horribly racist that word is?" And the woman said no, and she didn't think it was. "And you've been referring to the children this way since you got here?" Nikki had to walk away afraid of what she might say, or do, next.
Seane confronts the woman about her racist comments