Coming on these trips, Suzanne and I educate ourselves about the history of the culture and the generational trauma that many of the people must embody as a result of genocide, civil war, poverty, sexual abuse, racism, colonization and a number of other forms of oppression used to keep people feeling disempowered, humiliated and exploited. We work hard to communicate this understanding, never assuming the participants are already sensitive or aware. We recognize because of our own race, and what that may represent to some, how potentially easy it could be to alienate or even perpetuate the concerns or fears that the populations we've come to serve may have regarding us and our intentions. Firstly, the aid we provide is based on the suggested needs or requests from the people in the area we are serving. We don't come in and impose what we think their needs may be. As a group, we explore diversity, racism and talk about cultural differences. We address prejudice, assumptions and projections and table everything that we feel must be acknowledged so that we are engaging from a conscious place. Never in a million years did I think that I would have had to talk to a group of educated women about appropriate language. Never would it have occurred to me to have to write a list of the racist terms that should never be used, whether in Africa or anywhere! I assumed that anyone who grew up in America, post–civil rights era, knows which words are right and which are, undeniably, wrong. I assumed very incorrectly.
As Nikki shared her story, it suddenly made sense why the man in the slums attacked Suzanne and I the way he did. His outrage made perfect sense. I felt incredibly ashamed that instead of coming into their homes to provide support and aid, we had instead violated them on a deep and primal level. I suddenly imagined this woman moving through the village ooh and ahhing the children and calling them monkeys, much to the disbelief and horror of the villagers. Inadvertently, we perpetuated the continued racism and separation that affects so many people in their lives everywhere. This was the last thing we ever intended to do.
I pulled the woman aside later to speak with her. She was still defensive, and I was truly shocked that I had to explain to her why calling black people in Africa, or anywhere, "little monkey" was offensive. I had to go into detail about why that word would have a negative association. I spoke about the history of African oppression and what had been done to the people and how, as a result, there still might an inherent lack of trust toward foreigners. I explained to her what had happened in the village with the man, his attack and venomous outrage. Her casual use of that word triggered within him hundreds of years of deep trauma, violence and pain on a very tribal level. She ignited that explosion, and he was justified in his reaction. As I spoke, I could see her begin to understand what she had done, and she was horrified at what her words might have created. She kept apologizing, saying she truly didn't know how offensive it was and would have never said it had she been aware. Which I absolutely believe.
Seane's life-changing realization