The White academic’s burden

Magatte Wade* describes how Western academics make life difficult for African entrepreneurs

As an African who has spent my adult professional life in the U.S., I am proud to say that I have never encountered racism here. I am, of course, even prouder of the U.S. for having elected Barack Obama, thus proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that a majority of U.S. voters care more about merit than they care about race. I truly believe that the U.S. has largely moved into a post-racial phase, and that in the future we will continue to move towards a world in which people love and celebrate racial and cultural differences. I look forward to bringing my children into such a world, one in which they will be celebrated for who they are.

Prior to living in the U.S., I was educated in France, and occasionally I would encounter some racism there, especially among older people. On one occasion I was visiting an elderly French woman, a relative of a white French boyfriend, who, when I arrived, whispered to him, “But what will I feed her? I don’t have any bananas.” She was well-intentioned but ignorant; good-hearted as she was, she confused black Africans with chimpanzees. What does one do if one doesn’t have bananas to feed them?

On a brochure for a tour of Jeff Sachs’ Millenium Village in Rwanda, managed by one of Sachs’ Columbia University colleagues, Rule #1 is “Please do not give anything to the villagers — no sweets, cookies, empty water bottles, pens or even money.” While I’m sure the rule is well-intentioned, it captures perfectly the revolting condescension that I feel from the Millenium Villages project. Unlike the ignorant elderly woman, celebrated professors at Columbia University cannot be excused through their ignorance. When highly educated people can objectify us with a “Don’t feed the animals” sign, the only explanation is a blinding arrogance. These people are so sure that they are noble for helping the ignorant chimps, that they hadn’t even noticed just how humiliating the expression is.

Of course, these academics would probably show the same sort of condescension to the participants in a NASCAR rally.

Wade’s article expresses the same sentiments I’ve heard from entrepreneurs and farmers in India and Africa – they know what they want and how to get it, and they’d appreciate it if these environmentalists and NGOs would get out of their way.

Have these helpers ever bothered to listen to the people they’re supposedly trying to help?

* Link thanks to Alan Sullivan

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About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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