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Saturday, September 15, 2012

First puzzling chats about identity and skin color

Yesterday night, and again tonight, we read this book: "Ci sono gli orsi in Africa?". It is the Italian translation of a book by Satomi Ichikawa and like I often do with books in Italian for the kids, I ordered it without knowing much about the content. It is very hard to find good books in Italian for the youngest readers and often there aren't any reviews available online at all, so it is hit and miss. Mostly miss, actually, and this is a source of great frustration for me, but let me keep this rant for another post.  Because this is a translated story I could rely on some information from foreign sites, like Amazon, and after reading a couple of reviews I decided to give it a try.

The plot: Meto is an African boy living in a village on the African savanna. One day a group of tourists comes to visit his village and among them is a little girl with a teddy bear. Meto looks with curiosity at these foreigners who wear too many clothes and take lots of pictures and he is especially fascinated by the stuffed bear, because that is an animal he has never seen before. After the tourists have left, Meto finds the girl's bear abandoned on the ground and decides to try and return it to her. He rushes after the jeep taking shortcuts and meeting various animals - all of them just as puzzled as he is by the bear. One after the other they start following him and they help him get to the girl just when she is about to board a small airplane that will take her home. The girl thanks the boy and gives him the ribbon she wears in her hair as a gift for his own pet, a baby goat that he had shown to her back at the village. The teddy bear has a red ribbon too, so now they match. The end.

In a way this book is exactly what I was looking for: the illustrations are beautiful, the plot is simple and there is a pattern in how the story is presented - all things that help me keep the kids interested while I try to teach them some Italian. However, the book is quite stereotypical - or perhaps you could say downright  racist - in how it represents the interaction between the western tourists and the African villagers. As I was reading to them, translating to English after every sentence, I wondered whether I should say something about this and what, but our discussion about race was in fact initiated by Rajiv himself, in a very unexpected form.

Me - "Meto is a little boy who lives in Africa"
Rajiv - "He is African-American"
Me (to myself) - "What the.. !!"
Me (loud) - "Actually he is just African, he lives in a village in Africa, see the village in the picture?"
Rajiv - "But mamma, you have to say African-American"
Me - "Well, no I really don't, because the boy is not American at all. African-American would mean that he lives in America but maybe his family came from Africa, you know, a long time ago.."
Rajiv (obviously not convinced) - "Ah.. Uhm.."

I can surely expect him to come back at me with that one when I least expect it, but for the moment we were able to move on. It's beyond me though, why he would think that the proper way to refer to a dark-skinned person should be "African-American". From school? Half of his teachers are German and might have some strange ideas about politically correct speech, but given that we all live here in India this is especially bizarre.

Moving on, this picture:

Here I asked the children whether they could see why Meto thought the tourists were strange and I must have said something about how the tourists looked like us, because Rajiv said "They look like Indians!". While trying not to fall off the bed, I said "Uhm, really? You think they look.. Indian??". And he said "Yes, like us, and we live in India."

The fact that they are white doesn't seem to be a factor for him this time, even though it is something that other times we talked about and he does notice it. He can arrange people by gradation of brown, all the way down to white/pink. He notices this much more than me and I think in part it is because it is important to him that he is not exactly the same color as his mom and not exactly the same color as his dad, but somewhere is between. On the other hand, I remember how a few months ago he saw a quite dark Indian woman wearing jeans and with her hair in a pony tail and he said "Mamma, you look the same!".

Obviously Rajiv's world is a very confusing place and I don't mean it as a joke. My children are my favorite people to talk to, because they are never boring. Lots of stuff to think about.

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