Tempest in a Tweet-pot

28 May 2011 Ideas

There’s a fair bit of knee-jerk criticism making the rounds about this INDEVOURS event next week. So I thought I’d share my opinion on the matter.

Next Friday, the University of Waterloo’s International Development program will be hosting an event featuring Roy Sesana, an activist for indigenous rights in Botswana. Students were sent a mass email with details about the event:

Winner of the 2005 Right Livelihood Award, Roy Sesana is a medicine man of the Gana Bushman from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. Speaking through a translator in his native clicking tongue, Sesana speaks about land claim issues in the Kalahari between the indigenous populations, fighting to stay on their ancestral lands, and the local government.

Attached to that email was this poster, which has also been plastered around campus:

The poster was designed by International Development students, approved by the program’s staff, and then sent out to bulletin boards and email inboxes across campus.

When I found out about this event, I was super excited to hear about land claims negotiations straight from the horse’s mouth - a welcome change from the dry academic guest lecturers that are typically invited to university events. (Remember Joe Hulse in INDEV 100?) Also, the fact that this event lands on my birthday is an added bonus! I’m psyched.

But apparently, some people aren’t too thrilled:

Well, actually, A.Y. has a fair point. I would also like to know what the “clicking language” is called. That sentence is a bit vague. But borderline racist? Definitely not.

Twitter is a double-edged sword in that it frees us from the control of established media… but it also immortalizes forever any random stream-of-consciousness thoughts we decide to plonk down. A.Y.’s subsequent tweets were a testament to the latter. She ranted about the lack of Roy Sesana’s name in the event description, despite the fact that it’s plastered in big bubbly letters across the full width of the poster. She opined that the event was marketing him as a circus attraction. She takes offense to the fact that he’s wearing shell beads.

Oh sure, INDEVOURS could have used a nicely cropped headshot of Roy Sesana, clean-shaven, wearing a collared shirt and a tie. He’d look right professorial. Because then it’d look proper, wouldn’t it?

So, as A.Y. stamps her feet and fires off tweets about courtesy and respect, I have to wonder: what isn’t respectful about this? What version of courtesy is she looking for? Is it racist to display a picture of a dancing medicine man? I don’t think so. Traditional medicine and indigenous cultures around the world need to be preserved and celebrated. In fact, it’s the very thing that Roy Sesana is advocating for.

Sam Nabi

Comments

aydaring 28 May 2011, 03:06

1) Clever blog title. I mean that sincerely.<br>2) It is racist- they’ve turned the Khoisan (that’s the name of the language) clicking into some sensationalist cultural cuteness, like “look at the funny sounds he makes”. That’s racist. The point of the talk is about land claim issues, not some Russell Peters extended sketch. By reducing it to a novelty, they’ve made a racist statement. They could have just said, “speaking through a translator”. Or better yet, used the name Khoisan. Let’s flip this: if it was a German scholar, the poster would have read “speaking in German through a translator”. It could have been a great teaching opportunity. Now it’s just perpetuating Western notions of adorable poor black people and their bushmen cultures. Blech!<br>3) His name is on the poster detached from his accomplishments. That’s not the bothersome part, it’s included in the email. Nor does he need to be wearing a suit. But he’s portrayed with his eyes closed, animal tail in hand in the midst of what looks like a healing tribal dance. Great action shot. But in the context of this poster, it’s more about capitalising yet again on the novelty of his culture. Not cool.<br>4) I’m not arbitrarily plonking them down. When I emailed INDEVOURS the first time oh yes, I did just spout off cause I was pissed. I’m not going to act like I’m not emotional about this. But then a few days later, they still hadn’t gotten back to me, and I’d had a few more days to think about it and came to the conclusion that, yes, even after my knee jerk reaction, this is still wrong and a big fat display of ethnocentrism and INDEVOURS should know better. <br>5) I’m not stamping my feet and firing off tweets. I’m pounding my keyboard. Duh! :P

Sam Nabi 28 May 2011, 03:55

I agree that they should have used the word Khoisan instead of “clicking language”. (Thanks for telling me the name, by the way.) But where you see INDEVOURS capitalising on the adorable bushman image, I see them giving legitimacy to the culture he defends.

Granted, some people will look at the photo and say “Check out his crazy headband!” or something of the sort. That IS racism, and we need to fight that kind of ignorance. But the poster isn’t to blame. 

Obviously there’s a difference between this and Russel Peters’ pop rocks joke. I’ll admit the marketing for this event isn’t perfect, but I’m not convinced they were aiming for gimmicky novelty.

Thanks for the rebuttal - constructive debate is so rare online :)

Deua 28 May 2011, 14:21

I am part of INDEVOURS and I just learned about this now. Who did you email?<br>But anyway, this is my personal opinion.<br>1 - Our intention was never to turn Roy Sesana, or his language into a sensacionalist Russel Peters gimmick. I believe you have a point, we should have better researched the name of the language. However, you go a bit too far by accusing us of racism. It is a very serious claim to make, based solely on YOUR reading of a poster that was created to promote, not degrade, Roy Sesana and his coming to the University of Waterloo. We do not think of Sesana as some “sensationalist cultural cuteness, like “look at the funny sounds he makes”“. Again, that is your interpretation and that was nowhere on the poster. <br>2 - You said his name on the poster was detached from his accomplishments. That doesn’t even make sense, I’m sorry. His name is written in big block letters, and his accomplishments are listed on the same page, together with a picture of him. Who else would these accomplishments belong to? It is a poster, not an essay. As far as I am concerned, posters allow for some creative freedom in order to improve visual appeal. So no, the placement of the text is not hiding a racist agenda. As for the picture, I agree with what Sam had to say. We have chosen a picture that represents a bit of the culture he is representing, not to “capitalise” on it, but because we believe that his culture is relevant to the subject of his speech. I believe it would be racist, like Sam pointed out, to try and find a more westernized picture of him in order not to “offend” the eyes of those looking at the poster. But I am assuming you had something else in mind, I would sincerely love to hear how we could have made this better.<br>3 - As I mentioned before, I haven’t heard about this up until now, which means I never saw your email. But since I am posting my personal opinion, not that of INDEVOURS as a group, I want to say that I think you got it all wrong. I believe that after you found something you did not agree with, you just decided to judge the entire situation through the same lenses. Once you made up your mind about our obvious racism and ethnocentrism, you decided to make everything on that poster fit that criteria just so it would validate your point of view. That is in no way fair. It is not fair to our group of students who have worked hard on creating the poster, and that are still working hard to facilitate this event, not because we think Roy Sesana is “cute” or a “novelty,” but because, as International Development students, we are excited to hear what he has to say and believe that it is an honour to have him at our University.<br>Please don’t get me wrong. I believe I can speak for INDEVOURS when I say we always appreciate constructive criticism. But there is constructive criticism and there are unsubstantiated claims, which are serious and hurtful.<br>To me, courtesy includes thinking before you accuse someone of something. And by thinking, I mean not just validating your own opinion, but making sure you at least attempt to learn all sides of the issue.<br>

Mike Fergumbaum 28 May 2011, 15:49

A.Y<br>Daring, I understand your concern but watch your word. I think as a school we<br>are fortunateto get Roy Sesana to come teach us about land right claims in the Kalahari<br>Desert, and to top that off this is a rare occasion where we are not getting an<br>“expert” through formal education, waterloo is getting an expert who has lived<br>there his entire life. This is exciting for us me as a student, and the fact<br>that they are able to bring Roy for a lecture series is amazing in my opinion.

 

You say “Africans are not playthings for ignorant<br>Westerners to ogle at.” Is that a serious<br>comment? Where does it show that INDEV students are ‘ogling.’ Please, tell me.<br>You are worked up with emotions about a small mistake, and blew it out of<br>proportion to the point where you are calling all of them ‘ignorant,’ and the<br>INDEV program as a whole racist. If that is not blind criticism I do not know<br>what is. There is nothing constructive about your complaints. Even when you say,<br>“check out the pictures they used for him.” It is Roy Sesana in action, doing<br>his ritual a very important aspect of his life something that we are not<br>‘sensationalizing.’ In reality a comment such as yours is intolerant, it is who<br>he is, and it is part of his culture so there is no need to “check out that<br>picture” unless you of course are taken aback from his culture. On top of that,<br>his name is Cleary on the poster, in GIANT letters at the bottom. There is no<br>need to add it to the words. It explains what his speech is about and gives<br>background information so no criticism there.

 

I<br>understand your frustration with the clicking aspect of the poster, and I think<br>it was a lapse of judgment. However, it is something that can easily be fixed.<br>Your comments however are ingrained and your ignorance to proper criticism is<br>substantial. No where in the poster does it show that they are racist, or that they ‘ogle’ at people. These blanket<br>statements are much worse and much more intolerant then an honest mistake in a<br>poster. If you believe the way you have acted and the approach you took is the<br>standard protocol to creating awareness then you should revaluate your initial<br>criticisms. 

Mike Fergumbaum 28 May 2011, 15:50

A.Y<br>Daring, I understand your concern but watch your word. I think as a school we<br>are fortunateto get Roy Sesana to come teach us about land right claims in the Kalahari<br>Desert, and to top that off this is a rare occasion where we are not getting an<br>“expert” through formal education, waterloo is getting an expert who has lived<br>there his entire life. This is exciting for us me as a student, and the fact<br>that they are able to bring Roy for a lecture series is amazing in my opinion.

            You say “Africans are not playthings for ignorant<br>Westerners to ogle at.” Is that a serious<br>comment? Where does it show that INDEV students are ‘ogling.’ Please, tell me.<br>You are worked up with emotions about a small mistake, and blew it out of<br>proportion to the point where you are calling all of them ‘ignorant,’ and the<br>INDEV program as a whole racist. If that is not blind criticism I do not know<br>what is. There is nothing constructive about your complaints. Even when you say,<br>“check out the pictures they used for him.” It is Roy Sesana in action, doing<br>his ritual a very important aspect of his life something that we are not<br>‘sensationalizing.’ In reality a comment such as yours is intolerant, it is who<br>he is, and it is part of his culture so there is no need to “check out that<br>picture” unless you of course are taken aback from his culture. On top of that,<br>his name is Cleary on the poster, in GIANT letters at the bottom. There is no<br>need to add it to the words. It explains what his speech is about and gives<br>background information so no criticism there.

I<br>understand your frustration with the clicking aspect of the poster, and I think<br>it was a lapse of judgment. However, it is something that can easily be fixed.<br>Your comments however are ingrained and your ignorance to proper criticism is<br>substantial. No where in the poster does it show that they are racist, or that they ‘ogle’ at people. These blanket<br>statements are much worse and much more intolerant then an honest mistake in a<br>poster. If you believe the way you have acted and the approach you took is the<br>standard protocol to creating awareness then you should revaluate your initial<br>criticisms. 

aydaring 28 May 2011, 16:46

1- I think that your two statements of “we should have better researched the name of the language” and “this is your interpretation” don’t actually work together, and in fact, go to show that this is not just my interpretation, but something that is actually there that I have accurately interpreted. This poster is a portion of marketing  material. The thing about marketing, I would argue, is that it is not based on the intentions of the people behind the poster, but the impact that the messages on the poster have. In other words, as promotional material, this oversight is indeed discriminatory and the specific kind of discrimination is racism and you shouldn’t have just researched the name of the language, but reffered to it properly.<br>2- In my above comment, I said that “this wasn’t the bothersome part, it was included in the email”. I was simply making a critique of the poster design, not the content. Now, that aside: While you may not perceive it to be capitalising on his image in a discriminatory way, this is exactly what is being done through the marketing material. He doesn’t need to be wearing a 3-piece suit for the picture to have been better. This man is a well respected activist and statesman. Using that picture of him to convey his culture is ridiculous. Look at this one for example: <a href=”http://static.nol.hu/media/picture/81/84/55/000558481-6153-400.jpg"; rel=”nofollow”>http://static.nol.hu/media/pic…</a> ; Do you see what I’m trying to say?<br>3- “I believe  that after you found something you did not agree with, you decided to judge the entire situation through the same lens.” No, what I did was realise that there was a serious lapse of judgement here and a whole tonne of ethnocentrism going on and pointed out all the examples of it throughout the posted. I don’t think INDEVOURS as a group is racist. I don’t think the International Development program is racist. I think the wording and the way this poster and email were put together was racist and in poor taste. It’s not a serious judgement call on you as a person. It’s a statement about the name of what this kind of oversight is called. 

I think the fact that you’re not properly addressing the issues I’m trying to bring to light are further symptomatic of the problems with the process that went into putting this poster together. They’re not unsubstantiated claims. They’re me trying to help you see what went wrong here and the fact that marketing is about the response of the audience, not the (admittedly) noble intentions of those behind the message just drives my point home further.

aydaring 28 May 2011, 18:07

I’m glad you’re excited about having Roy Sesana at UWaterloo. I am too. I think it’s going to be an excellent talk, filled with many insights and educational experiences.

1- yes it was a serious comment. I’m sorry that I came across as joking in that if that’s how you interpreted it.<br>2- Let me clarify: I apologise if I said something that makes you think that I believe every single person in the International Development program is racist and that all members of INDEVOURS are racist, which I clearly have if that’s how I’m coming across. What I mean to say is that the marketing material for this talk had many racist and ignorant elements to it and that’s what I’ve been trying to point out. I’m not making judgement calls about the character of the people behind it, and if that’s what it seems like I’ve done, then excuse me.<br>3- If the clicking comment was so easy to fix, why hasn’t it been/been acknowledged by INDEVOURS? (I’m not counting Deua’s comment because it was clearly stated that they were speaking on their own behalf and not that of their organisation’s.)<br>4- I have evaluated my initial criticisms and I stand behind them, hence why I’m responding to your comment. You noticed, and said that you understand my frustrations with the clicking comment, didn’t you?

aydaring 28 May 2011, 18:11

*EDIT: I just opened up my tweetdeck &amp; saw INDEVOUR’s latest tweet. They said: “it was never our intention to degrade Roy Sesana, his language or his culture. we apologize if it seemed that way.” It’s something meaningful, I suppose, considering you only have 140 characters to work with.

Paul Wellhauser 1 June 2011, 02:32

I am from Waterloo and met Roy Sesana in 2002 while working in Botswana. I have been promoting San crafts through my company Nharo! <a href=”http://www.nharo.com/"; rel=”nofollow”>http://www.nharo.com/</a>;

The languages of San people from Central Kalahari Game Reserve are G//ana and G/wi. Both have clicks and contain symbols which can only be written with an orthography that represents clicks. The ‘//’ is pronounced similarly to the noise that you would use to make a horse go and the ‘/’ is used to make a noise like a ‘tsk’ in english. It is mostly linguists and anthropologists, San people or those who stayed with them who would have a great awareness of this. 

I have learned some of the San vocabulary by being with San people. It is quite complicated and unusual, and quite wonderful. 

Hopefully, we can forgive the posters miscues but the best way to do so would be to spread the word far and wide and invite everyone we know to listen to one of the great African leaders speak. I couldn’t believe that there is no Facebook event page so I’ve created one. Please distribute via Facebook, Twitter, via e-mail, text, phone and if you are old fashioned by talking to people. Here’s my link:

<a href=”http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=150044145067363&amp;ref=mf"; rel=”nofollow”>http://www.facebook.com/event….</a> ;

Spend some time looking for ways to get more of your friends out to hear Roy speak. This is a chance to hear a thoughtful and eloquent man who has dedicated his life to fighting against unjust relocations of his people. He is a hero among San and within Botswana and also vilified by someone. Come and find out why.

This is not the sort of stuff you are going to learn by watching television. Ask Roy Sesana what he thinks of the “development” of his people. 

I will see you there!

Paul Wellhauser

Founder - Nharo!

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