Of the wooden spoon, awards, race and ethnicity28/06/2012 # 09:30 # In Press - research # No Comment
Shepherd Mpofu, a PhD student in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, recently won the third best student paper in the Ethnicity, Race and Identity in Communication (ERIC) division of the prestigious International Communication Association (ICA) conference. In this article, he recounts his experience of attending the conference.
From 24 until 28 May 2012, I attended one of the biggest and probably the most prestigious conferences in Media and Communication studies, the International Communication Association (ICA) conference. The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Phoenix in the American immigrant-unfriendly state of Arizona. I had two missions for the trip: to deliver a paper at the conference and a wooden spoon for stirring pap to my young sister Fiki who drove five hours to come and fetch it (and maybe see me). She bought pap meal but couldn’t make pap because she had nothing to stir it with. If I did not deliver the latter, I’d be wearing the title of the worst brother on earth.
I was delighted to be chosen at such a conference which apparently has a high rejection rate and at the same time humbled by the fact that my paper was one of the best papers for the division I was presenting in. This award meant that my division, the Ethnicity, Race and Identity in Communication (ERIC) division, paid my registration fees for the conference and on top of that gave me a financial reward and a certificate to immortalize the memories; and Dr. Willems took me out to a hearty Mexican restaurant for lunch. The fact that I was presenting in ERIC means that I have a strong interest in issues of race, identity, ethnicity and the media.
Given that, I am tempted to highlight that on the day I left South Africa for the US, the president’s penis, as imagined by Brett Murray, was drilling a huge divide in the highly racially polarized society of South Africa. I watched in shock and excitement when two characters were caught live on eTV’s cameras defacing the artwork. I was shocked by the courage the two characters had and excited because the whole act of defacing the painting had the propensity of dramatically changing the debate about ‘the disrespectful’ painting. The matter was in the courts, Zuma’s lawyer wept like a baby in the courts (itself a symbolic act not to be taken literally), and the gallery later apologized. The Film and Publication Board took to the matter bar the fact that the painting was defaced and Murray became an instant hit in the world. It was a classic case of human dignity and African taboo versus freedom of expression. In some instances, the painting was seen by critics as an act of racism.
Talking of racism, three hours after the destruction of Murray’s painting, I finished packing my bags and left for OR Tambo International Airport. I had spent the better part of the previous night skyping with Fiki and at one point we had a huge argument about statistics, especially the way they are used to describe events in South Africa or Africa in general. As a mathematically sharp one, she was adamant statistics are a true representation of reality. My take is that statistics are false. For instance, “every second such and such a number of women are raped” or “every year such and such a number of airplanes crash in Nigeria”.
However, at the airport, I became a statistic for a ‘random’ security check which for me appeared as a classic case of racial profiling. All the passengers were asked to queue according to their ‘status’ in the plane, thus economy class and business class. I was about sixth in the economy class queue and then a security guard literally skipped the first passengers and came to me. He asked for my passport and, after checking it, said: “Follow me”. I was led to the counters where a Delta Airways lady started furiously typing on her computer. At that time, I got worried when I saw the security guard coming back with four black women and an Indian man in tow. I asked the lady: “Why am I here?”. Without much care she said: “It’s a random security check, Sir”. Then I started arguing that there was no randomness in the whole process where a security guard deliberately picks people for the random check. Usually, one is picked for a random security check by the machine on checking in. I asked for an explanation on the racial composition of those selected. Out of more than 250 or so passengers, the ‘random system’ (manipulated by the security guards of course) managed to pick up six blacks out of about fifteen that I counted in the whole group of passengers, plus an Indian and five white people (two of which were a couple).
I thought my big mouth would lead me into trouble once we got to the US but alas, all was smooth sailing. Professor van Zyl had advised me to expect the worst, based on her experiences traveling with one of my former colleagues now based in Mexico. She told me he was dehumanized through the so-called searches. I have nothing against American paranoia and some inferiority complexes by my own people but I wish for a world where human dignity and respect reign supreme. Without detouring much, I finally made it to Arizona and in the process got into the whole time-zone-shifts-confusion.
The theme of the ICA 2012 conference was Communication and Community with over 2,100 attendees. For the opening session, we watched an ‘African story’ feature-length documentary film which I thought was going to put Africa on the map. Rarely do international conferences or events pay much attention or recognize the importance of the global South. The documentary was called The Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a film by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk about four boys from Sudan who, together with other Sudanese young boys, reached the United States after fleeing the civil war in their country. Along the way, they survived wild animal (especially lion) attacks and militia gunfire before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya.
There is nothing amiss in most reviews about the film but the contents proved problematic for various reasons. The lost boys are portrayed – with their willingness – as backward and uncivilized ‘others’ whose lack of sophistication in the first instance becomes an object of curiosity to be filmed. They willingly participate in this whole project which by implication sends a wrong message to audiences about these characters and Africans in general as if Disney animation films have not done enough for the average American already. One may argue that they were telling their story and ‘representing themselves’ and I need not worry about it.
However, I reject this assertion. One example may suffice to explain my position further. Kenya usually advertises itself on global media channels like CNN, BBC and Sky using the Masaai and other cultural images where they are wearing animal skins and with lips and tongues pierced. In 2009, I went to Norway and met a lot of people and I will never forget one girl who after much interaction asked: “Are you wearing clothes because you are in Europe… and why is your tongue not pierced with those wooden sticks?”. It was an innocent question I presumed and I took time to let her understand the adverts and reality of Africa as a continent and not a country.
Be that as it may, the Lost Boys, in some reviews, is said to be a good film that “your children can watch”. It shows the Sudanese immigrants being taught how to drive and one of them drives his ‘teacher’s’ car out of the road and damages it. It becomes an object of laughter in the film and among the audience. The lost boys see themselves as American because “now I am an American…” and America is “heaven… I feel like I am in heaven”. They cannot operate a microwave and they become captivated by what it can do, they do not know a stove, fridge, flushing toilet and computer. Their backwardness is palpable and quintessentially African and a burden to be carried by every African, especially in the West. Two of the lost boys were present during the screening and when asked if they saw anything wrong with their portrayal in the film they claimed to be perfectly happy.
I will not deny that the director does a splendid job in shooting the film and the events are made to unfold as if the camera is not there. It is a story of war, loss, suffering, frustration, cultural estrangement, isolation, loneliness, hope and happiness. Some of these issues could have easily been brought out without the portrayal of these Africans as backward, uncivilized and in need of Americanization. This leaves a challenge for media students/scholars, especially in the global South, to critically analyse representations of race and gender in film, and particularly in documentary films. In my division, issues of racial stereotypes and representation in magazines and adverts were sufficiently dealt with but interestingly nothing seems to change in the media sector itself. Does academic scholarship therefore need to present its research and findings to the industry and ask for change? At times, it seems academia speaks from the proverbial ivory tower.
My presentation at the ERIC division focused on ethnicity and new media in Zimbabwe. Interestingly, discourses on freedom of expression and the press in some countries – the West to be specific – tend to downplay the role that the internet plays in democratizing or undermining repressive regimes as is the case in Zimbabwe, Haiti, North Africa and other countries. Apart from my own division, I attended a lot of other divisional presentations. Some of them just out of curiosity while some fell within my wider research interests. One interesting panel was on games and how when the games used soldiers shooting and killing aliens as characters, Americans complained because they perceived these as violent. When Iraq, bin Laden and others (read perceived enemies or terrorists) rose into prominence as America’s troublemakers, the games used American soldiers shooting ugly, bearded Arabs. You see the same characters on Aladdin, a Disney animation, and people never complained. There is a huge disconnect here but suffice to say that media and politics play a major role in making and unmaking ethnicity, race and identity. There were lots of papers presented and I simply cannot start recounting my experiences and engagements with the panels and presenters in full here.
* I would like to thank Professors Antje Schuhmann and Eric Worby, and the School of Literature and Language Studies (SLLS) for their financial support.