International Parenting: Avoiding Stereotypes With ‘Rastamouse’


My son is having an international childhood. His father is a Canadian who lived for a long time in the U.S. and his mother a Spaniard who lived for a long time in England. We divide our time between Santander in Spain and Oxford in England.

One effect of this is that he has different associations for different places. England, for example, is a summer place, a small-town place where in the early morning before going to camp or the park he gets to watch TV. Spain isn’t a TV place because TV sucks in Spain. We didn’t even bother buying a TV there.

I don’t mind him watching BBC because they have some great kids’ programs. One of his favorites also helps make him more international. It’s called “Rastamouse.” Rastamouse is a mystery-solving Reggae mouse musician who always catches the bad guys. Once he does, he shows them the error in their ways and helps them make amends. Rastamouse calls this “making a bad ting good.” It’s a nice change from superheroes, who simply kick the bad guy’s ass.

“Rastamouse” is hugely popular in the UK and is coming soon to the United States. It hasn’t been without controversy, however. Some viewers think the cheese on the show is a symbol for marijuana, ignoring the fact that Rastamouse and his friends are, um, mice. A less silly complaint came from Daily Mail columnist Lindsay Johns, who in his op-ed on “Rastamouse” objects to the Jamaican patois. He says it panders to racial stereotypes and that “the BBC is leading us down the path of linguistic rack and ruin.”

“Very soon (if they aren’t already), a whole generation of primary school children will be rushing around the playground mimicking Rastamouse and saying, ‘Wha gwan?'” he writes.

So far, I have yet to hear my son imitate Rastamouse, and if he did I don’t think that would lead him to forgetting the Queen’s English. I also don’t agree with Johns’ statement that Rastamouse’s being cool means he isn’t cerebral. He solves a mystery every episode by analyzing clues.I let my son watch this show because, unlike what some of its detractors say, it actually breaks stereotypes. I have to admit to a certain amount of snickering on the part of me and my wife when we first saw this show. We kept waiting for pot references but they never came. We missed the whole cheese thing. Rastamouse creators Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza (who is a Rastafarian) are clearly not interested in making a cult show for stoner college kids.

Our reaction made me think. While we know that most Jamaicans aren’t lazy pot smokers, we were brought up with that stereotype so it pops into our heads even if we don’t believe it. I was interested to learn from various African-American friends that in their community, Jamaicans are stereotyped as workaholics. One friend who worked briefly as a farmer in Jamaica (growing sugar cane) said he couldn’t keep up with the hard pace of his island coworkers. The TV show In Living Color did a riff on this with a series of sketches of a Jamaican family who have more than a hundred jobs between them. Every skit involved the father complaining about his “lazy, good-for-noting son who only has eight jobs.”

My son is getting a different impression of Jamaicans. For him, folks from that island speak differently but have intelligent things to say, make good music, work hard, and help their erring brothers and sisters “make a bad ting good.”

Arab American National Museum examines legacy of 9/11

Arab American National MuseumWith the tenth anniversary of 9/11 just two days away, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is examining how the Arab-American community has been affected by the terrorist attacks.

U.S. Rising: Emerging Voices in post-9/11 America runs from September 8-11 and is a series of forums and events both in Detroit and Dearborn. On the actual anniversary of September 11, the museum will offer free entry all day.

In an interview with Art Daily, museum director Anan Ameri said the attacks were a “wake-up call” that showed just how little most people knew about the Arab-American community and how many bad stereotypes were out there. One response has been the virtual exhibit Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes. This looks at the origins of various stereotypes and compares them to the reality.

Starting on Veterans Day, November 11, the museum will host the exhibition Patriots & Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to our Country. This exhibit will focus on the community’s role in the U.S. army, Peace Corps, and diplomatic service.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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Not so PC: Guidebooks About Your Own City

Sometimes you got to wonder how guidebooks get away with it: in a world so PC you can barely make a generalization about anything at all, the essence of guidebooks these days is, in a nutshell, all about making bold statements based largely on generalization and cultural stereotyping. That is, after all, how they make them fun to read.

It’s actually quite funny to read a guidebook about your own city or country. In the TimeOut guide on Prague, I liked how the author summarized the Czech culture: “Czechs continue to drive like lunatics, drink beer for breakfast and insist that grey pate made from mutilated chicken organs really does taste good.”

Or this one: “Czechs are famous for inviting near strangers into their houses, their liquor cabinets and even their beds.”

There you have it. Although that is probably not how most Czechs would like to be described to the rest of the world, it is hard to disagree with the message. Plus, who cares about what the locals think, they are not the ones reading it. Although, arguably, they should.

Stereotypes of Tourists, from a British Perspective

Travel stereotypes always make good writing topics. On one hand, we hate stereotyping because we are told that “cultured people don’t use stereotypes”. On the other hand, there is no question that observations become stereotypes because they are based on accurate reality. And isn’t travel supposed to be about observing reality?

I came across a funny piece, entitled “The Worst Tourists in the World” by Rolf Potts talking about the British obsession with stereotypes of national character, roughly outlined below:

  1. Americans: Ignorant. Loud. Oblivious to surroundings. Insincere.
  2. French: Rude. Bigoted. A trifle out of touch with reality.
  3. Germans: Humorless. Rule-obsessed. Unfriendly. Stubborn.
  4. Israelis: Rude. Cheap. Arrogant. Cliquish.
  5. Canadians: Exactly like Americans, but more soft-spoken, more polite, less ignorant, and twenty times more boring.

Well, there you have it. Of course, you are all different!

I think stereotypes are actually really helpful, if used wisely. For example, if every American/French/German…could look above and try to NOT be all those things, the world would be a better place. Although, arguably, not as funny.