It’s been a pretty exciting week here on T’ing ‘n Times. The fun began a week ago when I first wrote this post. It started out thus:
“Normally, I don’t blog about personal matters but this Canadian NGO staffer’s blog post got me so fired up I had to share! I clicked a link from Google alerts expecting to read something interesting or informative about Sierra Leone but what I found was disappointing at best. This guy, who’s in the country to “improve governance and overall quality of life for the people of Sierra Leone,” basically runs down a laundry list of things that are f*cked up about Sierra Leone, ending with this paragraph:
I’ve discovered more reasons for my friends and family to worry (hahahha): Don’t get caught in the middle of a “secret society” ceremony. They will initiate you on the spot. This may include crazy piercings and/or drinking animal fluids. What about the Kamajors? The psycho cannibal hunter tribe. Lucky for us, they sided with the peace forces during the war. They believe they possess magical powers. Bullets will pass through them causing no harm. They don’t discriminate either. You can you join the tribe if you make it through initiation, of which, the last phase includes being fired at by an old Russian semi automatic machine gun. [bold mine]
You can read the entire post, entitled Crazy Unknown African Viruses & Psycho Cannibalism here. Then please leave him a comment like I did:
I’m Sierra Leonean and I find your attempt at humorously addressing the many challenges of life in Sierra Leone to be rather insensitive and demeaning. Not to mention ignorant. The Kamajors are not a tribe and—regardless of whether or not they practised cannibalism during the war—referring to them as “The psycho cannibal hunter tribe” is downright offensive, and it shows a stunning lack of knowledge about Sierra Leone.
I wonder if the Sierra Leoneans you encounter socially or professionally know about your attitudes. Or perhaps you only express your opinions when you and your expat do-gooder buddies get together.
Either way, I would have expected more from someone who claims to be in Sierra Leone to “improve governance and overall quality of life for the people of Sierra Leone.”
. . .
What you will read from this point on is a rewritten version of this post. I decided to change the text because I wrote the first version in a fit of anger and said many things in it that were insulting of the author, Jason Salituri, and his friends and family. In the ensuing week, I’ve had time to reflect on what I said and on the reaction it caused, and I’ve apologized personally to Jason and his family. I’m not proud of the language I used and the insinuations I made, but I won’t pretend that Jason’s post didn’t anger me or that I never wrote those words. Just to prove that I’m not trying to erase the evidence, you can read the original post as it first appeared here.
This, however, does not change the fact that Jason’s post was offensive to me. His characterization of Sierra Leone as a dirty and dangerous place populated by superstitious and cannibalistic people is offensive to me and other Sierra Leoneans, judging by some of the comments posted here, on Jason’s blog, and elsewhere on the web. So I’m going to take a second stab at addressing the post and explaining why it was so offensive.
Sierra Leone is where I was born and I still have a huge extended family there. I understand that Jason’s post was meant as an inside joke to his friends and family but the characterization was not much different from colonial-era European depictions of Africa. While the dirt and disease and cannibalism may be humorous to some, it doesn’t change the fact that Sierra Leone is home to our friends and families. The description of the Kamajors as a tribe of psycho-cannibals is offensive for obvious and aforementioned reasons so I won’t go back to that. Then there was the description of the initiation ceremonies, which are ancient and sacred rituals for a huge portion of the population—both urban and rural. One of Jason’s supporters who posted a comment under the name “newly” says s/he’s Catholic and so was offended by my mention of Catholicism in a prior post: it didn’t even take a joke about Catholic sacrament to offend him/her. Well, the initiation rites Jason makes fun of are as important to Sierra Leoneans as Catholic sacrament is to a Catholic like “newly,” so I can only hope that s/he and the other people who defended Jason on my blog can begin to understand why his post was so offensive.
I say I can only hope because the one thing that’s stood out most starkly in this whole back-and-forth is the total failure of Jason’s defenders to acknowledge that his post was indeed offensive, or to recognize that I was justified in taking offense to it. Instead, the comments focused on everything from personal attacks against me to reminders of the good work Jason is doing in Sierra Leone. Patrick Mosolf was the one commenter who came closest to acknowledging that the post was offensive, but he spends the bulk of his comment telling me how and why I overreacted. He then goes on to assure me that all White people are not racist, as if that’s what I was saying in the first place. Towards the end, he poses these questions: “Are all white people racist? Have you ever been outside of Sierra Leone and how many white people have you met? How do you know if someone is racist unless they make an overtly racist statement?” In my response to Patrick, I explained to him that I am in fact half White and I have spent over half of my life living outside Sierra Leone. So Patrick, rather than recognize my right to be offended, just assumes that my anger stems from an irrational and uninformed suspicion of all White people, thereby demonstrating that he totally missed the point of my original response to Jason’s post. And, for the record, I’m still working very hard on considering “This may include crazy piercings and/or drinking animal fluids” and “The psycho cannibal hunter tribe” as anything other than overtly racist statements.
The rest of the comments—excluding the respectful and considerate one from Jason’s dad—are even worse than Patrick’s. Kevin, who identifies himelf as Jason’s friend reminds me that Jason is doing good work in Sierra Leone and then asks me if my own “stereotypes” of do-gooders (read foreign NGO staff) doesn’t do equal harm. I fail to see how my “stereotypes” could do more to tarnish the image of NGO staff than Jason’s defenders’ inability to acknowledge that his post is offensive. Then, in a display of what I can only interpret as macho posturing, Kevin invites me to visit his blog and “give him the same treatment,” as if I’m the guy who has nothing better to do than criticize NGO staffers’ blogs. Again, no acknowledgement that the post was offensive or that my response was in any way understandable. Similarly, “newly” starts off calling me a hypocrite and then proceeds to dissect a couple of my top posts in an attempt to prove that I too am judgemental and prejudiced. But what both these commenters fail to acknowledge is that this is not a case of tit for tat. Jason’s post insulted me and I lashed out. Their retaliation to my lashing out is understandable to me—they’re his friends after all—but let’s not pretend that I had no cause to feel offended.
Through all this, one theme comes up again and again. Commenters remind me that Jason is a good guy working under difficult conditions in Sierra Leone. I don’t deny that. I know how things are in Sierra Leone and it’s not the easiest environment. Still, I don’t think that makes it OK for him to have said what he said. Certainly, freedom of speech is on his side, as it is on mine, but when offense is caused, it serves no-one to deny or ignore the fact. But that’s precisely what I got from BigJ, another defender of Jason’s who wrote, “I have spent enough time in Freetown pushing shit uphill (for which, read working to foster any level of, or even a feeling for, financial accountability in the Salone Government) to understand the man’s wish to say something. Laughing to keep from crying springs to mind.” I can understand the wish to laugh but why do so at the expense of the very people he’s trying to help? Psychiatrists help the mentally ill and special ed teachers help the learning disabled, but that doesn’t give them the right to make fun of their patients or students, does it? And if they’re caught doing so, shouldn’t we acknowledge that it’s insensitive of them to do so?
But clearly, none of the commenters who’ve posted comments supportive of Jason have admitted that his post was insensitive or shown any empathy for those of us who were offended by it. Instead, most of the posts have focused on criticizing me personally and on excusing Jason’s behavior: I’m judgemental and biased, I make stereotypes, conditions are hard in Sierra Leone, Jason’s making a great sacrifice to help Sierra Leoneans, etc. But that is not the point. Is there after all an inverse relationship between the wrongness of Jason’s post and my response to it or the difficulty of working in Sierra Leone? Does Jason’s post become less offensive because my response insulted his friends and family? I’m not proud of that fact but it doesn’t change the fact that other Sierra Leoneans who were offended by him didn’t write angry and vitriolic responses too, did they? It is certainly very telling that “newly” accuses me of insulting Jason’s friends and family but cannot recognize that Jason’s post was insulting to our friends and family in Sierra Leone. Those psycho cannibals and tribal initiators who pierce bodies and drink animal fluids are our friends and family too, and we have a right to be insulted when they are caricatured as they were in Jason’s post.
I’ve taken responsibility and apologized for offending Jason, his family, and his friends. It is, however, very telling that no-one on the other side of this issue has bothered to do the same. This fact alone says so much more than my post ever could have.