Tuesday, 16 July 2019

"Just a Bit Racist" and My Story of "Little Black Sambo"

My first book.  pn468
I look forward also to a time when beautiful stories like "The Story of Little Black Sambo" can be told again without anyone taking offence for being described Black.  When we see beautiful families for what they are, beautiful and Black.
I was "just a bit" disappointed with the two episodes of "Just a Bit Racist" on Sunday's TV.  I'm sure the programme did some good in helping us to face our prejudices but I think it could have done much more.

I can see where the producers were coming from. They didn't want it too "heavy" in case they turned viewers off. No one likes being preached at.  The programme had to be entertaining and humorous,  so serious issues shouldn't be shown too seriously. Modern audiences, we're told,  have limited attention spans and they expect to be entertained.  But.

Obviously,  you can't go directly up to someone and ask: are you a racist.  Most, obviously, will say no or just tell you to shove off.  A more nuanced indirect approach will show a different story. Many of us have unconscious biases. Some 74% of those asked directly in a survey said they had no bias against people of colour (Great news!)  but only 24% showed no bias when asked indirectly (Not so good!)

That's one piece of information I got out of the programme. What people say is not always what they think or how they act. Though I think we all know that. Another was in the first episode. When people in street interviews were asked to rank the amounts spent annually on defence and education (or was it health?) and the total amount Maori had been compensated for land taken, almost no one got it right. I can't remember the exact figures but the former were over $4 billion each for one year and the latter $2 billion for all time.  I would have joined those who were wrong: the correct answer is so unbelievable.

One "human" story stood out. A Pakeha Northland farmer who had had no contact with Indians was invited to share a meal with an Indian family, and he later went to Kerala to meet the rest of their family. The point made was that pleasant face-to-face meetings remove barriers. Say Amen to that!

Another had Maori complaining about statistics that are always negative, and others complained about being lumped together as "Asian," when, more politely and accurately, they should be called Chinese, Indian, and so on.

I thought some figures were passed over so quickly it was difficult to know what they meant. Who said what about who and in what regard and circumstance was not at all clear.  Apparently, 89% (of whom?)  prefer (?) Pakeha over Maori (in what regard?) while 18% of North Islanders preferred Maori but only 10% of South Islanders.  (There are more Maori in the North Island. Were they just preferring themselves, or do the figures reflect cross-ethnic preferences?). And on immigration,  72% (of whom?) were happy (whatever that means) with present levels (from anywhere. Really?)

Both episodes used children's props, dolls and animal toys, to illustrate a point, such as a  Black doll being moved over by a White doll. Effective up to a point but overdone. I thought the human stories more effective. It would also have been interesting to known how people thought about Maori and other NZ-born ethnic groups and different groups of immigants.

 Little Black Sambo
 The negative comments about "The Story of Little Black Sambo" by Helen Bannerman was of special interest to me.

 It was my first book, re-published, bought and read in 1938, and I still have it. (See the photo of my copy above.)

The central part of the story is about tigers stealing Little Black Sambo's beautiful new clothes when he went for a walk the jungle. The peripheral story, if you can call it that, is that the humans were Black. "Just a Bit Racist" focused on the peripheral.

Here's what I read in the story, aged 5 or 6.
 So he put on all his Fine Clothes, and went out for a walk in the Jungle. And by and by he met a Tiger, And the Tiger said to him, "Little Black Sambo. I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Black Sambo said, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful Red Coat."
So the Tiger said, "Very well, I won't eat you this time, but you must give me your beautiful little Red Coat."
So the Tiger got poor Little Black Sambo's beautiful little Red Coat, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest Tiger in the Jungle."
And so, tiger after tiger, they took away Little Black Sambo's Blue Trousers, his beautiful little purple Shoes with Crimson soles anad Crimson linings, and his beautiful Green Umbrella:
"What use would your shoes be to me?"said the Tiger. "I've got four feet, and you've got only two: you haven't enough shoes for me.,"  "You could wear them on your ears," said Little Black Sambo. "So I could," said the Tiger: "that's a very good idea. Give them to me, and I won't eat you this time."
And so to the umbrella and the last tiger:
"Oh! Please Mr Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll given you my beautiful Green Umbrella." But the Tiger said, "How can I carry an umbrella, when I need all my paws for walking with?" "You could tie a knot on your tail, and carry it that way,"said Little Black Sambo. "So I could," said the Tiger. "Give it to me, and I won't eat you this time."
So he got poor Little Black Sambo's beautiful Green Umbrella, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest Tiger in the Jungle." And poor Little Black Sambo went away crying, because the cruel Tigers had taken all his fine clothes.
 Later, Little Black Sambo saw the tigers fighting each other about which was grandest. They chased each other round and round until they all just melted away into ghee (butter) which his father Black Jumbo found on his way from work. His mother Black Mumbo was pleased. They'd all have pancakes for supper.
 Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes, Black Jumbo ate fifty-five, but Little Black Sambo ate a Hundred and Sixty-nine because he was so hungry.
I suppose, aged five to six, I didn't see any negative sterotyping in the book. I was excited by the story and drawings, and the fact that I could read. I was barely conscious that my heroes were Indian and Black.  I was Little Black Sambo who could eat a hundred and sixty-nine pancakes.

 We are not born with negative stereotypes of other people. We learn them from adults and the children we play with who get them from their adults. Children catch more than measles at play school.

I look forward to a further series of "Just a Bit Racist," perhaps in a year's time and with fewer props and more real people to illustrate the points being made. More, too soon, and the pancakes could be burnt.

I look forward also to a time when beautiful stories like "The Story of Little Black Sambo" can be told again without anyone taking offence for being described Black.  When we see beautiful families for what they are, beautiful and Black.

-- ACW


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