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Old 01-22-2013, 04:16 AM   #1
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Would you consider this a troubling portrayal?

Sorry, this is gonna be long...

So, basically, I'm in the distant plotting stages of a YA horror. Basic plot: girl can talk to animals. Girl gets invited to birthday party at a massive zoo, pulls a Carrie and turns the animals on the humans. Chaos and bloodshed ensues.

More specifically - the girl I had in mind is black, African. I need to iron out the specifics and do more research, but basically her adoptive parents are these philanthropists who were doing charity work. They're white, and when her real parents died, her adoptive mother was so infatuated with her that they adopted her.

Main girl has gone through some very rough times. Some racist bullying, being touted around to the media, mostly feeling extremely isolated from her adoptive family and her schools (almost all-white fancy girls' schools). After a bad experience, she's been tracked down by her biological aunt, which helps to rediscover her talent of speaking to animals (which I'm thinking she maybe developed when she ran away from her real mother's death into the wild) and drops the bombshell that main girl's real mother didn't just 'die' of an infection (as she's always been told): she was murdered to clear the way for an adoption.

Into of all this wades a clueless (white) heiress who invites main girl and her family to a huge birthday party. In a very hi-tech, advanced zoo. (Suspension of disbelief time, but it's not quite as much of a coincidence as it sounds because it would be made clear that their families are friends and very involved in conservation/charity projects.) In an act of revenge (white heiress is one of those spoiled people who say things like, "I don't SEE colour"), main girl decides to naively spoil the heiress's party by releasing a few animals and causing a media humiliation, assuming that there will be some kind of security system in place. There is, but it fails, more animals get out and then it all goes to hell. Very fast.

What do you think? I'm white, so I feel a bit nervous about focusing so heavily on race (esp. for such a dark and grim subject matter).
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Old 01-22-2013, 07:49 AM   #2
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To me it's troubling. Maybe more so in the US than the UK, though? There's already a troubling trend IRL of exoticizing international adoptees of color. Then you've got your 'exotic' token person of color being 'closer to nature' with her special ability, another troubling racism trope. Plus you've got the evil adoptee thing going, which also puts me off. I might rethink the characterization, though the main plot line sounds delightful.
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Old 01-22-2013, 08:41 AM   #3
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Problematic.

So, once upon a time, I worked at a toy store. I was putting together a display of wooden figures--animals, people, etc. I put all of the animals together on one shelf, and grouped the people into families on another shelf.
One of my co-workers came by and asked why I had put the black couple on the shelf with the people. Because they're people?

Apparently they were supposed to go with the animals because 'they're all from Africa'.

Animals come from everywhere. So do people.

Edited to add: BTW, I was adopted as a kid, so I can offer my personal perspective on that, if you want any.

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Old 01-22-2013, 09:26 AM   #4
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I'm mostly black. I don't see the big deal. I think the idea sounds very interesting. I don't buy into the whole, "you're not black so you can't write about black people." I'm not white and I write about white people and they don't ever get upset.

I went to a mostly white school growing up. Didn't see any racism honestly, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. I could have just not recognized it. There was some natural loneliness for a while until the town grew and became more diverse. It was simple things like just wanting a friend who understood why I can't just air dry my hair without it looking like crap.

The only part that gives me a little pause is the aunt tracking her down. Maybe someone from the adoption agency could help her out? I don't think the aunt is problematic I just don't see how she could track her down. If she had living relatives why didn't she just go live with her aunt in the first place?

But I think your story sounds cool.
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Old 01-22-2013, 03:22 PM   #5
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Yeah, see I can see the whole "exotic PoC" thing and it really bothers me. The being able to speak to nature thing wouldn't be because she's from Africa, but because she ran away from her adoptive family and ended up living in the wild for a few weeks (an eternity with nothing to eat or drink). It was an impulsive kiddie thing, not an "I'm African, I must go back to my people thing!" but I can see the problem here, yeah - maybe I should just cut the colour thing altogether...

@katsci - thanks, but I sometimes find myself being drawn into tumblr social justice from time to time. 50% of it is "just write a PoC, can't we focus on the fact that they're PEOPLE?!" and the other 50% is "how could white people possibly understand? OMG APPROPRIATION."
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Old 01-22-2013, 08:00 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kitty Pryde View Post
To me it's troubling. Maybe more so in the US than the UK, though? There's already a troubling trend IRL of exoticizing international adoptees of color.
From the description, though, it looks to me like that exoticizing is portrayed as a bad thing.

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I sometimes find myself being drawn into tumblr social justice from time to time.
Ah, I think I see where the problem lies.
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Old 01-22-2013, 08:47 PM   #7
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Ehhh,

Guess I pretty much agree with Kitty.

The plot sounds interesting, but something about the girl being an African who talks to animals rubs me the wrong way.
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Old 01-22-2013, 09:09 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by The_Ink_Goddess View Post
... pulls a Carrie and turns the animals on the humans. Chaos and bloodshed ensues.
Perhaps the problem is you are simply trying to re-write Carrie, but with a native African character whose power is a sort of native African cliche. How about giving her the ability to talk to computers, wreaking havoc on her tormentors, instead?
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Old 01-22-2013, 11:20 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kitty Pryde View Post
To me it's troubling. Maybe more so in the US than the UK, though? There's already a troubling trend IRL of exoticizing international adoptees of color. Then you've got your 'exotic' token person of color being 'closer to nature' with her special ability, another troubling racism trope. Plus you've got the evil adoptee thing going, which also puts me off. I might rethink the characterization, though the main plot line sounds delightful.
I'd agree.

People can be social outcasts for all kinds of reasons and is it really necessary they are adopted?

The girl could be bullied simply for being 'a ginger' or if she's going to school with a lot of upper class kids, there are plenty of other ways she might not fit in... Sounds to me like you could do a good 'social class' satire; the racial/adoptee aspect might dilute that aspect.

I'd concentrate more on why the heiress arouses so much ire from the MC. Being 'clueless' usually isn't enough of a motivation on its own.
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Old 01-22-2013, 11:55 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by The_Ink_Goddess View Post
@katsci - thanks, but I sometimes find myself being drawn into tumblr social justice from time to time. 50% of it is "just write a PoC, can't we focus on the fact that they're PEOPLE?!" and the other 50% is "how could white people possibly understand? OMG APPROPRIATION."
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Ah, I think I see where the problem lies.
So . . . I don't frequent tumblr at all, but this sounded . . . a little dismissive? of what POC might be saying on it, perhaps because I've seem similar statements on other platforms that were definitely being dismissive. It's possible tumblr is a den of idiocy and badly-articulated points, but I think what I have to say is useful anyway, so please bear with me?

See, here's the thing. The "we NEED more POC, please write more POC, we need better well-rounded awesome human representation!" and the "OMG APPROPRIATION" feelings are not mutually exclusive. Better representation is a pet issue of mine -- we need more POC protagonists, we need more POC everywhere, all the time, in nonstereotypical roles. But it doesn't mean that I don't call out appropriation a LOT, because the problem is, a lot of people don't write their POC in realized, non-stereotypical roles. And in THAT case, having more POC isn't better representation, it's terrible representation, and instead of combating institutional racism, it's encouraging it.

Appropriation happens when authors pull the shiny bits of a culture, or the stereotypes of a culture, and stick them in the story as tropes. All too often, this happens when white people write POC, because we all have internal institutionalized racism. I do too! We all have impressions of other cultures we might not even know we have, and it sneaks into our writing without us noticing, and suddenly our efforts at good representation have racist bits sneaking in and it's awful. But that's not a reason to write less POC, because we need MORE! Instead, that's a reason to research really well, and be aware of writing respectfully, and get betas who are sensitive to these issues if you need to. I think it's great that you're aware of this enough to be asking on AW.

But next time you're on tumblr and you see people making statements you find confusingly contradictory, see if you can tease out what the context is. For instance, I've never seen anyone shout "OMG APPROPRIATION" about Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea, because she wrote awesome people who happened to be POC, and that's great. Most of the time I see "OMG APPROPRIATION" it's either about, or in the context of, a work or works that is problematic because the author was lazy. (See this review of Stormdancer -- I haven't read the book, but the author said he researched by watching anime and reading Wikipedia, and a lot of people who knew something about Japanese culture were very offended by it.)

Now sometimes different people have different opinions on the same work -- for instance, I love Mulan, and I think it does good things for Asian representation. There are some bits I roll my eyes at , but I think it's a net positive. I've read other people who disagree and think the cultural mashing in it is a hot mess. All you can do is do the best you can, and write with respect, and if you exhibit some sort of "fail," learn from it and fail better the next time. But please, please, please don't use a fear of criticism to stop you from writing POC as characters!

tl;dr: Write POC! Please! Write them as your main characters! Yes, sometimes it does take that extra mile of research to make sure you aren't appropriating -- but we're writers, right? We research everything! I'm giving myself a crash course in nuclear physics right now for my current WIP. Not to mention that it's interesting to write all sorts of people!

Quote:
but I can see the problem here, yeah - maybe I should just cut the colour thing altogether...
This makes me .

If you're worried about parts of your story, why not instead modify those parts of the story so it doesn't feel like it's falling into stereotypes? Another solution I often suggest to people when they're afraid of stepping on a trope is to have more characters in that demographic. The more well-realized, awesome black characters you have, the less likely it will strike readers that you're painting all of Africa the same way.

Can I suggest that you read a bunch of literature starring Black people, written by Black people? I'm halfway through Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson right now and I already think it's amazing enough to recommend wholeheartedly. Sometimes being immersed in excellent, human portrayals of a marginalized group makes me realize how I'm flattening my own characters in problematic ways.

Please consider working toward awesome, three-dimensional characterization in your story instead of whitewashing it. Because we do need more awesome, three-dimensional POC as main characters, and if you don't feel like you're there yet, you can get there!
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Old 01-23-2013, 12:20 AM   #11
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Hm. On one hand, I can see where the exotic "foreign" character trope comes into play here, and could be seen as troublesome. On the other, I dislike the idea that the character just can't be black due to potentially troublesome aspects. What if it's a great overall character, and now this one element just discounts multiple groups of people as eligible to be this fine character? I have more issue with that than anything else.

As with everything, I think it boils down to the execution. With something this sensitive, you have a greater risk that if it's not executed well, you'll have a stronger backlash. That doesn't automatically mean you shouldn't, it's just a matter of whether or not you truly are up to the task.

On another note, I think I might see more of a problem if the specific animals reeking the havoc were allof an African (or stereotypically African) origin. If she's also got pandas and polar bears and timberwolves etc. rolling with her, I think it deflects potentially troubling aspects at least somewhat.
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Old 01-23-2013, 12:29 AM   #12
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It's possible tumblr is a den of idiocy and badly-articulated points
Why would tumblr be any different than the rest of the internet?






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Old 01-23-2013, 03:08 AM   #13
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The other points have been covered, so I'll do some break down on some other points. Internationally adopted, BTW.

Quote:
Originally Posted by The_Ink_Goddess View Post
Sorry, this is gonna be long...

So, basically, I'm in the distant plotting stages of a YA horror. Basic plot: girl can talk to animals. Girl gets invited to birthday party at a massive zoo, pulls a Carrie and turns the animals on the humans. Chaos and bloodshed ensues.
Puts me on edge with the next sentence...
Quote:
More specifically - the girl I had in mind is black, African.
Quote:
I need to iron out the specifics and do more research, but basically her adoptive parents are these philanthropists who were doing charity work. They're white, and when her real parents died, her adoptive mother was so infatuated with her that they adopted her.
1. "Real parents" as a term is frowned upon within the community. That leg of the adoption community has yet to find a solid name they like yet since most of them make them dead, machines (in fiction this is literal), or just evil in general.

2. Adoption isn't where you can just point and shoot and hope you'll get a child. There are a TON of steps to make sure that someone is suitable and UK, is actually more strict (from what I read) than the US is. Even with intrafamily adoptions.

Oh and just because Harry Potter can do it and make adoption look fast cheap and easy, it doesn't mean other YA should too.

3. You kinda have the white people save the black child from her evil self moment, yet fail because she's adopted. Uhhh... which is something that I get a lot, but just because some people think because I'm of color and my adoptive parents aren't, it doesn't mean I was saved from anything. I should note that the reverse, where the parents are of color and the child is white has other racism attached. "They kidnapped that poor white child." Or so I've heard. TT Why, why, why? Mixing two -isms doesn't make it better.

Please don't play into this stereotype. It's disgusting in real life, I don't want it confirmed in fiction.

Quote:
Main girl has gone through some very rough times. Some racist bullying, being touted around to the media, mostly feeling extremely isolated from her adoptive family and her schools (almost all-white fancy girls' schools).
Yeah, I got bullied all the way from the first day of kindergarten to about the beginning of seventh grade. My parents did crap for me. It was the teachers at the new school who gave a damn that did. And I didn't turn out all kinds of evil. And before you ask, it was about race. You'd have to be pretty dense to not realize that eye pulls are about race.

Oh and the class had it for adopted children too. They teased an African American adopted person who was adopted to white parents. Ruthlessly. And he didn't turn evil either.

Quote:
After a bad experience, she's been tracked down by her biological aunt, which helps to rediscover her talent of speaking to animals (which I'm thinking she maybe developed when she ran away from her real mother's death into the wild) and drops the bombshell that main girl's real mother didn't just 'die' of an infection (as she's always been told): she was murdered to clear the way for an adoption.
Can't adoption just be a background thing, like race? Why does it have to be all out part of the main plot? Why does adoption need to be polarized?

Also, you have a second character that's either all kinds of clueless, or all kinds of evil. 'cause if you teach a skill without the responsibility to use it, you aren't much better. (It's like teaching a person how to shoot a gun without things like: "This is the safety" "You do not point it at people.""Do not put it in your pants." And look, the character happens to be black to boot.

Quote:
Into of all this wades a clueless (white) heiress who invites main girl and her family to a huge birthday party. In a very hi-tech, advanced zoo. (Suspension of disbelief time, but it's not quite as much of a coincidence as it sounds because it would be made clear that their families are friends and very involved in conservation/charity projects.) In an act of revenge (white heiress is one of those spoiled people who say things like, "I don't SEE colour"), main girl decides to naively spoil the heiress's party by releasing a few animals and causing a media humiliation, assuming that there will be some kind of security system in place. There is, but it fails, more animals get out and then it all goes to hell. Very fast.
Kinda reads white girl is victim for saying she's colour blind.

There are problems with the adoption representation. Also with adoption representation mixing with race issues in the set up. I'm aware that *some* people actually think this way, but it doesn't make it more right.

1. Her parents die.
It's actually more likely that her parents are alive. The majority of adoptions are not made from death of the parents. And in fact, many papers are made up to make them look dead by government rules.

2. The Quickie adoption with shopping involved.
Adoption isn't where someone can go and just choose a child to adopt and then bring them home same day. That's really unfair to adoptive parents and adopted people to actually have to live through this process. There is at least a home study, psychological evaluations (depends on regions), background check, classes about it, counseling, references, etc. And then the parents get a referral. And most of all Adoptive parents will stress this to you, but they don't view what they are doing as "rescuing" a child.

3. Adoption becomes pivotal to the plot.
Why? Why is it in here at all? You don't seem to have anything to justify it. Plus it's making the race issues that much worse.
A. Unwitting white parents sign up for PoC hell.
B. The secret long lost Aunt who is too stupid to realize anything at best case. And tied to race.
C. She has no idea of her roots or heritage.
D. Her white parents didn't get racism 101 before adopting a child of color--unlikely. It makes the parents who care, which so far I've met are in the majority look incompetent. The majority actually care about the birth culture and have worries about being able to communicate it properly, especially past their known white privilege.
E. Dead birth parents. I'll give it to you that they aren't evil, but seriously, it's one of the three stereotyped group options: Super good, super evil or absent (though making them literally machines and literally evil is pretty far up there). And even if they are dead, it doesn't mean they don't still carry an influence on the world and on the people they leave behind.

How to fix? Suggestions:
- Excise the adoption--you don't need it. You don't have anything to argue for it and it's making the race relations in the story worse. (plus you're stepping into other -isms)
- Change the power, as highlighted.
- Nix the aunt. I'd believe it more if she discovers it on her own has a teenage power moment.
- Find someone black that is *not* evil, dumb or 100% goody two shoes. Closer to normal.
- Can't you not make the teasing be about race and the final person not a white girl talking about race? Kids are vicious. There is PLENTY to pick on. Especially when they know that picking on someone for race is no longer acceptable. (experience talking here).
- Also try to separate being teasing makes people evil moment too...

I'd love to see adoption stories that treat adoption fairly and not as the main issue. I don't think this is the story to do it with.

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Old 01-23-2013, 07:29 AM   #14
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There is PLENTY to pick on.
This is true. I got made fun of for a whole lot of reasons. Never got picked on for being black. Did get picked on for "sounding like a blonde airhead" though and most of that came from other black people.

I think you can make the story work with her talking to animals. People are always going to find things offensive. You're not writing the story for them, you're writing it for yourself. If you like it, there's bound to be someone else who likes it. Listen to your instincts above anyone else's opinion. Regardless of what anyone else says though, if you're uncomfortable then you shouldn't do it.
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Old 01-23-2013, 07:37 AM   #15
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Hm, black person (not from Africa) talking to animals . . Nutty Professor haha. I didn't think of it the first time I read it but for some reason did while reading the comments.

But really that doesn't sound the same as this story! I had a fear, not of writing PoC, but PoC main characters because I was afraid of getting it wrong, but I wrote a book with mostly multi-racial people, and tried to walk the fine line between not making stereotypes and "whitewashing", hopefully with good results.

I agree with katci13 though. . . where was her aunt before?
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Old 01-23-2013, 09:13 PM   #16
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So . . . I don't frequent tumblr at all, but this sounded . . . a little dismissive? of what POC might be saying on it, perhaps because I've seem similar statements on other platforms that were definitely being dismissive. It's possible tumblr is a den of idiocy and badly-articulated points,
Pretty much; IME much SJ discussion on Tumblr is in the oppression Olympics mold. That said, I tend to assume that PoC who say "I think X is racist" are able to point to specific things about X that are racist in specific ways (even on Tumblr).
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Old 01-24-2013, 12:54 AM   #17
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Hm, black person (not from Africa) talking to animals . . Nutty Professor haha. I didn't think of it the first time I read.
I thought that was Dr. Doolittle?

Who, interestingly enough, was actually a white guy in the book.

I have no comments beyond what's already been said, though. Good luck.
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Old 01-24-2013, 01:15 AM   #18
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Who, interestingly enough, was actually a white guy in the book.
As well as the earlier movie adaptation.
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Old 01-24-2013, 01:31 AM   #19
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As well as the earlier movie adaptation.
Is it any good? Or, is it better than the Eddie Murphy/Raven Symone version?
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Old 01-24-2013, 03:12 AM   #20
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I thought that was Dr. Doolittle?

Who, interestingly enough, was actually a white guy in the book.

I have no comments beyond what's already been said, though. Good luck.

Yeah you're right it's Dr. Dolittle! Both Eddie Murphy ;-)
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Old 01-24-2013, 03:55 AM   #21
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Is it any good? Or, is it better than the Eddie Murphy/Raven Symone version?
I don't remember. I saw it when I was very, very young, and haven't seen it since.

All I remember is there was a giant snail.

Checking Wikipedia, it apparently didn't do very well back in '67.

I suspect it's probably better, but not necessarily more entertaining.
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Old 01-24-2013, 05:03 AM   #22
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You know, I was thinking it'd be kind of hilarious if she were Australian and it turned out she had a secret connection to koalas and then the koalas got lose. Maybe because koalas are kind of funny animals.
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Old 01-24-2013, 05:16 AM   #23
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I don't remember. I saw it when I was very, very young, and haven't seen it since.

All I remember is there was a giant snail.

Checking Wikipedia, it apparently didn't do very well back in '67.

I suspect it's probably better, but not necessarily more entertaining.
The original movie was based on the Doctor Dolittle books. It was kind of a trip. It was also a musical which added to the surreal quality.
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Old 01-24-2013, 04:54 PM   #24
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I've increasingly noticed, lately, folks who are actually from Africa complaining about the Western perception that Africa is some sort of giant safari-park. They are urbanizing very fast--soon the majority of Africans will live in cities--and even the folks in the rural areas often live in pretty densely populated farming communities.

The other perception they complain about is that Africa is a land inhabited solely by children dying of famine or disease. While poverty and disease are definitely problems, there are plenty of people in Africa who live in cities, drive cars, shop at the mall, and drink lattes.

And like I said, animals are everywhere. A kid in the city could commune with pigeons. A kid in South America could go hang out in the Andes or the rain forest or Patagonia, etc. A kid who lived near the ocean could talk to dolphins and a kid in Australia could befriend koalas.
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Old 01-24-2013, 08:40 PM   #25
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Dr. Doolittle originally starred a white guy and the main character wasn't evil in the adaptation. Plus he didn't come from Africa.

Whereas the character here talks to animals, but is evil AND attacks someone violently for saying they are color blind.

Uhh... kinda a difference there.

BTW, Koalas are vicious animals. Crocodile Hunter said he was more afraid of them than crocodiles.

Anyway, Africa, as in the continent is a lot more modern than portrayed in our movies and documentaries as pointed out. "Single Narrative" goes over that too.
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