“Jane Goodall grew up in England and later went to Africa to study chimpanzees,” the voice from the iPad told my first-grader earlier this year. The educational app, used in schools across the country, finished the lesson about the famous scientist and then quizzed my daughter about what she’d learned. “Where did Jane Goodall study chimpanzees: China or Africa?”
“Not just Africa,” I said. “Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees in a specific country in Africa.” I cringed at the pairing of England and China with Africa, just as I cringe when my daughter reads a book or watches a movie that refers to Africa alongside countries like France, Japan or India.
Several years ago, when my daughter was still a preschooler, I bought a bright, laminated map and hung it at the eye level of a small child. “Here’s South Africa, where you were born,” I said. I moved my hand slightly up and to the right. “Here’s Zimbabwe, where Daddy was born.” When we read a picture book that mentioned Lagos, I took my daughter’s fingers and settled them on the pastel shape that represented Nigeria. And we moved to other parts of the world too: the United States, where we live, and Jamaica, where my parents were born.
Despite my efforts to teach my daughter about specific places, the vocabulary she gleans from society often speaks about the African continent in the same way people speak about countries. I observe this in books, television programs, the news, conversations and even the apps used in schools. The messages that lump dozens and dozens of countries into one great mass already permeate my daughter’s experience in a way that feels difficult for me to fend off.
In theory, our society understands that those different shapes filling a map of the African continent represent individual countries. However, in practice, our language doesn’t mirror this reality. The language of specificity signals importance. When a country is compared to a continent, we effectively communicate that not all countries are significant enough for us to name. We deny dignity to other people and nations when we use broad terms to describe only certain parts of the world.
My daughter knows that, in our home, we work to avoid comparing countries to continents. Now, though, I realize I haven’t explained to her why this matters. Perhaps that may be the most important aspect of these lessons I teach her about specific places, people, groups and nations.
Given the prevalent use of Africa in lieu of a country’s name, it can be easy for anyone to fall into this pattern of speaking. Still, I want my daughter—just as I want all children—to recognize why China and Africa are not analogous and also understand what that comparison communicates.
“Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees in a specific country in Africa,” I said that day over the voice of the iPad. “Let’s find out where.” We then found Tanzania on the map.