Delta Airlines, Giraffes, And The Danger Of A Single Story

CREDIT: Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Ghana's Mohammed Rabiu, left, and United States' Kyle Beckerman, during the group G World Cup soccer match between Ghana and the United States at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, Monday, June 16, 2014.

Everybody wants in on the World Cup frenzy, including Delta Airlines, who tried to celebrate the United States victory over Ghana last night with this tweet:

delta tweet

Tiny problem: giraffes don’t live in Ghana. And while whoever manages Delta’s social media didn’t know that, plenty of people do. Delta deleted the tweet and issued an apology. I wonder how long it will take before these organizations stop deleting the offensive tweets; obviously we all have screenshots and besides, without the first tweet, the apology has no context.

This little international incident reminded me of the meme going around last month about books with African settings and themes all sharing remarkably similar covers: the yellow-orange sunset, the acacia tree in silhouette.

The blog that first pointed out this trend, Africa Is A Country, quoted a tweet from Jeremy Weate: “Funny that. Nigeria is not known for its acacia trees.” Funny that. Ghana is not known for its giraffes. As the Africa Is A Country post put it, the books covers all looked like they’d been designed by someone whose entire understanding of Africa came from childhood viewings of The Lion King.

Why does this keep happening? What is it going to take for people unfamiliar with Africa to grasp, at the very least, that there is more to this place than wildlife and sunsets? To know that a continent with over a billion people living in it could not possibly be summed up in a single image?

What’s really offensive about the Delta tweet isn’t that someone’s initial instinct, when thinking about Ghana, was the generic African imagery with which he or she was most familiar. It’s that, after having that first idea, it did not even occur to this person to fact check that assumption.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for The Washington Post about Whole Foods including matzoh in their Hanukkah display, and I feel the same annoyance now as I did then. These mistakes are caused by a self-absorbed cocktail of laziness, a presumption that no one will notice the error or care that it exists, and an unwillingness to acknowledge or even consider that an “other” — another nation, another religion — could possibly be as nuanced, multifaceted or complicated, as the nation or religion of which one person is a part. It goes without saying but I guess I’ll just say it: you’d never see a “Go USA!” tweet alongside a photo of the CN Tower.

Before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a Ted talk on why we should all be feminists (that in turn gave Beyonce the best and unlikeliest hook of 2013), she spoke in 2009 about “the danger of a single story.”

…when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

Adichie goes on to say that she would not have made the same mistake about America, nor would she expect anyone else to do so: “because of America’s cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America.”

It is a luxury to be from a place with that kind of narrative influence, to have as a home a nation whose stories are learned by people from other places. It would not be so very hard to learn stories from other places in return.