Cultural differences

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? We make an assumption that educating someone is enough. However, what if the man doesn’t have a fishing pole? How does teaching him to fish help him unless you also give him the tools he needs?
This thought appears in Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with Noah, he’s a South African comedian who took over Jon Stewart’s hosting role on “The Daily Show.” I’ve never seen a complete show with either comedian because it’s on too late at night. I do remember there was some controversy about Noah after he was picked, but I really didn’t pay much attention. In fact, I wouldn’t have read his book if someone hadn’t recommended it to me, but I’m so glad that I did. Why? Because he gave me a more in-depth understanding of apartheid and its aftermath.
Noah was literally born a crime. It was a criminal act for his black mother and white father to have sex. If the authorities knew, not only would his parents have gone to jail, but Noah would have been taken away and placed into a colored orphanage. A colored (a mix of black and white) child could not live with a black person or a white person. The apartheid system worked on a gradient of colors – white, Indian, Chinese, colored and black – that served as a way to divide and conquer the population. Different privileges were given to each group, which successfully prevented them from banding together and fighting for everyone’s rights – at least, until the final fight against apartheid. However, the problems of blacks and colored in South Africa didn’t end there. Noah shows just how much work still needs to be done.
One really interesting chapter highlights the importance of education and dialogue on all sides of the color continuum. Noah talks about a very big misunderstanding that occurred when he and his friends served as entertainment at a Jewish school. The program featured Noah as a DJ and some of his male friends as dancers. The problem arose partly because of the lack of education blacks received and partly because the Jewish population was unaware of just how bad that education was.
Noah explains that most blacks have a European name and a traditional one. One not uncommon European name is Hitler. Noah notes that the only thing most South African blacks knew about Hitler was that he had been so powerful a white man that the British had to ask the blacks to become soldiers to fight him. The Holocaust and oppression were not taught in the black schools so no one knew the name was problematic. Now, the best dancer in Noah’s group was called Hitler. So, Noah begins playing music from his computer and the dancers start their moves. All of his friends start chanting, “Go, Hitler.” Officials at the Jewish school were so horrified, they stopped the music and told the group to leave. Neither side knew why the other was so upset, but how could they when they shared no common understanding of the past?
Dialogue and education: The solutions to many problems sound simple, but they aren’t because we don’t have the tools we need to understand each other. Can we blame others for their behavior if we don’t consider that they may not be acting maliciously, like those cheering a dancer named Hitler? We also need to decide whether it’s enough to give people skills if we don’t give them the tools they need or the jobs to use them. As Noah suggests in his book, there may be no simple answers to these complex problems.