Monday, January 31, 2011

Where is the Kenyan Crocodile Hunter?

My husband is a nature buff. His love of all things fishy, feathered or furry is one of his endearing traits. I don't know how a dude from Jersey came to have the tracking skills of an 1800s-era Montana homesteader, but we often have conversations like this, while driving down some highway:
Husband: Look at that!
Tami: (Glancing up from playing Tower Madness on iPhone) Wha?
Husband: That hawk back there in that tree. 
Tami: Hmm...
Husband: (Shares elaborate description of hawk.) You didn't see that? (incredulously)
Tami: Uh...
Or, we'll be curled on the couch watching some nature show:
Husband: Ah, that's a Speckled Western Booby Cat. They're know for their love of honky tonk music and Red Vine candies.
Program announcer: And here we have a Speckled Western Booby Cat, displaying common traits of the species. This little fella is dancing to Jelly Roll Morton and eating Red Vines.
Husband: Told ya.
And so it is curious to me--a woman who loves a black man who loves nature--how noticeably absent people of color are from most televised nature programs.

This struck me over the weekend after spending a few hours watching National Geographic programming with Mr. What Tami Said. The lack of diversity is particularly evident to me when the focus is on animals indigenous to places with majority brown or black populations. The predominate view of most nature programs seems to be that of the colonizer. Program after program focuses on white American or European scientists and tourist relationships with animals. We are asked to relate to (white) explorers as they push into a remote wilderness in some dark and "uncivilized" spot. We are to thrill at their knowledge of "exotic" animals and their proximity to dangerous beasts. We watch as they "discover" and "conquer" nature.

But it occurs to me that there are people for whom, say, tigers or lions are not "exotic." There are people who live their lives in some proximity to these animals, who learn as a matter of course how to manage around them. And, even taking into account disparities in economics and education between places like India and Kenya and the United States, there are native Indians and Africans who are as educated about the flora and fauna of their homes as any American expert. But we never see these people. The people of Africa and India and South America are presented as much as exotica as the animals that live in these places. (Look up "safari" on Flickr as you will see photos of animals interspersed with photos of African people) When they exist, black and brown people are only at the edges of the story--a figure in khaki at the corner of the shot or in the back of the jeep, holding a shotgun. They are "scouts" or "guides" or "protectors," while European-descended protagonists stay at the center of the experience.

Why are experts of color rarely present in nature programs--even ones centered around places where they are the majority?

Is there reluctance to trade the "colonizer narrative" for a new view of nature?

Photo Credit: CorradoMos


Anonymous said...

I would argue that the problem goes even deeper than the nature shows. Even if the nature shows wanted to feature non-Caucasian scientists, they'd have an awfully difficult time finding them. I'm an ecologist who studies charismatic species in the tropics, and has been working in this field for 15 years now. I can't speak for Africa, as I've spent no time there, but in my experiences in the US I can count on one hand the number of African/African-American scientists I've ever met.

I've met a few more Latin American scientists, as I do my work there. We're seeing more and more Latin American scientists at the MS and PhD level as more programs in the US actively recruit Latin@s, and as the number of advanced degree programs in Central and South America increases. But still, there are no Ecology, or even Biology, PhD programs in Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, or many (most?) other Central American countries. Promising students either have to become fluent in English and attend US, Canadian, or European universities; or travel to Mexico or Colombia to continue their studies in Spanish. There are many promising and talented parataxonomists, or scientists trained to the BS or MS level, but very few advanced researchers.

The bottom line is: before we can get more local scientists on the nature shows, we need to train more local scientists period.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

My daughter shares your husband's love of and knowledge of nature - and she loves nature shows. Right now I can't think of a single celebrated and popular nature show host who isn't a white male. Thank you for pointing this out - I look forward to reading this piece to my girl.

I don't have much else to add because you've said it all. The "colonizer" aspect of these shows is definitely there - at times subtle, at times not-so-subtle, like when the host talks about natives as if EVERY native has this-or-that skill or practice or belief (the latter usually framed as a quaint superstition).

BroadSnark said...

Brilliant post. You are so right that it is a colonizer mentality. I emailed one of my friends in LA to find out which production companies make these shows. I'm going to send them your post. Who knows. Maybe somebody will read it.

Tami said...

Thanks, Anon, for an insider's perspective. I assumed that POC were underrepresented in this field for a variety of reasons. I would expect to see few POC represented on TV nature shows. I think it is still remarkable that they are invisible.

I think this highlights another reason to support POC to go into science and nontraditional fields.

mokele said...

I agree with anonymous - I work in organismal biology, though not for as long and my work tends to be more lab-oriented, and there is indeed a great paucity of non-white folks. Purely speculatively, perhaps PoC from impoverished backgrounds who manage to navigate the numerous extra barriers society places in their way prefer genetic/molecular work because that training offers both industrial and academic career options, while in organismal biology your options boil down to academia or "do you want fries with that?". If you're on a scholarship and this is your big chance to move up the economic ladder, such narrow career prospects are a disincentive.

Also, while I haven't been in academia as long as Anon, I've been a member of the herpetoculture community (reptile & amphibian keepers) for about 20 years, and long before I was able to coherently realize or articulate progressive ideals I had noticed that the community was overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white, and almost entirely male. The latter has improved a lot in recent years (though I'd guess 95%+ of the Big Name Breeders are white males), but the former is the same as always.

Some of it is likely economics - even now, herps are very expensive pets, and if you're at expos and such, you're probably already an experienced keeper who's got multiple animals and dumped thousands into the hobby.

Also, on a more cynical note, there's probably no Kenyan Crocodile Hunter because anyone who grew up around these animals would know better than to try to dumb, reckless and dangerous crap that guy pulled. And it's not just him - reptile folks on TV who are cautious get cancelled mid-season, while reckless showboating jackasses get huge ratings. Hell, it's not just dangerous to them, it's dangerous to the animals - dragging a large viper around by the tail can break its spine, and his ridiculous showboating with crocs extends capture time and puts them at risk for lactic acidosis (which can be fatal).

Arash said...

Thanks for playing, Tami!

Best of luck,
Arash Keshmirian
Co-Founder, Limbic Software
[creators of TowerMadness]

Arturo said...

Y'know, I stumbled across a series on YouTube that actually featured a black man in the "adventurer/explorer" role. I'll start looking around for it again.

BroadSnark said...

I sent a message to the (ironically named) Diverse TV people who make Man v. Wild. And also to BBC nature. Could really find any other production companies. Probably won't do anything, but you never know.

Anonymous said...

I find this to be a very American-centric view. Living outside of the U.S. is various parts of the world, I never found any shortage of local journalists/explorers/scientists traveling to America and dissecting our "strange" and "unique" people, cultures, points of view and flora and fauna.

If I had a nickel for every TV show that involved an intrepid and hip team of young adults from (Mexico, Chile, South Africa, Spain, England, insert several other countries here) roadtripping through the US and "discovering" blues in the Mississippi Delta, the Amish, what's left of Motown in Detroit and gang tagging in Los Angeles, I'd have a heavy jar of quarters.

So instead of asking, "Where is the Kenyan Crocodile Hunter," I'd ask, "Why am I only focused on shows airing in the United States, as if that were the be all and end all of television programming?"

Tami said...

Anonynous 2,

Your criticism is strange to me. I am an American critiquing the television that I and most of my fellow Americans are exposed to. It would be great to know that in, say, Mexico, nature shows are hosted by a diverse group of folks, but that doesn't really explain why that is not the case in this country.

And if your point is that nature shows in all countries feature explorers of that country. I might agree, but that doesn't explain the lack of diversity in American programming, as Americans come in all races. Lastly, we emphatically don't only see American explorers on American shows. We see folks from other countries, but rarely people of color. That is the point of the post.

Anonymous said...

"The people of Africa and India and South America are presented as much as exotica as the animals that live in these places." Think this is key. Part of it stems from a colonialist perspective which views these people as so close to nature as to be more a part of it than anything else. This kind of noble savage stereotype is still alive and well, which is why we get movies like avatar where the navi, as a crude stand in for essentially every colonized culture in history, is so close to nature that they cannot maintain a critical distance and thus need a heroic/adventurous white man to come explain things/save them and their home/environment.

Anonymous said...

"The people of Africa and India and South America are presented as much as exotica as the animals that live in these places."

Again, it's not unique to America. Shows filmed for a foreign audience, starring local hosts, also present even the most mundane details of American life as weird and exotic and worthy of a microscope.

It wasn't until I lived abroad saw an entire show on the (gasp!) "odd" American practice of something called "garage sales," as if it required a half hour of explanation and in-depth study, did I realize that every one of these shows is built on the idea of the outsider looking in.

In Japan, I sat through an entire season of a show that detailed how supposedly on the verge of falling apart the entire American people were, with shows dedicated to the obese in Middle America ("fried cheese curd" explored as a strange and exotic, nasty thing Americans routinely ate) and the stupidity of our schoolchildren (with man-on-the-street interviews with kids who couldn't name their own current president).

So, I stick to my original standpoint that to say that only wildlife or culture shows that air in America make huge sweeping judgment calls is, well, America-centric. My first-hand experience tells me that this so-called colonizer mentality is easy enough to find in black African TV hosts in South Africa, Afro-Caribbean TV hosts in the Dominican Republic, Mexican hosts in Argentina, Argentine hosts in Mexico, etc., when it comes to them "studying" and "experiencing" American culture.

Tami said...

Anon--I think we're simply going to have to agree to disagree. And that's okay.

Everyone can be surprised by the customs of another culture. That's human. Heck, six years ago I moved back to my home state, but to a different part than where I was raised. And I am still amazed at some of the stuff people do down here.

But there is unique way that, say, Africa in particular is viewed by Western culture that is strongly influenced by race and the colonial history of the continent. In includes, in part, the idea that the entire continent is dark, dangerous and exotic. Its people childlike, primitive and in need of guidance. To me, this comes through in American nature programs.

Much better and informed writers than I have tackled this idea, including ones with your world traveling bona fides. I doubt my post would be more convincing that anything they could do.

This conversation does remind me of an older post that I wrote that included that great "How to write about Africa" video that was going around a few years ago. I think it underscores what I am trying to say:

Best to you.

dinalyn sun said...

Tami- I understand what you're trying to say and I disagree with anon. The colonizer mentality IS present in non-"western" countries, but through a similar colonial lens, where whitewashing has become ingrained in a systematic process. Of course other cultures will look at [new] cultures with a curiosity, sometimes even prejudice, but it doesn't compare to the colonial mentality you see from British and American men on television shows such as these.

The mere fact that we still have a white man wandering around greenery unknown to him, describing locals as "tribal" and their practices as "primitive" is evidence of colonial mentality. All inhabitants, animal or human, are savage! We will protect you from this land of heathens and their animals!

It's not just "safari" nature shows, but in general, documentaries about non-western countries- but you raise some good points.

Anonymous said...

The main non-European descended person I can think of w/ a TV nature show series is the Canadian, David Suzuki on the CBC's "The Nature of Things".

There's also the American physicist, Michio Kaku, who has been on a lot of TV shows.

As a one-off, one my son's favorite National Geographic episodes was called "Anaconda" which focused on the work of the Venezualan scientist, Jesús Rivas.


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