Contrary to my southern upbringing, I am in no way, shape or form a Republican. As a liberal, it is not surprising that I was and continue to be unimpressed by Sarah Palin. A former beauty pageant winner and currently an avid moose hunter, I despised the idea that she would be the latest image I was supposed to emulate when she ran, luckily unsuccessfully, as the next vice president of the United States.

She was completely unprepared for such a high political office, unable to name a national newspaper when prompted. But just when it seemed like Palin couldn’t say anything else with less substance, she made the unforgivable statement, ‘Africa is a country.” Now, as much as I want to criticize her for making such an unacceptable remark, especially because she is a politician, I can’t help but think about how the same inaccurate statement is perpetuated in our day-to-day lives.

Over winter break, I managed to go to a bookstore for some leisurely reading material. Browsing through the aisles, I happened to stop at the travel section. Looking at the shelves, there were at least 100 books, each about 300 pages, for various exotic places to visit around the world. Within their paperbacks, these detailed travel guides contained information about local customs, some language tips and the must-see museums. Not surprisingly, there was a book devoted to the countries of China, France, India and New Zealand but I was shocked to see that a book the same size as one of the aforementioned was devoted to the continent of Africa. Africa, home to almost a billion people and a land mass comprised of 53 countries divided into two very distinct cultural regions, the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan, was treated as only having the same amount of information as a country only a fraction of its size. Does this not seem to reinforce the ‘Africa is a country” phenomenon?

But for those who don’t frequent the bookstores, conversation is an easy way to transmit this misconception. This past summer I went to Malawi and upon my return, a common question received was, ‘How was Africa?” I didn’t know how the entire continent of Africa was but I did know that visiting Malawi was one of the best experiences of my life. I didn’t answer it that way because I understood what they meant. Maybe they asked about Africa because they were unaware of which country I visited. (In their defense, Malawi is only the size of Pennsylvania). However, I can’t help but think that some inquirers were asking about Africa because they were just simply generalizing the entire continent.

Even comedian Dave Chappelle is at fault for this. In an episode of ‘In the Actor’s Studio,” Chappelle advised the students to keep their guard up in pursuit of success in show business. Referencing his retreat to South Africa because of dissatisfaction with his self-titled series, ‘The Chappelle Show,” Chappelle urged the students to, ‘Buy your Africa ticket early.” That is not possible; a ticket stub is for a specific country destination, not a continent. So the next time you hear a politician such as Sarah Palin being scrutinized for this specific ignorance, think long and hard about how you are contributing to or fighting against the idea. Do you turn your head when someone makes a casual but incorrect reference to the continent and do you yourself choose to refer to Africa rather than a specific country? If you find yourself at fault, it would be in your best interest to hold your tongue.

Massie is a member of
the class of 2011.

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