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That's Mighty White of You, Salma Hayek

New America Media, Commentary, Jasmyne A. Cannick Posted: Feb 12, 2009

I like Salma Hayek -- as an actress. I respect her work and I think she's one of the most beautiful women in the world. However, that doesn't give her the right to go into a country and try and change their traditions by whipping out her breast and feeding a hungry baby so that the whole world can see it on Youtube.

Now I've been to Sierra Leone. So I know firsthand the situation on the ground there. I was there with my friend actor Isaiah Washington, who like Hayek, wanted to help the people of Sierra Leone. The only difference is that he didn't go there trying to change or Americanize them. He went there and assessed their needs and worked with the people. He didn't talk at them; he talked with them. He didn't roll into Sierra Leone with his own agenda. His agenda was developed after a thorough understanding of who the people of Sierra Leone truly were. And because of that, he is revered and loved by the people there.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said here in America, thanks in part to the likes of Angelina Jolie, whose many treks to the Motherland have dictated to the media that the only goodwill efforts worth covering in Africa are those carried out by people who do not directly descend from there, i.e. African Americans.

The issue of breastfeeding in Africa extends deeper than cultural taboos. It also includes a coordinated campaign on behalf of companies to convince Africans that formula is better than breast milk. Formula that must be mixed with water that in many parts of Africa is often contaminated, which leads to disease in already vulnerable infants.

Salma Hayek may have had the best of intentions, but maybe she's spent too much time in America. Whether you agree with breastfeeding or not, it is wrong to arrive in a foreign country and just because you want to change a cultural tradition. Some countries don't play that madness and you'll find yourself locked away in a jail cell for life or worse, dead. Americans are known and hated for our audacity when it comes to going into foreign countries and adding our two cents without weighing the consequences or taking into consideration the people we are claiming to want to help.

What gives us the right? What gives her the right?

I felt for the children and adults living in extreme poverty in Sierra Leone, but I never once tried to change their way of doing things, nor did Isaiah. We didn't sit down at the table with the village elders of Njala Kendema and say "oh nodon't kill that goat for dinner, that's not right." No, we respected their centuries old traditions, which might have been our own had it not been for that little thing called slavery.

And when Isaiah built a school in that same village, he didn't mandate that American history be taught. He left the curriculum up to the village elders because his role was to get the school built, not to dictate over how it was to be used and what was to be taught and to whom.

Considering that Salma Hayek is not American, I have to say I was shocked at her willingness to go into Africa and try to change something because she felt that she could without ever once considering the ramifications. How very white of her.

Sure, millions have seen the video, and everyone has a lot to say, but if Hayek really were interested in just feeding a hungry baby and showing that breastfeeding was ok, she could have done that with the cameras off and no one would have been the wiser. Because I have to tell you, after living in Sierra Leone for a week, I know that there are very few homes there that even have electricity much less a television, so I am not sure how breastfeeding a baby for the cameras in America is supposed to have an impact on women there. I'm just saying.

I'd also like to point out that very few children in Sierra Leone disrespect their parents or elders, use drugs, get pregnant as teenagers, use foul language, and few are lazy, selfish, or spoiled rotten. Children in Sierra Leone actually want to attend school so you won't catch them ditching class or misbehaving while there. If anything, maybe Americans need to take a hint from Sierra Leoneans, especially if stopping breastfeeding early means that our children here might actually display some of the attitudes and behavior exhibited by the children there.

If Salma Hayek and others want to truly help Sierra Leone, they can start by giving moneyyes moneyto organizations that are on the ground there doing the work to build the infrastructure needed in a way that includes the people of Sierra Leone.

Last but not least, in all of this, let us not forget the role that America and other nations played in the underdevelopment and raping of Sierra Leone and other countries in Africa that paved the way for today's current situation and Salma Hayek's invasion of sacred African traditions.

Jasmyne Cannick is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the worlds of pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as it relates to the African-American community. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, and Ebony Magazine. A regular contributor to NPR's 'News and Notes,' she was chosen as one of Essence Magazine's 25 Women Shaping the World. She can be reached at www.jasmynecannick.com.

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