In the 1986 television movie The Color of Friendship, the character Piper Dellums, played by Lindsey Haun, is a young white girl living in Washington D.C. in 1977. Throughout the film, she develops an unlikely friendship with Mahree Bok, a black South African exchange student played by Shadia Simmons. Piper exhibits an obsession and deep fascination with African and African-American culture that shapes her relationship with Mahree.
Piper’s Initial Interest in Africa
From the start of the film, it is clear that Piper has an intense curiosity about Africa. Her bedroom is decorated with African art and sculptures. She listens to African music and reads magazines about Africa. When she finds out that an exchange student from South Africa will be staying with her family, she is incredibly excited at the opportunity to learn more about the continent from someone who has lived there.
|Evidence of Piper’s Early Africa Obsession|
|– African art and masks in her bedroom|
|– Listening to African music|
|– Reading magazines about Africa|
|– Extreme excitement to host an African exchange student|
Piper sees Mahree as an opportunity to gain insight into a culture she has only read about. She frequently asks Mahree questions about Africa and observes her with fascination. At one point she even expresses jealousy of Mahree for getting to grow up in Africa.
Piper Views Mahree as Exotic
As Piper and Mahree get to know each other, it becomes clear that Piper views Mahree and Africa in somewhat of an exoticized, romanticized light. She is enamored with anything and everything African. This leads her to make assumptions about Mahree’s background and culture that are not necessarily accurate or sensitive.
For example, when Mahree first arrives, Piper immediately begins quizzing her about Africa, asking if she rides elephants and what tribes she belongs to. Piper assumes that Mahree grew up in a more “primitive” African environment without modern conveniences. In reality, Mahree is from an upper-class urban family in South Africa. Piper’s assumptions showcase her ignorance about the diversity of experiences within African countries.
Piper also gives Mahree an African name, “Ashanta,” without considering that Mahree may find this insensitive or patronizing. She projects her own fantasies about Africa onto Mahree rather than seeing her as an individual.
|Examples of Piper Exoticizing Mahree|
|– Assuming she grew up in tribes riding elephants|
|– Not realizing South Africa has modern cities|
|– Giving her an “African name” when she already has one|
Piper Sees Herself as an “Ally” to African Americans
As a white girl living during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, Piper fancies herself an enlightened ally to the African American cause. She idolizes figures like Martin Luther King Jr. However, her sense of being an ally is superficial and performative.
For example, she virtue signals by purposefully riding in the “colored” section of the bus and chastising her friend for not wanting to join her. She also leverages her friendship with Mahree to position herself as more “woke” than her white peers. However, she fails to actually listen to or uplift black voices and centers her own experience.
|Examples of Piper’s Performative Allyship|
|– Riding in the “colored” section to make a point|
|– Using Mahree to seem more enlightened than other white girls|
|– Failing to amplify Mahree’s own voice and perspective|
Piper’s Obsession Stems from Naivete, Not Malice
While cringeworthy at times, Piper’s obsession with Africa and African Americans does not appear to come from a place of overt racism or malice. She genuinely believes herself to be acting as an ally and friend to non-white communities. Her behavior stems more from youthful ignorance and self-absorption than contempt or white supremacy.
As she spends more time with Mahree, Piper does begin to move past some of her problematic assumptions and gain greater understanding. When a boy at school uses racist slurs about Mahree, Piper immediately comes to her defense. She is distraught and apologetic when her thoughtless behavior offends Mahree. While still flawed, Piper shows a willingness to learn and evolve.
|Evidence Piper Acts from Naivete Rather than Malice|
|– Immediately defends Mahree from racist slur at school|
|– Gets upset and apologizes when she offends Mahree|
|– As their friendship develops, she loses some ignorance|
Mahree Challenges Piper’s Perspective
As a black South African, Mahree provides a direct challenge to Piper’s romanticized view of Africa and African people. She brings nuance and humanity to Piper’s perception. At first, Piper is resistant to having her pre-conceived notions confronted. But over time, Mahree’s patience and honesty open Piper’s mind to new perspectives.
For example, when Piper calls her “Ashanta,” Mahree asserts that she already has a name. This forces Piper to recognize Mahree’s individual identity rather than just viewing her as an embodiment of “Africa.” Mahree also explains that in South Africa, white minority rule oppresses the black majority, contradicting Piper’s assumptions about Africa as some post-racial paradise.
By engaging patiently but firmly with Piper as a equal human being, Mahree transforms herself in Piper’s eyes from an exotic object of fascination into a real person with her own experiences, identity, and dignity. Their friendship becomes one of mutual learning and growth rather than one-sided idolization.
|How Mahree Challenges Piper’s View|
|– Asserts her own name and identity as an individual|
|– Explains realities of oppression in South Africa|
|– Forces Piper to see her as a human being, not just “Africa”|
Conclusion: The Danger of Viewing an Entire Continent as Monolithic
Piper’s obsession with Africa showcases the common tendency among Westerners to view Africa as a monolithic entity rather than a complex continent containing 54 countries and over a billion diverse people. Her assumptions reduce Mahree to a set of exotic stereotypes rather than acknowledging her as a distinct individual.
Well-meaning people like Piper may wish to connect with and champion marginalized communities. However, true connection requires moving past assumptions and relating to people as multidimensional humans. An entire continent or racial group should never be reduced to a mere curiosity or accessory for one’s image.
The growth of Piper and Mahree’s friendship provides a hopeful model for overcoming ignorance through openness, honesty and solidarity. When we recognize each other’s shared humanity, our preconceived notions begin to fade away.