Monday, April 01, 2013

Obliviousness and Chocolate

In my trip to Ghana back in March, my eyes were opened to a few things. I learned about forced labor and human trafficking from meeting children who were in forced labor, some of them for years, before being rescued. I looked them in they eye, hugged them, spoke with them, and cried as they sang, “I will not go back to the lake; I will not go back to the traffic.”

It is one thing to read about human trafficking, but it is another thing to meet humans who have been trafficked. To be baptized into a different culture, a place where on the one hand trafficking is illegal, but on the other hand it is widely practiced, shook me (also rattles me to know that this descriptions fits both Ghana and the US). I could not see what I saw and remain oblivious.

And there is that word, oblivious. One of my University of Minnesota professors, Paul Rosenblatt, first introduced me to a new twist on obliviousness. I had always considered that individuals were oblivious to this or that, which certainly remains true. But Dr. Rosenblatt saw more complexity and nuance to obliviousness. He saw it as a shared experience. Individuals interact with one another in relationships and social systems in ways that maintain each other’s obliviousness. It is as though people within a social system collude to keep that which is unknown, forever unknown – even if it is perfectly well known.

OK, so when I reflected on what I witnessed in Ghana, I asked myself this question, “What are the forces at work in my regular life that keep me from knowing about the oppression, abuse, and evil in this world?” It is one thing to be oblivious, but it is another thing to try to understand what processes are at work to maintain the obliviousness.

What captures my attention?

How are things issued a level of importance?

Who must I satisfy and with how much effort?

The more I dig into the questions the more unsettling my comfortable culture becomes, the more duped I feel by the “normal” I have come to depend on, and the more the mundane seems sinister and quietly dangerous.

It hit me swiftly between the eyes when Gail and I were at Kroger on Saturday buying Easter candy.

“How can we know the chocolate we buy was not harvested with child slaves?” Gail asked. Ouch. The cocoa industry, most of which originated in Ghana and Ivory Coast, is rife with forced labor of children. I didn’t know how to tell which chocolate was slave chocolate. Maybe all of it was.

In that moment I felt more distance between me and M&M’s than I have ever felt in my life – and Snickers and Kit Kat and Whoppers and Milk Duds and and and, cripes, I eat way too much chocolate. But more so, I have never even given a single thought to where my chocolate comes from. Who sweats for my chocolate binges? What corruption and oppression is required in order to satisfy my chocolate fix?

The whole Easter candy thing really began to bother me. It was much easier when I was oblivious to the whole thing.

We went to the Fair Trade chocolate section, you know the section, where there are extremely limited selections of chocolate that tastes like crap. Yes, the I’m-better-than-you section where the shelves drip with more over-priced self-righteousness than bad church on Sunday. In other words, I was in chocolate Hell, but where else could I go? I saw faces in my head of children that were so easy to love. There are more children in forced labor in the cocoa harvest just like the children I met. Just as beautiful. Just as smart. Just as lovable.

We bought the fair trade chocolate for Easter, bitter and expensive, and left Kroger. I did not feel self-righteous. I was annoyed nine ways to Sunday. I had left the comfort of my obliviousness which meant I had to act.

Leaving obliviousness always requires something. This visit to Kroger meant no cheap and tasty chocolate. What will it mean over the long haul? It wouldn’t hurt me to just unload chocolate from my food intake – I mean outside of the pain of never having another Kit Kat. I could finally confront my chocolate entitlement. I want to start leaning toward becoming more responsible with my consumption.

Now, where is all that cotton I wear coming from?


Fajita said...

Here is the good new... The fairtrade organic chocholate was great! And the kids also loved that it was better for the environment and to the people who harvest cocoa! There is no way to know if it is 100 percent free from child labor, but these fair trade organizations are working in many ways toward better lives for the comunity through fair wages, sustainable practices, and not doing business with those using slavery. It's complex because the cultural acceptance of slavery in africa is not going to change over night.
I have noticed in just the last 5 years more availability of fair trade and organic options even at regular grocery stores because many people want to buy food that is better for the world. I see this as a wonderful opportunity our parents didn't have!

Fajita said...

Yes, that is good the news. Thanks for the reframe toward the positive.