Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Stop Worrying about What Other People Do

Here we have a perfect example of we might call the "my culture belongs only to me" whine:
Dear White People (or should I say Queridos Gringos/Gabachos),

Let me begin by saying it is completely natural that you would find yourself attracted to The Day of The Dead. This indigenous holiday from Mexico celebrates the loving connection between the living and our departed loved ones that is so deeply missing in Western culture. Who wouldn’t feel moved by intricately and lovingly built altars, beautifully painted skull faces, waterfalls of marigold flowers, fragrant sweet breads and delicious meals for those whom we miss sharing our earthly lives. I understand. . . .

Like the Pilgrims, you have begun to take over, to gentrify and colonize this holiday for yourselves. I was shocked this year to find Day of the Dead events in my native Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by Chicanas or Mexicanas or Latinas, but events with zero Latina artists participating, involved, consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with.

Certain announcements of some of this year’s celebrations conjured visions of hipsters drinking special holiday microbrews and listening to live music by white bands and eating white food in calavera facepaint and broken trails of marigolds. Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death, a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation. Do you really not know how to sit at the table? To say thank you? To be a gracious guest?
Let me respond to this by quoting my favorite advice to all human beings in all peaceful circumstances: stop worrying what other people do.

How can it possibly make any difference to you whether hipsters in Oakland want to celebrate the Day of the Dead by drinking microbrews in face paint? How does that hurt you? What could possibly be more harmless to anyone?

I find this sort of grousing intensely frustrating. The Day of the Dead does not belong to anyone, any more than harvest festivals or fireworks or sledding in the snow or bike riding or choral singing or tennis belong to anyone. Celebrate it however you like. Or don't. And forget about everyone else.


Unknown said...

I think this person has way too much hate that they need to vent to take your advice.

G. Verloren said...

My family is an interesting mix of cultures - Polish, Italian, Sicilian, Argentine, and Dutch. My significant other has an equally interesting mixture - Norwegian, Austrian, Swiss, Irish, and Cherokee. We're both active fans of Japanese culture and media of all things, and I additionally am an avid consumer of foreign films of every variety. We enjoy learning new things about the world and broadening our personal horizons, and I dabble in about a half dozen secondary languages, with varying degrees of success. I would not hesitate to call ourselves reasonably cosmopolitan.

Typically I find one of two responses from people when they find out I'm interested in other cultures, especially their own.

The usual response is a positive, friendly, pleased encouragement.

I live in an area with a sizeable hispanic population, and almost every time I've ever made an effort to use my less-than-fluent Spanish, I've gotten smiles. Part of that is, I have been actively led to believe, that many hispanics are treated badly where I am, and so having someone show an interest in their culture and an acceptance of who they are is often flattering, even if my spoken spanish is halting and a little wrong in places. When I visit my favorite taqueria, I make a point to not only greet the owner and place my order in his own language, but also to ask after his family, because I know that family is a hugely important aspect of hispanic life. He appreciates it, because it is a kind, honest, friendly gesture so starkly contrasted with the semi-regular abuse he receives from others of my particular shade of pigmentation. It is a reassurance of the fact that race is not innately the barrier so many people make it into, and that people can and should live together cooperatively, whatever their differences.

Very rarely, however, I do encounter people who respond poorly. These are typically people who are psychologically projecting - taking out their frustrations and anger at the way others have treated them on the first available target. It's very sad, but understandable. Fortunately, I don't meet too many of these people.

G. Verloren said...

Where people get upset, I find, is in the rise of shallow mimicry of their culture or subculture by those who do not have a proper respect or understanding of it. Particularly for marginalized groups, and for groups who invest their culture heavily into their own personal identities, the notion of their deeply held values being crudely copied by the outside majority which has traditionally oppressed them is offensive - and understandably so. It might be more acceptable if it was more genuine and respectful - if people actually were interested in the actual history, traditions, and meaning of "La Dia de Los Muertos", as opposed to simply aping a shallow caricature of it all.

I do understand your viewpoint about "how can it hurt?", but apply that same question to things like racist stereotyping - "How can Speedy Gonzalez hurt anything? He's just a cartoon mouse!"

The problem isn't innate to cultural exchange itself - my own broad interest in other cultures is perfect evidence that I firmly support sharing and receiving influences between many different cultures freely. But I believe there has to be a real respect involved - a real willingness to accept the foreign as it is, on its own terms, and not repackage it, or dumb it down, or miss the point of it. The currency of cultural exchange has to be genuine.

Where problems arise is when this is not the case - when hipsters and yuppies in Oakland conflate a real Mexican festival with their own lazy American caricaturing of it. Where is the harm? The harm is in diluting someone else's culture - in devaluing it, slowly obliterating it, and replacing it with a cheap knockoff that retains none of the original values. The harm is in superficiality, and in lack of respect. The harm is in the falsehood, and in the perpetuation of that falsehood over the actual culture itself.

I love foreign cultures, but I love them for what they really are. I'm not interested in cheaply immitating other cultures without actually understanding them. I actually try to wrap my head around the foreign concepts and strange, unfamiliar values - not replace them with my own, dressed in the superficial trappings of the original.

To use a rather blunt analogy, I will never call a civet a cat - and I will always try to correct and educate people who are too lazy or self-centered to make that distinction themselves. Civets are their own creatures, distinct from our Western mammals, and to simply mislabel them - to pigeonhole them into our limited worldview rather than expand our worldview to include them - is the height of hubris and disrespect.

John said...

What is a "proper understanding" of culture? How much do you have to know to participate in public rituals? Are only experts allowed? Who decides? If only people who really "understand", does that exclude children?

Who is in the culture and who is not? Who decides? Is it ok for me to participate in Swedish or German festivals because I have Swedish and German ancestors? Can I participate in Polish rituals because my wife has Polish ancestors? Can I celebrate Chinese New Year because my daughter was born in China? Or is that colonialist?

This all makes me ill.

I resist all attempts to claim any idea or symbol as the property of any group of any kind. I believe we are all free -- must be free -- to use every human idea however we want.

I refuse to be told that as a gringo I should not enjoy the Day of the Dead. I would never tell anyone that as a Puerto Rican she should not enjoy the Fourth of July or kiss under mistletoe.

I believe we should give freely of all we have, especially ideas and rituals that might help other people find happiness.