When I wrote last week about cultural appropriation, I spent some time talking about cultural exchange – the trading between cultures that can enrich societies and people’s personal lives. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if cultural exchange is even possible in the society we live in today.
See, the thing is, cultural exchange requires that all parties be equal. It requires that the culture being borrowed from is necessarily seen as equal to the culture doing the borrowing. And in a world where whiteness and its trappings are seen as ultimately superior to the cultures of non-whites, this equal footing is sorely lacking. White people don’t see the cultures from which they borrow as equal to theirs – hell, white folks can’t even get their heads around the idea that some people have stories and histories that don’t involve them. How, then, can they borrow respectfully from those cultures, when they can’t even recognise that people other than themselves are multi-faceted, autonomous and far more than backdrops and supporting characters in white stories?
Before white people can engage in healthy and productive cultural exchange with non-white cultures, there are a few things they need to recognise:
- Non-white cultures are rich and complex, not one-dimensional – there is much below the surface that outsiders may never see
- Non-white cultures contain stories and histories that are not necessarily white-oriented
- White culture is not in any way superior to non-white cultures
- Non-white cultures are not slave cultures; non-whites are not intrinsically meant to be subordinate to whites
- Non-whites do not necessarily want to partake of white culture, nor are they necessarily interested in adopting its trappings
And yet, when we look at the history of white engagement with non-white cultures, it seems that these simple truths are difficult to grasp. White people demand entry into non-white cultures, disregarding the fact that some aspects of a culture may be off-limits to all outsiders. They expect non-white people to be supporting characters in their histories rather than lead characters in their own. The globalisation of white culture is endemic – white media, white industries, white-run corporations and so on are rapidly being established internationally, and this is seen as unequivocally a good thing by white people whether or not non-whites agree. Despite the fact that slavery is now illegal throughout the western world, white people still see members of non-white cultures as there to enrich their own lives, to give up their autonomy and personal needs in the service of whites. And when met with non-white people who seem utterly uninterested in white culture, white people are consistently perplexed.
The idea that white culture is superior and that the only parts of non-white cultures that have worth are the ones that white people deem worthy is so ingrained into our cultural consciousness as to make healthy cultural exchange nearly impossible. Exchange implies a transaction with equals, but there is nothing equal about members of one culture picking and choosing what it likes from another culture, whilst expecting others to accept their own culture in its entirety without question. There is nothing equal about rewriting history so that white stories take centre stage, with non-whites relegated to supporting roles.
As long as this systematic positioning of white culture as superior and default continues, white engagement with non-white cultures will remain appropriative and damaging. In order for healthy cultural exchange to take place, the voices and stories of non-whites need to be foregrounded and positioned as equally valuable and worthwhile. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that white is the gold standard, non-white cultures will remain subject to appropriation, trivialisation and erasure.