Cultural exchange and the myth of equals

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.

3 thoughts on “Cultural exchange and the myth of equals

  1. Again, you made a very good point.
    I get your opinion, but I’d like to have opinion or an advice on what to do with this awareness.
    I am white. The culture I grew up with never seemed perfect to me. Traveling I realized that there are up-sides to being a white woman in a white-dominated society. I feel that I have a freedom that is limited mostly by my class but not that much by my gender. There are a couple of other things I value.
    However, there are many things that I miss and that I found when interacting with people from different cultures. I am aware of the fact that I am generalizing right now again and most people don’t fit the stereotypes, but still one might find tendencies…
    My point is that I would love to spend time with people with different cultures and that I would appreciate being able from them and their experiences and attitudes which are influenced by their culture. Obviously, there are things that I don’t like about some of the places I got to know, but this holds true also for the “white places” I’ve been to.
    I do neither believe in White superiority nor do I really want to live permanently in a Yuppie or Hippie Cosmopolitan world. I just appreciate the experience of living in other parts of the world and interact with different people (and this includes way more than culture).
    I also believe that by sharing experiences it is possible to reduce prejudices, see the ups and downs of the own culture (whatever this is) and spread awareness about the positive aspects of non-white cultures in a more genuine way than by just claiming that white is not superior.
    However, I am kind of aware that this also might become a way to perpetuate white domination and lead to some sort of immaterial exploitation of non-white cultures. I am also aware of the danger of generalizing or creating some exotic “Other”. (In general I tend to see the individual with its mix of cultural, gender, class, personal, family background, but unfortunately there have been exceptions).
    The solution can’t be to reduce the contact between white and non-white cultures until the white domination is demolished. And – to be frank – I would miss a lot if I had to stop engaging in cultural exchange.
    So, could you give me any advice or your personal opinion?

    • It sounds like you’re already aware that you need to be respectful when engaging with other cultures and you know they’re not there to be stolen from or exoticised, so I’d say you’re doing the right things. 🙂

talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s