On What Culture Isn't

As an anthropologist, one of the most valuable things I learned was to judge other people's cultures by their own standards, and not by my own.  The reason for that is that all groups of people evolve ways of life that work, more or less, for them.  What we call “culture” is what results when a group of people adapt to their particular environment, and in many cases it's the outcome of trial and error and finding out what works best in a particular situation.Because of that, we tend to judge other people's customs according to the things that work for us, without understanding that every culture has its own unique adaptations.  What good for the goose, to quote Winston Saunders, ain't gat to be good for the gander.  The application of one's own morality and understanding to everybody else in the world is called ethnocentrism, and it's responsible for a whole lot of evil.The entire history of European imperial expansion and the colonial project that accompanied it is an excellent example of this.  Wherever they went, the Europeans carried attitudes they had developed in their own countries, and, because they were convinced of their superiority and of their right to global conquest, they imposed those attitudes on the people they met and subdued.  From Mexico to Chile, from Vancouver Island to Florida, from Bermuda to Venezuela, and from Morocco to Cape Town, they carried out a programme of “education” that taught the people they conquered that the way of life they’d always known was wrong and “backward”, and that the way of life perfected by the Europeans was correct and progressive.  To be modern, one had to be more like Europeans.  To be oneself was to be primitive, animal, and savage.These days, we’ve got rid of part of this thinking.  We are far less likely to state that “white is right”.  We are very likely to assert our Afrocentrism and our black pride, and we celebrate those things we think are evidence of our cultural uniqueness.  And we embrace our so-called “African” heritage uncritically, without examining its value or its integrity.The problem is, our reaction is superficial.  We have changed the language we use.  We have turned our faces away from much of what we imagine smacks of our colonial past without understanding that our culture is itself unique, an adaptation that happened when Europeans and Lucayans and Africans and North American “Indians” and Asians met on these limestone rocks in the sea.  We have not examined the full picture, have not read the whole story; we have simply torn the cover off the book, and think we know who and what we are.But.  The language we speak is European — in vocabulary at the very least, if not in grammar.  The desires and the ambitions we have are western, the religion we claim is Europe’s, and our social structure, our laws, our calendar, our schooling, our economy, our judiciary, and our entire mindset are the products of colonial domination.  Even when we wake up and recognize that many of the things we are taught as children — that money is good, say, or that the best kind of profession to have is one that makes you wear nice clothes and work in an air conditioned office with lots of people around who call you “Sir” or “Ma’am”, or that people who work in the yard with dirt on their hands are lesser beings and should be treated with contempt — our reaction is shaped by the complete transformation our histories underwent in colonialism.So those of us who choose Islam over Christianity because of its deeper roots in Africa, those of us who embrace communism instead of the decadence of capitalism and the corruption of democracy, even those of us who turn ourselves over to Rastafarianism, the only Caribbean religion, are all reacting within the confines of a model that has been fundamentally shaped by colonialism, imperialism, Europe’s view of us all, and slavery.  And until we engage with this fact and understand the depths to which we have been affected, we will never truly embrace ourselves.So what is the solution?  Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not.  It isn’t reacting in a wholesale fashion to colonization by throwing away everything we imagine to be the trappings of that experience.  The blackest of us is not African, and the whitest of us is not European.  The Bahamas has been cooking up different cultures since at least 1492, and those five hundred years have created an interesting and special stew.  It’s a stew in which classical music has been simmering — and developing — side by side with the vocal harmonies, the call-and-response patterns, and the polyrhythms of Africa.  It’s a stew in which the dances of the aristocracy have married the drums and the footwork of the servants.  It’s a stew where the straw arts of the Native Americans converse with the basketry of the Africans and the headwear of the Europeans, and where the oral arts of us all have pulled from Haiti and the USA as well as England and Africa.The answer doesn’t lie in claiming everything that appears “African” either, for nowhere is everything entirely good.  When Chinua Achebe wrote his classic novel, Things Fall Apart, his purpose was to criticize both the English and the Ibo people of Nigeria.  He condemned the English colonizers’ destruction of traditional Ibo society while at the same time criticizing those bits of Ibo culture that he regarded as wrong — the killing of twins, for example, the treatment of women, certain punishments given to wrongdoers.  Today, African women are speaking out about age-old traditions as well, from female circumcision to the deplorable habit of fathers and grandfathers to take their female relatives’ virginity.What culture is requires serious study, requires the recognition, naming, and celebration of all that is good about us.  And so we need to focus our eyes inwards, for the habit of looking beyond our shores for things that are “good” is a colonial one.  Not until we can name our strengths and address our weaknesses will we know what culture is; but in the meantime, we need to make sure we know what culture isn’t.