I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t hurt me to see the pictures of Kappa Alpha Theta members dressed in “Mexican” garb. Now, I know that those students did not dress up in their chosen costumes to hurt me; I think we can all agree that they didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But instead of somehow making their actions OK, or at the very least excusable, to me this indicates simply that these students, my peers, do not see me. They are blind to the fact that I, as a Chicana, am a part of the culture they find so easy to parody.
Somehow, my culture has been amputated from the idea of me that they have in their minds. This is a problem.
We’re all members of a campus that prides itself on its diversity (a discussion of the reality of that diversity is for a different place and time). We are able to find communities which help us define ourselves, communities that we might not have had access to before coming to Columbia. And, on a daily basis, we interact with people who belong to communities with which we are unfamiliar. The question it seems we’re grappling with is this: How do we go about respecting and interacting with the communities we encounter, especially if they are different from the groups with which we identify?
The short answer, of course, is not to be an intolerant asshole. But I understand that that’s less than helpful. Still, there is a space between slapping on a sombrero and calling it a day and de facto segregation—a difference that needs exploration. Beyond tolerance and simple coexistence, there is a desire to engage with other cultures and groups in ways that are more substantial than recognition, more meaningful than brushing elbows.
The first realm is that of coexistence—apparently something we’ve yet to master. It is here that I think the time for handling discussions with the proverbial “kid gloves” has come and gone. I will not tell you that it’s OK to dress in insensitive getups, using stereotypes of someone’s culture as a punch line. I will similarly not tell you that it is acceptable to don a bindi because you think it looks cool in the name of cultural “appreciation.” Nor will I say that wearing a burqa for a week is a means of better understanding the lives of your fellow women of color. I reject the notion that being offended by these things is simply “oversensitivity” because the intent behind them was not necessarily malicious. In a nutshell, if we see something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise abhorrent, we shouldn’t silence ourselves simply for the comfort of an offender who may or may not understand why they’re in the wrong. A part of interacting with communities different from one’s own is learning about the values and needs of that community. This includes understanding what they find offensive—perhaps even why it’s offensive—and respecting that. And no one should count themselves immune to that, regardless of the groups they belong to. This is how we might learn to tolerate being around each other. But Columbia’s diversity doesn’t have to—and in fact shouldn’t—work like plate tectonics. We aren’t irreconcilable bodies, divided by jagged faults and joined only through rocky, violent passings.
This is where that second space comes into play, that of cultural learning, or true cultural appreciation. I believe these things exist. I’m studying abroad, for crying out loud. But what I think we need to realize is that it is impossible for us to learn anything if we don’t listen. How can you hear all of the different stories of a culture, after all, if the shriek of your so-called appreciation is the only thing in your ears? I’m of a mind that, in order for us to go beyond coexistence, we need to do more listening. Obviously it’s a pretty simple action, and it isn’t going to solve all of our problems, but given our recent history, perhaps it’s a good place to start.
I believe that you can legitimately and respectfully appreciate a culture that isn’t yours. But I think that it is a quiet action. It isn’t something in which you take center stage. This culture, fundamentally, can never belong to you. There isn’t a place for you within it. Maybe that’s harsh, or disappointing, but that’s how this works. It is not something you get to make your own, playing around in it, glorifying certain aspects of it, dismissing others. Put simply, cultures do not exist for your personal use.
That being said, I think cultural appreciation and cultural learning are extremely valuable to all of us. Learning about a culture different from your own is a challenging process, yes, but it is also enriching. You are exposed to different viewpoints, different histories, different literatures and artistic movements, different ideas about what it means to be. And call me a humanities major, but I think that such diverse exposure is not only beautiful, but incredibly instrumental to creating a community whose relations are more intricate, more thoughtful, and more critical. This, I think, is how we move away from seeing each other so flatly, how we avoid viewing our peers as isolated from their respective identities, and how we can try to understand one another with a bit more care.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in American studies.
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