The Role of the Exotic and Collusion with Nationalism by Sonia Soans
During a casual conversation with a few friends about an acquaintance of ours a friend casually said ‘it is all very nice that she learns the English language but she must not forget her culture’. The words hit hard as one of the two black women in the room we were struck by the power those words had over us. The inequality and indifference expressed by those words felt as if we had stepped back into an era where women of colour were still subservient to white women, looking after them but never equal.
There are several issues I have with those words…
Learning a new language does not erase a culture especially one you were born into. Culture is constantly evolving there is nothing fixed about it. The use of the English language is political, those who do not speak it risk being stigmatised as uneducated, or stupid. However in an English speaking nation not learning English is a means of exclusion.
Culture is almost always attributed to people of colour. I have heard this one so many times it is a double edged sword culture is either spoken of as something that is exotic or savage. People of colour are almost never individuals but assumed to a homogenous group of people who are tied to culture at all times.
Patriarchy is assumed to be normal and natural for women of colour who are expected to have different moral compasses. Crimes against us are thought to be exclusively tied to our culture and are traditional therefore any intervention is an attack on culture. Domestic violence is never thought to be a cultural crime in the UK.
My problems lie with how culture is used by against women by patriarchal structures which prevent women from seeking help. Increasingly in the global south, especially India the use of the term culture is being applied to defend oppressive practices. Queer black feminist Gloria Gloria Anzaldúa problematises the hold culture has on maintaining oppressive structures.
“Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture. Culture is made by those in power – men. Males make the rules and laws; women transmit them.” – Gloria Anzaldúa
How many times have I heard mothers and mothers-in- law tell their sons to beat their wives for not obeying them, for being hocicomas (big mouths), for being callajeras (going to visit and gossip with neighbors, for expecting their husbands to help with the rearing of children and the housework, for wanting to be something other than housewives?
That patriarchy is tied to culture and enforced through the use of tradition is not surprising. Patriachy is invested in maintaining a status quo it uses tradition to justify longstanding injustices as a part of keeping the past alive. The use of the term culture is also a way of distancing oneself from people of colour, issues such as violence are swept under a rug as they are ‘cultural’ which helps collude with perpetrators of such crimes. This excuse is similar to one used in domestic abuse cases in the west where intervention is denied as the violence in such a situation is domestic and not public.
As an Indian woman living in the UK I often get spoken to in a loud patronising voice or asked about the cultural authenticity of my actions, choices and even food. I find notions of culture and tradition troubling as they are almost always gendered heteronormative and policed. Culture is not a stable unchanging entity it is constantly in the process of change and manipulation. Tradition similarly is a means of repeating the past except it often involves an invention of the past, it depends upon emotive rather than factual aspects of history.
When combined tradition and culture are used as a means of social control to wean desirable from undesirable it is enforced through propaganda that looks back to a glorious past that was simple, heterogeneous, happy and peaceful. All of this is an invention of the past. It is comodified and made to fit our modern assumptions of the past, it can only be experienced through a material reinvention of the past. The problem with this is that affects how we speak of groups or individuals through this reinvented past. In India I was always looked at as an aberration because I am of mixed ethnicity and non conformative of many social norms. In Britain I am policed for both conforming and non-conforming to imaginary national ideals.
The question to ask is whose version of culture is the non-white female subject to conform to? Who does that culture benefit? Do women have a say in changing that culture and what are the consequences they face if they do? If patriarchy is to be challenged then women of colour should also be allowed to challenge it through the destruction of their culture if necessary.
Image taken from Darkmatter