Friday, August 24, 2007

You belong to this culture, and you belong to that culture...

I grew up in a country where everyone's ethnic group was written down in their internal passport. You inherited the ethnic group of your parents, and if your parents belonged to two different groups you could choose one of those at sixteen, and could not change it afterwards.

Most westerners say "eew" at that, mostly for a reason. While some record of ethnicity is quite useful for statistical purposes, and while my own ethnicity was rather obvious (for Russians, anyway) in my name and on my face, it's not every official's business. In fact the only officials that I can think of who have any business knowing my ethnicity are the people who compile statistics by ethnicity, and the medical establishment who might want to send me a letter saying "the risk of the disease A is 10 times higher in your ethnic group than in the general population, so get tested, please".

The same goes for religion and culture (whatever that means), even more so, because, unlike ethnicity, the religion and the culture can and sometimes do change in a person's lifetime.

Problem is, I think that in the West the concept of "culture" (as in, "a person's own culture") is becoming a sort of new ethnicity: considered somehow immutable, and, more disturbingly, endowed with its own rights.

You see a bit of that everywhere, in many countries and in many contexts. The Finnish officials will make exceptions in the naming law for your children if you can prove that in your or your parents' old country the naming conventions go differently. A white British schoolgirl in some school is not allowed to wear her hair in cornrows, although her black classmates are, "because it's their culture". Sikh police officers in England have been allowed to wear turbans for many years, but Muslim police officers got the same right only in 2003. A school in the US tried to force somebody I know into a bilingual English-Russian program just for having been born in Russia, even though the person had neither need nor desire to participate in that program. Etc., etc.

A lot of it is definitely the multiculturalists' fault, but I am not quite sure why they do it. One does not have to, even if one wants to bring foreign cultures into the country.

I would find it extremely disturbing if Sikhs living in Finland got a right to wear turbans as a part of their police uniform, like they do in Britain. Not because I would mind the police wearing turbans - if there is a demand for the turbans, for example from Sikhs, and if police had deemed that to permit turbans as a part of the uniform does not violate anyone's safety, there is no reason why they shouldn't - but because (if implemented the British way) it would be a special right for Sikhs. And I think that would be wrong, and against all the principles of equality that modern Western democracies try to profess. I am not against the police turbans, or against the fact that they would be allowed because a special group has asked for them. But once we decided that a police officer can wear a turban, this should be allowed to a Virtanen from Pohjois-Karjala just as well as to a Singh from Punjab, without Virtanen (or Singh, for that matter) having to prove any kind of religious conviction.

What is it that causes people to make special rules for the minority groups? What's the use of them? Is it an attempt to separate the group from others? An attempt to express some kind of an official disapproval of the practice (like "we have to allow it to them because it's their culture but it should not be allowed to normal people")? An attempt to officially mandate cultural diversity ("they are doing their cultural thing and you should be doing your own cultural thing and not theirs")?

Another concept which I think is coming from the same direction, is "community leaders", whom politicians tend to visit and talk with when there has been some trouble in the community, and sometimes also when there hasn't. Who are my community leaders? I have no idea, but I know that I have not elected them, have not empowered them to speak for me, and have no means of making them answer to me. The existence of community leaders is more understandable than that of special rules, because sometimes the politicians or the police need to talk to someone in the community and usually they try to talk to someone visible, but everyone involved should better remember that this does not make that person a real leader.

Finally, there is some general sense of "every culture should do their own thing, to do others' things is unauthentic and insulting to others", coming from fairly many people all around the political spectrum, from rabid multiculturalists to rabid nationalists and through everyone in between (although, now that I think of it, extreme nationalists and extreme multiculturalists tend to press this point more than anyone in between).

I have seen an otherwise perfectly sensible white American woman say that she enjoys wearing shalwar kameez and ask some Indian women whether they would consider it insulting if she wears it without being Indian or Pakistani. (They answered "WTF, of course not, you are not insulted to see us wearing jeans and t-shirts, now are you?".) I have also heard some black women say that they are insulted when white women wear cornrows or little braids, "because they are our hairstyles and not theirs". During the times when all things Irish were in fashion I've seen a lot of people complaining about other people doing Irish things "because they are not really Irish and they know it". I've heard many people say "the sushi restaurant A is better than the sushi restaurant B, because it is run by real Japanese", in spite of the food being identical. And if I had a dime for every time I've heard someone complaining about minorities assimilating into the majority and "losing their culture", I'd be a rich woman now.

The words "authentic", "genuine" and "real" figure a lot in these conversations. Also "wanting to be something you are not".

In fact, you often see people using the word "culture" as a sort of substitute for ethnicity, to mean something inborn and immutable. Recently I've run into some people who believed that it's easier for people to learn their ancestors' language than other foreign languages. Not to mention people who say that they won't even try to cook some ethnic food because it won't come out "authentic".

Come on, people. Culture is learned. And changeable. And changing. Both in general and on the individual level. The vast majority of people don't change to another culture completely because they don't want or need to, but learning some of somebody else's stuff is neither impossible, nor an affront to the authenticity of the universe. If you don't want to, fine, but don't begrudge it to other people. If you do want to, just do it.

Anyway - if you like kugel but don't think you can learn to do it as well as I because I have dozens of generations of Jewish grandmothers behind me and you don't, that's OK (although you'd be wrong because you can get all the same recipes from the same Google, that ancient repository of grandmotherly wisdom). If, on the other hand, the officials allow police officers to wear turbans if they are Sikh but not if they are, say, Catholic, we have a problem - even if there is not a single Catholic police officer who'd want the damn turban. Because this would mean that a Sikh and a Catholic are not equal in the eyes of officialdom, and because this means that some official somewhere gets to decide what a Sikh or a Catholic can and cannot do based on their religion, and who is a Sikh and who is a Catholic. And I think we (the Western world in general) are moving towards a world where the officials get to say "you belong to the group A, and you get to do thing A, and you belong to a group B, and you get to do thing B". Turbans for the interested Catholics might be a joke, but forcing bilingual education on people who want to be educated monolingually is not.

1 comment:

kellogs said...

>> might be a joke, but forcing bilingual education on people who want to be educated monolingually is not

Actually there are some tidbits that escape your thinking. A minority should definitely learn the tongue of the country they are citizens of, don't you think ? Otherwise, in these days we would have lots of klingonians, elfs and whatnot so everyone would speak his own effed up language that no other person around them can understand. Neat!