How to be culturally senstive
I always find it interesting when I post something I think is super cool, and receive total backlash from it. A photo of Spain’s Running of the Bulls becomes a rally for animal rights. A photo of Jones Beach glistening in the sun garners comments of “EW GROSS BEACH!” and “Watch out for the syringes!” Even something so lovely as Thai monks lifting paper lanterns into a black sky will illicit comments like “Don’t they know how dangerous/environmentally unfriendly that is?” ”Those guys are monks, they should know better.”
As an Anthropology student, I was exposed to all sorts of cultural practices that I did not agree with. Getting gar. Female circumcision. Anything the Mehinaku tribe of the Amazon rainforest did. Despite how disturbing these things are to me, what I struggled with more was if I was allowed to judge it. These things are a part of peoples’ culture. I don’t have to agree with it, but I have to accept they exist.
I think people are often quick to judge things they don’t – or can’t – understand. It’s only natural, because things that bother us make us very emotional. What’s hard to contend with however, is our overall lack of ability to change what upsets us the most. I think that’s why people make such nasty comments on Facebook, because they can’t do anything to change the issue, but they can let the world know they don’t agree with it.
But what’s even harder to accept, is how seemingly undisturbed these cultures are when it comes to the things we don’t agree with. Do we have a right to criticize them? It’s a sticky subject. I may not agree that women in some Middle Eastern cultures should be covered from head to toe in a burkah, but those women might not agree that my body should be shown so readily. Who is right? And who gets to decide what is right for other another person? A group of people? An entire country?
The best example I have is from a time when I was in a Japanese fashion show. I was chosen to model clothing worn by the Lolita subculture of Japan. You’ve seen them before, they look like little dolls or cartoon characters. Anyway, some people who saw my photos were disgusted by what I was wearing. ”It’s infantilizing,” they said to me. ”Grown women dressing like babies. It encourages male dominance.”
What they didn’t bother to research however, was anything about the Lolita culture. These people do not dress like little girls to entice older men to have sex with them – each part of a Lolita outfit is carefully chosen and has a purpose, mostly to cover up sexual parts and not encourage outward sexuality. It is actually a protest against hoochie women who walk around with their thongs hanging out of their pants. A big part of Lolita culture is abstaining from sexual activity and believe me, men are definitely NOT turned on by this. They think it’s really weird.
I’m not trying to excuse certain cultural practices, but I think it’s important to get the full picture before people start going off on how inhumane this festival is, or how archaic that practice is, etc. I think it is important to exhibit an understanding of cultural relativity as well, especially while traveling. The lighting of thousands of paper lanterns to celebrate a religious experience in Thailand may seem like it’s dangerous or not friendly for the environment, but is it really any different than lighting off fireworks on the 4th of July?
Conflict in this world is based on misunderstanding. And the worst thing to do is to fight without fully educating yourself – meaning, researching the other side of the story as well. Something I like to say to people who are quick to judge other cultures is, “Don’t ask why they do it like this, ask yourself why you don’t do it like that.”
What are some cultural practices you wish people understood better? How can we be culturally sensitive and still make change in the world?