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.

7 thoughts on “On What Culture Isn’t

  1. Hi Nico:
    I found this sentence very intriguing: “…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,…”
    I am left wondering if communism is perfect?
    By the way, your definition of Bahamians as ” The blackest of us is not African, and the whitest of us is not European.” reminds me of an old song by Blue Mink titled Melting Pot.
    The chorus goes something like this: “What we need is a great big melting pot. Big enough to take the world and all it’s got. Keep it stiring for a hundred years or more, and turn out coffee coloured people by the score.”
    Do you think that will solve the cultural conundrum you describe?

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  2. I’m not entirely clear on your suggestion that that sentence implies that communism is perfect, as the context should make clear that it isn’t — nothing is.

    Regarding a melting pot — well, most of my non-Bahamian education took place in Canada, where they pride themselves on not being a melting pot, but a salad bowl. They don’t think the melting pot idea works terribly well, and I suspect they’re right. Neither works very well for me.

    I don’t think that a melting pot would solve this cultural conundrum, if it’s something to solve. When people all look the same, they find other ways to differentiate one another and to open up avenues for intolerance — they do it by neighbourhood, or class, or Junkanoo group, or school, or educational level, or religion, or hair colour, or height, or accent. That’s just human nature; ethnocentrism (the idea that the group I belong to is better than the group you belong to) seems to be hardwired into us.

    What is important, I think, is to understand that this is a fundamental human tendency and work to overcome it — by understanding intellectually at least that different people have different ways of living in the world, and that difference is not bad.

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  3. Thanks.
    I was referring to the adjectives before Capitalism and Democracy yet there is none before Communism.
    I agree that there is nothing to solve. Culture evolves doesn’t it?
    While I enjoy Junkanoo for 20 minutes or so, I don’t enjoy the fights and cussing that go with what seems like so many of the fans.
    So what is our (Bahamian) culture?

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  4. Dr. Bethel,

    I’m a little confused as to the intent of the original post. Was it to say that embracing components of foreign cultures in response to a disaffection with our colonial past is ill-advised? Was it to imply that a better understanding of our mixed origins would lead to a greater embracing of ourselves? Was it to say that we ought to look more critically at what we adopt as culture regardless of whether it came from our European heritage, our West African ancestry or anywhere else?

    If pressed, I’d say the main idea seemed to be that culture is not that happens when we reject something we’ve inherited in favor of something different. (I’m fully prepared to accept that this is an incorrect understanding of the essay.) Or at the very least this behavior results in an unhealthy cultural confusion.

    My response is that culture is a collection of the ways of a people. It does not matter why something was chosen, but the fact that it has been chosen that validates its position in the pantheon of cultural components. Embracing ideas and behavior in reactionary ignorance might not “healthy”, but it certainly does not disqualify something as “culture”.

    Regarding the issue of “cultural confusion” — the only sane response to confusion of any kind is education. In fact education seems to be at the root of the essay regardless of whether my take on it is correct. I say this because from my vantage point (as a slightly more than casual cultural watcher) there appears to be duplication of efforts and debates that
    a) find a limited audience,
    b) are usually not preserved for posterity and
    c) those that are preserved are not available in an easily accessible manner to the person of casual interest in something resembling a central repository. A+B+C=perpetual ignorance. Perpetual ignorance = ten years from now someone writing an essay remarkably similar to your original post for the same reasons you write so passionately; our cultural development is NOT what it should or could be.

    We spoke briefly about one way to address this problem. Hopefully this and other solutions will move from idea and talk to reality before too long.

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  5. I, you read it correctly.

    You are of course correct in saying that current cultural practice, even that exercised in ignorance is part of the culture. However, that doesn’t mean that it is a positive or a beneficial part of the culture.

    Perhaps education is the “only sane response”, but I’m not sure. I’m also not sure that I agree with everything you say in (a), (b) and (c), simply because the relatively modest investment in two books, Islanders in the Stream Vol. I and Islanders in the Stream Vol. II would go some way towards addressing much of our ignorance. I believe that much of our ignorance is more than a lack of education; it is a studied conviction that, fundamentally, there isn’t much that is Bahamian that is good.

    The reactions I’m talking about above are the reactions by and large of educated Bahamians. The average man-in-the-street isn’t choosing communism or Islam or taking on an African name. My problem is that even the educated among us still seek value and identity outside the country, and, your third point notwithstanding, don’t make the personal effort to find out what is valuable within.

    There is far more information available in bookstores and in the National Archives than many people know, simply because they never looked.

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  6. Dr. Bethel,

    I will sheepishly confess that I have not read Dr. Saunders’ books hoping that my arguments are not dismissed as a result.

    A better understanding of Bahamian History will go a long way to adressing any number of ills in this country, but the way one is educated and socialized regarding culture in my opinion usually does not happen from simply reading a “textbook”. Because of culture’s nature of being fluid, organic, alive and subject to interpretation and reinterpretation people need to be regularly exposed to it and hear its merits intelligently discussed and evaluated by informed practicioners and observers (including academics and intellectuals).

    A proper forum for informed, intelligent debate assists greatly in developing and clarifying standards that cultural practitioners can strive to meet and exceed. Without such a forum and its resultant standards we fall into a chasm where as far as quality is concerned anything goes and anyone can be an artist, writer, musician, vocalist, producer, etc. When that happens medeocre or worse tends to become the norm. Across many parts of the Bahamian cultural spectrum we have found oursevles in this very predicament.

    This is why many educated Bahamians have concluded that “there isn’t much that is Bahamian that is good.” Those who reach that conclusion are usually not on some quest to ‘get in touch with their roots’ so they won’t go digging. They are average people who want a quality cultural experience and have had a hard time finding it. The result is that their cultural appetite is satisfied by other countries who take their cultural product more seriously than we do.

    Most people are not going to go to the National Archives or read a one inch thick book (in softcover) in search of casual cultural gratification. What they do want is to turn on the TV or radio or pick up a magazine or go to a play or concert and not have their sensibilites assaulted by sub-standard quality productions.

    Books are invaluable tools, but realistically more is needed if Bahamians are going to be educated about their culture.

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  7. While I agree with you fundamentally, what I take issue with in your comment is the unwritten assumption that someone — i.e. not the contemporary educated Bahamian — must be responsible for providing that something more.

    My problem with the “educated Bahamian” that I’m talking about is twofold. First, it lies in exactly your comment — that “most people” are not going to go to the National Archives or read a one inch thick book, and that “most people” expect their casual cultural gratification to be met automatically. That’s fine; but to my mind it’s “educated Bahamians” who are needed to create what’s missing.

    It is entirely true that the powers-that-be — the politicians, I imagine, and the civil servants who control the way “da gov’ment money” is spent — have ignored our culture in such a way that young educated Bahamians do not have any comprehensive exposure to the best in our culture. However, my problem does not stop there. My problem lies in the assumption that these are the only people whose responsibility it is to create the forums you talk about, or to provide the casual cultural gratification that is lacking.

    To my mind, it is the responsibility of all “educated Bahamians” who feel the lack of quality or standards in Bahamian entertainment/culture to fill the gap — by providing a critical eye that calls crap crap (one of the reasons mediocrity flourishes here is that there is no one out there willing to call it mediocre), or through creating high-quality alternatives. Sitting back and waiting for quality to be delivered a mere thirty-three years after independence and thirty-nine years after Majority Rule is a pipe dream; what single nation in the world created a high-quality cultural product in a single generation?

    So I stand by my comment. If the “educated Bahamian” is willing to make the effort to research alternative cultural identifiers or to adopt alternative political stances, then why isn’t he or she prepared to do the necessary research to find out what is good about their own heritage before they reject it? Isn’t the purpose of education to provide people with the tools to find out their own information, after all?

    Cheers.

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