I had an interesting experience recently that brought me abruptly back to the subject of cultural (mis)appropriation. It was one of those moments when an outsider presumed to school me about my own religious and cultural traditions.
The woman was a patient, someone I haven’t met before. She seemed apprehensive when I entered the exam room. I interviewed her about the side effects she’s been experiencing with her current chemo regimen. I tried to ease her apprehension by asking about her family. She showed me pictures on her iPad of her home in the country, her kids, a sunset. Then she asked me about my family. Specifically, she wanted to know if my daughters cover their hair as well. I answered in the affirmative, offering eye contact and an honest easy smile as it is at this point that people often become uncomfortable because they think that perhaps I might be. I’m not…ever. My years of apologetics are long past. The rest of the conversation proceeded like this:
“So the scarf is part of your culture?”
I shook my head. “No. My scarf is a requisite of my religion.” I didn’t expound and say that as a fellow born and raised American my culture and hers are essentially the same.
“There are a lot (I assumed she meant Muslims) who come here for treatment.”
“Oh yes. This is true. This being an internationally renown cancer center people from all over the world come here to receive what they believe will be the best possible treatment.”
“Well you know, the thing that I find so surprising is that you’ll see these men pushing their wives in wheelchairs.”
At this point I no longer had to assume. I knew she was referring to Muslims. I knew where she was headed, and despite the warning voice in my head, I asked her to elaborate. So I said, “Oh? Why is that surprising?”
“Well, usually the women walk ten feet behind the men.”
Exactly ten feet? I thought is was six. Just kidding.
I was dumbfounded and shook my head. “Uh, that’s not true.”
“Yes it is and I see it all the time.”
Are we living in the same world? Why is it that I never see this? And since I’m an observant Muslim, I suppose I’m breaking some age old law because I walk where I please without fear of an honor killing (I am being facetious) or being sent to hell by Allah. I wanted to ask her if she thinks that these men love their wives any less than American or non-Muslim men love their wives, if she believes that even riddled with cancer these women would be expected to trundle along exactly ten feet behind their husbands even after the expense and time of being flown to the USA for expensive cancer treatments.
This was not the appropriate venue for me to school her about the difference between culture and religion, to divorce her of a stereotype as old as dirt and as wrong as sin. She was my patient and it would be inappropriate and unprofessional for me to enter into a debate. So I said in a way that I hope sounded light-hearted, “Well if you see this, it’s not a precept of the religion (my religion), but more likely a cultural practice.”
The look she gave me, this pitying poor foolish ignorant girl look, made me want to scream. Of course I didn’t though. Not out loud, in any case, but there was definitely tight tension in the room until I left.
But honestly, where does she get off schooling me about ME? I know where she gets off, because as I’ve already mentioned, she and I do come from the same culture.
There is this thing we westerners are guilty of… thinking we know better, that we are the benevolent teachers of right, that we merely tolerate the rest of the world’s backward cultural practices. This is an unforgivably arrogant attitude and it’s rampant.
But even deeper and more significant, and perhaps this is my ignorance here, how can anyone with access to technology living in this global world be so incredibly out of touch? Okay I suppose she can be. I mean as globally savvy as we in the west like to think we are, we’re often just about as provincial and insulated as we can get, as evidenced by her obvious ignorance. The most aggravating part though was her arrogant persistence that she was correct, that she knew better than me.
I believe there is an old no longer practiced Japanese cultural tradition where the men walk ahead of the women. Traditionally this was so that the men could serve as protection. This was not intended as a means to suppress or oppress the women. I have never met a Muslim woman, who because of her faith, walks behind her husband unless she just happened to end up there.
But that is all beside the point. I really wanted to talk about writing. I wanted to impress how important it is for writers to be truly global thinkers. We can not afford, if we care about our craft and our readers, to lose the opportunity to learn. We all make errors and assumptions, but when faced with the opportunity to learn the truth from the source, unlike my patient, we don’t have the luxury of shaking our heads and shaking off information in favor of holding on to erroneous preconceived ideas.
This woman is not a writer, her words won’t likely be disseminated via the internet or some other form of media, but let’s pretend she is a writer, a very popular writer… Imagine the affect.