Understanding cultures more than exhibition
Thrust n' Perry
Another year, another Cultural
Caravan. While this event does allow many of the different
cultures on campus to exhibit the very essence of who they
are, “cultural events” bring with them a downside — the
actual exhibition of one’s culture.
In his book Orientalism, Edward Said wrote about the problems
with the American and British schools of Orientalism (that
is, the study of Eastern cultures). Essentially, he found such
figures as the “Swami” or the “hook-nosed
Arab” were created from this academic discipline’s
point of view; though academics proposed to be studying the
culture, the whole discipline did little more than enforce
Most people in positions of power (with the possible exception
of United States President George W. Bush) have either grown
out of their Orientalist assumptions (or died off), leaving
our generation a prime opportunity to truly attempt to understand
cultures different from one’s own.
Are events specifically defined by their topical cultures
really providing us with the education they envision? Or rather,
are they turning culture into a hyper-real tourist attraction?
Sadly, even small-town Ontario has been visited by the phenomenon
of cultural exhibition — ever been to “St. Jacob’s
Country?” A short trip from Kitchener-Waterloo will take
you “back in time,” where you can observe traditional
Mennonite “culture,” such as everyday farmers plowing
their fields with teams of horses.
Is this really a cultural experience, though? People’s
way of life should not be made into a show. In a Canadian context,
such exhibitions may represent one’s cultural heritage,
but it is a reconstructed version thereof; and even with firsthand
experience in that culture, the result for many uninitiated
people attending these events is often the perpetuation, and
not the elimination, of a stereotype.
Take Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism — embracing
a mosaic of cultures is a wonderful start. That being said,
specifically Canadian events often have a specifically multicultural
program scheduled. While the inclusion of different cultural
groups into national programming is intended to further understanding,
is it much more than a representative quota?
Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories questions the
relation of stereotypes about native dress to the idea of substantively
representing the Native peoples; to expand on his thought,
how does a traditional powwow on Canada Day eliminate the image
of the Native as a war-whooping feather wearer? To go one step
further, what can be done to better represent actual cultural
Cultural engagement, not exhibition, is the answer. While
there is some necessary visual component to such engagement,
great care must be taken to ensure the style doesn’t
outweigh the substance; while the image on TV looks good, we
still have to do our homework.