March 25, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 92  

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Understanding cultures more than exhibition

Thrust n' Perry
Dan Perry

News Editor

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 stereotypes.

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 concerns?

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.



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