“Us vs. them”…

In an ethnography class one evening, I made the comment that we should not go into our field sites with an “us vs. them” type of mentality when studying our “research subjects.” It appears that perspective isn’t really as “given” as we would think sometimes. A student facilitating the class then asked me if I was born in the United States. (Lol, Here we go again I thought). I really couldn’t understand the parallel or connection the individual was making to my comment. I wonder if they would ask me that if I were one of the majority white students in the class. I was just hearing too much “our culture” “their culture” or “the alien”, as if there is one “American” culture, and the use of the word “alien” really bothers me, even when referencing the “foreign culture.” And what is “our culture” as Americans?, especially with our diversity by race, ethnicity, religion, class, geography, etc, and especially when culture is always evolving. I am accustomed to people always asking me if I am American, sometimes it stings like hell in certain scenarios, being that I was born and raised here in the States, sometimes I let it go, but I just thought it was quite silly to ask me that question in the class, especially after I made that comment. I guess my midwestern American accent isn’t as clear in certain circumstances, but unlike most courses I have taken, I am quite vocal in the class. I think having the perspective that there is one “American culture” is part of the mentality that socially constructs this notion of “alien” or the “other” and even in our own societies, which can be quite troubling. Sometimes this is a reminder that is necessary to help our mental preparation and training for when we conduct fieldwork or even travel other parts of the world for leisure or business purposes, especially when taking care not to box people into our preconceived notions of who they are…

“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).”

— Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism


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