Internationalization vs Cultural Appropriation

We need some perspective on where cultural sensitivity is needed (and lacking) and where it is misplaced.

March 20, 2016

The continuing stream of articles covering student indignation on campus over a supposed lack of respect and tolerance for other cultures just makes me sigh. Although I pride myself on a certain degree of political, cultural, racial sensitivity (Granted, it’s still a work in progress) I do worry that this kind of “sensitivity” is out of control. 

At a recent conference on internationalization I asked a Chinese colleague whether it bothered her that it was just easier to adopt a name that non-Chinese speakers could pronounce and I wondered whether she would find it more respectful of her culture if people learned to pronounce her Chinese name properly? She smiled and said it just wasn’t a problem for her at all. Of course it would be ridiculous for me to presume that everyone born in China who works or studies on a US, Canadian or European campus would feel the same way. 

So this leads me to wonder exactly who was offended by the tequila party at Bowdoin. Apparently several students planned the party and some wore “mini sombreros”.  The fact that so many members of the Bowdoin community were outraged by this supposed stereotyping and not over the under-age drinking leaves me stymied.  Were students who were Mexican citizens or of Mexican heritage offended or were other students offended on their behalf?  I’m guessing (and I realize I’m taking a big leap here) that, like my Chinese colleague who doesn’t think it’s a big deal that most of her American colleagues don’t even attempt to pronounce or address her by her Chinese name, that for some Mexican students, the tequila party with sombreros would not be a big deal either. Then again, for others, it might be really offensive.

My point here is that offense is in the eye of the beholder. I see a lot of people on a lot of campuses quickly taking offense on behalf of others and that, to my eye, is rather presumptuous. Instead of encouraging this state of heightened outrage by disciplining those considered to have committed some presumed cultural offense, it would be far more productive to focus our energies on more inclusive and inquisitive dialog.

Frankly, I am much more distressed by a recent story I was told after meeting a delightful young Saudi graduate student who chooses to wear an abaya and veil.  Afterwards, I learned from a colleague at the institution that the student had been taunted by jeers of “Terrorist!” as she walked across campus. A similar incident, reported in this paper that two students at Wichita State University — a Muslim and a Hispanic — were attacked in a gas station as the offender yelled, “Trump, Trump, Trump, we will make America great again. You losers will be thrown out of the wall.” I find this much more upsetting than mini-sombreros.

I think we need some perspective on where cultural sensitivity is needed (and lacking) and where it is misplaced. More thoughtful discussion of culture is clearly needed on campus and I’m guessing ALL campuses. I find myself impatient with misguided accusations that less-than-authentic ethnic food in college dining halls is offensive “cultural appropriation” when there are much more important issues to be addressed, students whose cultures and identity put them at risk.    

As the discussion of comprehensive internationalization gains traction on more campuses, I can only hope that we will engage in a more useful and significant conversation about culture, stereotypes, and sensitivities. Leaping to outrage will solve few of the serious problems resulting from prejudice that exist throughout most societies. We need to move away from our assumptions and engage in dialog with others whose culture and experiences are different from our own. And as in the case of my Chinese colleague or my many Mexican friends, we need to remember that attitudes and sensitivities are not uniform within cultures and that makes taking offense on behalf of others meaningless, if we have not endeavored to learn more about them. 


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