This morning I was woken up to go and help my cousin and his dad move a mattress for my other uncle. While in the car they wanted to stop at a corner store to get something to drink only to find out the store was close. Like the vast majority of the other Arab run corner stores in Buffalo (and probably the rest of the world) they were close for the day. Today is the beginning of Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday celebrating the incident where Abraham proved willing to sacrifice his only son, Ishmael to God, thereby proving his unrelenting obedience to God. My uncle that was in the car reminder my cousin that all the Arab stores would be closed because “today’s their Christmas”. I corrected him (not actually knowing what the holiday was about although I know it wasn’t “their Christmas”) by throwing out it was a celebration of the birthday of Muhammad, not the coolest thing I’ve done but I felt I had to pull the conversation out the gutter somehow.
My reason for mentioning all of this is that it highlights a certain kind of imperialism that is much more insidious than neo-colonialism, racism, or economic warfare, called cultural imperialism. In America it work mostly by taking everything about other people and framing it within the confines of what we Americas (I hate saying or calling myself that as a descendant of a slave) deem normal to us. What I’m talking about is not simply explaining a cultural aspect of another people in terms of a similar aspect of American culture. What I mean is distorting the meaning and purpose of another’s cultural, linguistic, social, or even political objects to fit how Americans (or other oppressive people’s) think about the world. This is a most damaging kind of violence because it refuses the lesser people’s (in terms of power) right to define themselves on their own terms. Thereby calling a holiday that has nothing to do with Jesus, redemption, or a birth X’s Christmas is pretty wrong and reinforces “negative relationships” (aka imperialism, oppression, stereotyping, etc.) between those in power and out of power. A great example is the constant crap about “black people’s Christmas” thrown at Kwanzaa.
Another example of cultural imperialism in my opinion is the concept of the “99%” as seen in the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS). The whole idea of the 99% is to bring everyone that’s not ultra rich under the same grouping to fight the ultra rich. The problem is that 1, there are major difference between those within the 99% that can’t be articulated as just “diversity” and 2, many of those in the 99% ought to be burned at the stake along with the 1% because they too are balling. I will also mention when talking about the 99% some of that group was actively oppressing, ignoring the needs of , and demonizing other parts of said group (aka racism). If we are going to have an honest discussion and alliance concerning banks and Wall Street the white middle class needs to realize that a good star is to not claim to speak for everyone else even if in the end we agree with you(just as I can’t claim to speak for all Africans). We don’t all want the same thing, nor do we all oppose Wall Street for the same reasons but because of white privilege they are able to safely in their minds reduce our needs as the “same as theirs”.
The take away lesson for this piece is this: when talking about other groups of people’s culture, politics, or social institution let’s try and make sure we don’t make the mistake of misrepresenting their uniqueness by being reductionist and using the “X people’s (insert American cultural object term)” formula all willy nelly. Let me know in the comments other kinds of cultural imperialism you either experienced or witnessed in your daily life.