Stephen Yang / Sun Columnist

November 10, 2019

YANG | Privileged Kids, Please Be Mindful in Other People’s Cultural Spaces

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You have probably heard this before, but please be mindful in other people’s cultural space.

No, this is not the end of the story. I am not giving you a vague guideline just for you to follow arbitrarily based on your own interpretation and your past experience. In that sense, everything will most likely remain the way it has been, and the powerful notion of being critical will thus be rendered meaningless. It is analogous to shouting out that people should read about critical theory without elaborating on what it entails. (But yeah, critical theory deals with power imbalance, and I suggest that you all look into it.)

I have to admit that it can be challenging to fully implement the nuances of being mindful. The notion of mindfulness can be fluid across different cultural contexts. It is so amorphous that it is nearly impossible to be wholly delineated. Before delving into the mesh of possibilities of critical theory, a critical question may help trim down pages of reasoning: Why do people feel that others — especially the culturally dominant groups — are not being mindful in their cultural space?

Because the West’s default view on culture used to be hierarchical –– that some cultures or, more specifically, one culture are better than the others –– and this is assumed unless it is expressed otherwise. Even when cultural pluralism has been proven to work just perfectly fine, this assumption with historical precedents is not going anywhere. The history of oppression will not, and should not, be forgotten. And it is this hierarchical view on culture that makes those who used to be belittled by the top tier still feel oppressed and uncomfortable.

Yes, stronger in-group orientation is an ongoing phenomenon happening across different cultures. This has boosted the appreciation of one’s own cultural roots. Yet when the culturally dominant is also present in the audience, the dynamics are fundamentally different. Under such circumstances, both by default and subconsciously, for those who do not belong to cultures that have historically been revered, they feel that they are performing for others’ pleasure but not for their self-appreciation.

Acknowledging these differences is the first step toward being mindful, but it’s far from enough. What we as a school currently lacks is an egalitarian view on culture. Despite the mushrooming of co-cultures coexisting on campus, Cornell’s image still comes off as monotonous –– straight, white and fratty. No, Cornell is not a cultural desert, but it tends to appear as a cultural monopoly. We as a school do not lack the complexity of culture merely because we are in a secluded setting. At a school that echoes the motto “any person, any study,” any person from any walk of life with any background share this campus together. What I mean by sharing is that theoretically, our co-cultures should coexist without an order of importance or relevance. Vice versa, you should also expect to see any person on campus. People from different cultures don’t just study here –– they go to parties and shows to enjoy their time here at Cornell just like you. They do not host events just for you to feel accepting, and going to these events does not make you particularly  “woke.”

Unless you show genuine appreciation for their culture.

Here at Cornell, you will most likely see a diverse crowd at cultural events, and this most likely involves a mix of privileged kids in the audience. When you come to the venue as a privileged audience member, it may seem tricky when it comes to showing appreciation for marginalized cultures. But please bear in mind — you are far from not being welcomed. Yes, this still holds true –– people who show interest in other people’s cultures are always welcome. In fact, we need you to be there to actively mitigate the cultural divide. This process is not one-directional –– it is symbiotic for our society as a whole.

But how exactly could appreciation be manifested? When you enter other people’s cultural space, think of it as stepping into their home field. Being mindful essentially entails actively not being intrusive. When you wholeheartedly endeavor to alleviate the hierarchical boundaries, it shows. And when you don’t put in the effort, it shows.

So, what should we do? What shouldn’t we do? What could we have done better? First, drop the cultural cues that are not commonly shared by other cultures. These may be perceived as cues of superiority and dominance. Next, observe what other people do at the space and adapt to their mode of social interactions. At the same time, take your own differences into consideration before you start appropriating their culture out of context. The final step is simple: Show your appreciation. A simple and genuine smile says it all. Appreciation can be uncomplicated and beautiful, and understanding can be humble and compassionate. These are powerful ways to attenuate the power imbalance within our cultural hierarchy that is still alive on our campus.

With the proliferation of the Internet and new media, the portrayal of marginalized culture has been more accessible than ever. As such, we all think we have seen and appreciate diversity, but have we put this portrayal of diversity in the context of historical and ongoing systematic oppression? Have we considered how the media industry as an omnipotent institution founded and controlled by the culturally dominant feeds into this mode of oppression? Content collapse is a real issue when people do not consciously attempt to be active media consumers. Whatever you perceive in mainstream media is most likely reflected through the lens of the privileged. Please go to cultural events to directly learn from those who are marginalized, and please be mindful in their cultural space.

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.