Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about culture and how that defines us. Culture plays a big role in my life living in America. I’m surrounded by thousands – millions of people who have such rich cultural traditions and I still feel like I have nothing. I watched a short clip for my Sociology course called MissRepresentation (I believe it is a full movie also). It was about being African American and being suppressed by white culture, which, up until that point, I wasn’t sure existed. The feelings that these girls explain is almost heartbreaking. One of them says something along the lines of: I’m stuck in a country and I don’t even know where I came from. I know I came from Africa but where? There are different cultural traditions allover Africa, so how do I know what my heritage is?
I read an article once called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. I’m sure it’s completely exaggerated for our generation, but when it was written (90’s I believe) every single thing the author writes is true. We, as white Americans, have a privilege that we don’t notice exists until someone points it out to us, like in the way the narrator didn’t know he was being told a myth until Ishmael told him (Ishmael by Daniel Quinn). When I read the article it was for my Communications 111 class and I had a predetermined notion that everyone was treated equal, because that’s what I was taught growing up. I wrote a three page reading response about how wrong the author was but I never actually took the time to sit down and think about what it actually meant.
I worked in a medical office over the summer and 60-70% of the patients were Korean, the majority of which didn’t speak any English. When we would have Korean patients in the waiting room as American patients, they would argue and the American patients would frequently raise their voices and speak slower in hopes that they would understand them better, but when it didn’t work they’d get upset. At that moment they automatically felt like the Korean patients weren’t as smart because they didn’t speak the same language as them.
As humans, we can have some serious egos, and part of that is thinking that no matter what we’re doing, if the way we do it is effective, then every other solution is wrong. Anyone who is different than us – speaks a different language, different skin color, different mental processing speeds, etc. – is doing it wrong and they are automatically regarded as inferior to us in our minds. It doesn’t matter if we don’t mean to do it or we don’t want to, it’s an automatic response. Like apes battling for dominance, both of the apes think that they’re better until someone loses. It just so happens that America has quite the winning streak.
I think that reading Ishmael has helped me understand that on a deeper level. Just because someone (or something) is different than us, it doesn’t mean that they’re inferior. At this point it becomes an ethics question – is it okay to sacrifice the life of one animal for another? And at what point does this choice become clear? Is it okay for us to discriminate against each other and at what point is that going to become destructive enough to our society that we decide to try to change it?
Some people see a clear line between the value of a human’s life and the value of a dog’s life and some people don’t. Some people think that a dog’s life is more valuable than a cat’s and vice versa and they’ll argue about it until they loose their voices but the question of what is value still remains. What makes us decide to value one life over another? Human over human or cat over dog, it doesn’t matter. When does that distinction become clear?