Understanding Other Cultures While Celebrating Your Own

by Doug Bernard - Posts (17). Posted Thursday, November 21st, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Today’s post is another powerful and personal story of cultural differences, and one person’s effort to bridge those differences, without losing your personal and cultural history. Sibusisiwe Mukwakwami is a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s looking forward to studying either economics or development studies, with a minor in human rights. She’s a native of Zimbabwe, and in 2013 won that nation’s National Black History Month essay competition.

Recently my friend invited me to her residential hall, which is an African-American themed hall. They have lots of meetings and outings there, so I thought it would be fun. On this particular day they were having a pancake breakfast, presumably just a time to mix and mingle. I was excited to be there, too.

I walked in at a time when the mini-party was at its peak. I found my friend; excited, we hugged and she led me to a sit in the back. We sat there for some time. I sensed some sort of discrimination. I wondered, were we just isolating ourselves or were we facing discrimination?

My friend’s breakfast came in first, and it was a plate full of color. My mouth watered. I have always liked rainbow dishes: they make me hungry. She let me pick pancakes and fruit; we ate and only then began to talk.

The black American contemporary music was at full blast. Some boys and girls were beating the tables and some guys on the stage were break dancing in what looked like a kind of competition. Locks and curls swirled the room. There was what I call African-American ginger – a strong feeling of united emancipation!

And yet in our corner, we felt isolated.

We talked about various subjects. Hair, boys , shoes and books. And bang! we got to it. “What do African Americans think of Africans?”

We argued.

I told her I thought African Americans were arrogant. Why did they sideline us? When we met in the corridors and our eyes met were they the ones who quickly looked aside before we greeted. Why? Weren’t we all black? I mean, wasn’t this exactly the reason why there was an African-American themed house to begin with?

Did they look down upon us because they grew up in America and we in Sub-Saharan Africa?. Oh yes, I felt this was it! They believed like it was often told that we were HIV-positive and that the giraffes were right behind our huts.

My friend blurted “No!” And then she continued:

“Sibu, I also thought so at one point but after living with these guys I got to a different conclusion altogether. These guys are not from Africa. They were not born there and may never have gone there. We can’t expect them to naturally  like us  or bond. We are different. Skin color is just that: skin color!”

I rejected this notion. They are black like us and they could not sideline us just because of our different accents. They were rejecting the Ubuntu Spirit; that togetherness and feeling of being warmly woven together as one.

“Culture is not in the skin Sibu!” she responded. “Culture is in places. Culture emanates from a place. Would you ever kneel and wash an elderly person’s hands here?” No, of course not, I replied. She continued:

“Yes, but wouldn’t that be remarkable back home? Wouldn’t your mum smile as you stood up from the stooping position? These black Americans have their culture. A culture which emanates from the American environment, where they were born. Whatever it is, we have no right to judge with our measuring stick from back home.”

I nodded. She went on, “Honestly you are being hard on them if you expect them to act like Africans when they perhaps never knew African soil.”

I thought myself a bigot. Yep! I had just been looking at this through my own lenses, and I hadn’t tried theirs. The temptation though was to then adapt their culture, to go kinky and afro. (In fact, I actually had dreadlocks on this day.)

Slowly, it came to me fully.

The temptation is to sing of Martin Luther King but forget Strive Masiyiwa. Of course, I often silently give thanks for Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks  and Frederick Douglass’ bravery, whenever I sit next to the white boys and girls on dining tables and on buses and especially recently when I read of Harriet Jacobs‘ life story in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”.

Yet still, if not me, who then shall sing of Strive?

2 Responses to “Understanding Other Cultures While Celebrating Your Own”

  1. Bill Marten says:

    Doug,

    Thanks for this essay. I hope it is illuminating for many Americans and especially African Americans

    A Berkeley resident.

  2. Ryan says:

    Wow, this so enlightening. I have been thinking like Sibu used to for a long, long time. I now realise how ridiculous it is to expect them to share the African culture. This article is so beautifully written, by the way!

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