Intercultural Relativism

One of the first terms we learned in my first Anthropology course was cultural relativism: viewing one’s actions relative to one’s culture, thus understanding why a certain action was done. Take the potlatch for example. If one does not understand the potlatch in economic terms relative to the performing culture, one is going to miss the rationale behind it: redistribution and prestige, not unlike the way Americans might throw dinner parties. Cultural relativism is one of the biggest ideas stressed in Anthropology courses; because if you cannot accept the fact that most people do things differently than you with the same amount of effectiveness, then you are not understanding the very basis of Anthropology and why we need it.

But why is inter-cultural relativism (I think I made that term up) never explicitly talked about? Culture is not an impenetrable bubble only colliding with other bubbles and never mixing; it is more like a lake, rarely stagnant and highly mixable if another lake were to get close enough. Culture is a continuum and does not have clear cut boundaries and an instruction manual included. So why do we judge people’s actions in our own culture so harshly? To attempt to keep things the same for the sake of keeping things the same is to freeze our lake, making it an impenetrable, stagnant entity. Further, when has it ever been acceptable to say that someone is doing something wrong because she is doing it differently than you?

Text and email language is a modern and relevant example. Relaying information quickly is important for people who live busy lifestyles, yet there are so many memes on the internet that say things along the lines of “text lingo is annoying, and you are stupid if you use it”. However, “Whn r u gonna b here” is just as comprehensible as “When are you going to be here?”, and surely the person who constructed the first sentence is capable of constructing the second sentence. So judgment towards text lingo is simply a xenophobic response to something new and innovative, not a defense of a standardized (and usually racially white) way of writing or speaking English. Language, like culture, is dynamic.

But a more extreme and less trivial example of the way we judge each other for being different is adoption, especially transracial adoption. Parents adopting transracially already have much to go through in regards to preserving the child’s culture, explaining adoption to the child, and possibly keeping in contact with the child’s biological parents. Preparing transracial adoptees for probing questions about why they look different than their parents is not one more thing adopting parents should have to go through. Adoption is viewed as some weird phenomenon because of the biological model of family making, namely making family through biological ties, as opposed to social ties. We know it is not relevant to many American families, yet it still persists. Even having step-children seems to viewed as more normal, and I think this is because there is still a biological tie to the children from one parent, whereas adoptees have no biological and, sometimes, cultural ties to their adopters.

I think the root issue of both problems discussed is that we create norms to follow, and when someone deviates from them, we react harshly instead of trying to understand why that person did something different. In order to be truly accepting of other cultures, we need to start with our own.

by Alfred Lopez

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