Musings on research, international development and other stuff

On racism and cultural relativism


As a white woman who has spent a lot of time in Africa, I think I am a little bit obsessed with issues of race and culture. The honest truth is that I am not only constantly afraid that people might think I am a racist – I’m constantly afraid that I might actually be racist. For example, I recently read this thought-provoking article on ‘ironic’ racism and cringed when I realised I had said some of the dumb

things the author was lambasting. In particular, I realised that in an effort to appear ‘not racist’ I have often made comments about ‘typical mzungu (white person)’ behaviour when in East Africa and the more I think about this the more I realise it is a bit pretentious.

Having said that, I think I am probably not a racist but one reason that I sometimes feel like one is that it’s all too easy to forget that ethnic differences are distinct from cultural differences – especially when you are in a situation where the two happen to coincide. My difficulties understanding another ‘race’ have actually been difficulties understanding another culture. For example, the culture shock that I felt when living in Malawi would have been no less acute if I had been black British rather than white British.

In a way though, this distinction is just semantics. Perhaps I am not a racist – but am I ‘culturist’, and is this just as bad? As an example, I do a lot of work with African policy makers – those who work in ministries, parastatal organisations and parliaments. In my experience, these policy makers often insist that any event they are involved in needs to be held in a swanky venue, needs to pay a ‘sitting fee’ (read: bribe) and needs to have accommodation in 5 star hotels. When (and it is when not if!) i refuse I have often been told that I am not respecting their ‘cultural norms’. I once attended a training event where one attendee (a parliamentary librarian from an East African country) told me that he would expect that his accommodation (paid for by donor money) should include Sky Sports, a minibar and (I kid you not) a sauna. He told me that he was telling me this to help me understand African culture so that in future I would be more ‘culturally sensitive’. Personally, I think this practice is abhorrent. I don’t see why donor money which is being given for the ultimate aim of poverty alleviation should be used to boost the luxury of middle class civil servants. I accept that it might be the culture (amongst the political elite – I am aware that this ‘culture’ is hated by many African people) and it may have its roots in multiple factors (including both the traditional respect for leaders and the legacy of colonial systems) but I personally feel it’s a culture that I don’t want to propagate. So in this instance, yes, I seem to be a ‘culturist’.

My next question is, am I a cultural imperialist? I don’t think my opposition to cultural practices is limited to other people’s cultures. For example, the culture of my home village (in rural Scotland) was rather closed-minded and in particular, it was culturally normal to be anti-English. I don’t find this acceptable. Now I live in London, which has a totally different culture. Some aspects are great but others I dislike. For example, it seems to be culturally normal here to have really bad manners when on the underground train – something which I hate.

Perhaps what I should really be aspiring to is cultural relativism – the recognition that different cultures may be equally valid. I have had some interesting discussions on this topic with my German father-in law. As you may know, a general stereotype about Germans is that they like to keep to time and I have to say that in my experience (I am married to a German!) this is true. A few times I have tried to explain to my father-in-law that the need to arrive for every appointment exactly on time is cultural and that in other cultures this would not be seen as a moral obligation. In fact, in the UK, it is considered at best a bit uncool and at worst a little bit rude to arrive for a party at the time it ‘starts’. Interestingly, he accepts the principal of cultural relativism in general but insists that timekeeping is not about culture – it is a moral obligation. Arriving late, to him, is just rude wherever you are!

What’s interesting is that I find this example kind of amusing and quaint – isn’t it funny that people are so convinced that their way of looking at the world is the only correct one? – but when I think about it, I do exactly the same. I may be happy to accept cultural relativism around time keeping but I certainly don’t on issues which relate to human rights.

For example, where I live it is culturally normal to be open about whether one is gay or straight and homophobia is not tolerated. I don’t have any religion but I do have a strong moral code which centres on being fair and accepting of all people. It may be a cultural construct, but nevertheless, it is deeply embedded in me that it is the ‘right thing’ to be accepting of all people no matter what their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation is. As you may know, such an attitude is not culturally normal in many countries in Africa. Thus, when in Africa, I often end up in discussions with people who think that being gay is ‘wrong’ and I am exposed to media that portrays gay people as evil and predatory. The honest truth is that this really upsets me. Excuse the cliché but, some of my best friends are gay, and it really upsets me to hear someone who I otherwise respect saying that they are evil or even that they should be killed. It is one of the issues which genuinely would put me off living in some African countries. I know that the response to that statement from many people would be ‘fine – no one is asking you to come here so if you don’t like it stay away’ – but given the fact that I love so many things about Africa, I feel really troubled by this. I have tried to consider if this is something that I can accept as just a difference in culture which I have to accept but I just don’t think I can. It is too fundamental to how I see the world. This doesn’t mean that I hate people who think that being gay is wrong (to subvert the cliché, some of my best friends are homophobes!) – but I do find it difficult to hear people expressing this view and I do fundamentally think that these views are morally wrong.

So, after all these musings, what is my conclusion? I guess I think that I am probably not a racist, I probably am a ‘culturist’ (if there is such a thing!) and that while I believe in cultural relativism on some issues, on issues which are really central to my way of seeing the world I do tend towards cultural imperialism.

I’m not sure about any of this though. These are issues that I constantly return to and am constantly challenged by. I have tried to set out my thoughts on them really honestly above – but even doing this feels uncomfortable to me. So, please, let me know what you think. And please, try to be gentle!


9 thoughts on “On racism and cultural relativism

  1. @kirstyevidence, i really enjoyed your well written article. One comment i have on your exchange with the parliamentary librarian from East Africa, though that might be true and normal in East Africa, asking for 5-star accommodation is certainly not the cultural norm in Southern Africa-this then puts a regional perspective to the situation meaning that even within Africa there are complex contexts that make it impossible to generalise. i would speculate and say East Africa has been and still is the ‘darling’ of many Donor agencies who have been largely responsible for cultivating and ultimately entrenching this abhorrent spirit of entitlement.

  2. Like the reader before, I also enjoyed the article. There are a number of crosscutting issues here, that also pertain to value discussions within Northern contexts, and attempts to resolve a collision of values. Relativism only takes you so far in these contexts, since some claims cannot be reconciled.

    At the risk of sounding terribly academic, I found Richard Rorty’s “Irony, Contingency, Solidarity” extremely useful when thinking about these issues. As a German, I am tempted to hold forth, but will restrain myself: crudely abbreviated, Rorty suggests that it’s about extending the “we” that shares a set of concerns, and trying to make that inclusion attractive.

  3. It sounds like you are a cultural mix which many of us are. There is no right culture but there are cultures which you feel more attuned with for a variety of reasons. Great thing is that humans aren’t actually that different, which you observe if you see children from different races and cultures playing together, for example. If that ever changes then I’m not sure what happens to us as a species.

  4. Hi – I too have wrestled with trying to come up with an internally consistent point of view on moral relativism. I’m a good bed-wetting liberal type so obviously uncomfortable with the idea of my culture being in any way superior but at the same time, some cultural practices are just unacceptable – female circumsision on to take an easy example. I find the idea of inalienable human rights a powerful one. Some things breach these rights and are therefore unacceptable – homophobia for example. The concept gives a pretty good idea of where a line in the sand can be drawn.

  5. It has been suggested by writers such as Sam Harris that some cultural practices can be seen as better than others. ‘Better’ is measured by improved standards of well being for human beings in general.this seems to be a universal will although we just have different ideas about how to achieve it. In the example you give on homosexuality it is clear to see how people might think this is better if it really were true that gay people are ‘evil and predatory’.Clearly this is a matter of who has their facts right. This does not mean that certain traditions and practices are better in some contexts and countries than others but the reasons given must be sound.

    • First word of last post should say ‘it’
      And further down it should say human beings.
      working problem due to predictive text on my phone

    • This is basically a utilitarian perspective. Many of the things Kirsty talks about (including the very idea of human rights) are from the philosophy of liberal individualism. Full cultural relativism would lead me to question whether, for example, killing someone I don’t like is wrong, particularly as I have no way of telling whether that person is even human in the way that I am – I can only infer this.

      The thing is, liberalism is a very well thought out and internally consistant philosophy. Belief in human rights is also connected to principles of free exchange and eventually to the market – although this doesn’t preclude intervention on social utilitarian grounds to prevent abuse and reapportion wealth.

      Ultimately I don’t think it is going to be possible to separate these things. Policy makers demanding Sky TV and millions starving are not disconnected. This doesn’t mean we should go in imperialist-style to remove people from power – but it does mean that we should recognise that the liberal ideology has rather a lot going for it, and is a philosophy that we should at least help others to explore.

  6. i think people like to be lead on path doesn’t matter how bad, because racism came out of very few minds and spread like a disease across world. We are not different at all, just humans have habit of wanting to group where no groups exists and develop neat categories for things that cannot be so discretely defined.

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