Transcultural gaze: Towards lighting cultural blind spots in global society
by Regina Kessy.
Our guest author Dr. Regina Kessy writes about the prejudices we still have when encountering foreigners – thereby especially focusing on the African continent and its historical framework – and about the need of a “transcultural gaze”, ensuring transcultural awareness and open-mindedness in today’s interconnected world.
“If the young are not initiated into the tribe, they will burn down the village just to feel its warmth.”
(An African Proverb)
We live in an interconnected world but our understanding of each other is still distorted by preconceived knowledge created through the differentiating ethnocentric gaze of “Us” and “Them.” Homogenous cultures are slowly becoming a thing of the past giving way to more complex societies where human interactions must seek to embrace and reflect unifying human values for peaceful coexistence. Our bewildering situation evokes the historical time when Fernando Ortiz coined the term “transculturation” to describe the cultural dynamics in Cuba when multiple cultures shared the same geographical space at the same time with each culture “always exerting influence and being influenced in turn.”
This short essay argues that a “transcultural gaze” as a way of knowing and being can function as a universal human virtue that will enable us to navigate the over-information labyrinth with all the cultural blind spots that cause disharmony and disrespect amongst individuals, groups and nations.
The cultural blindness of the past allowed one culture to define and discredit another by using extremely negative differentiating paradigms. Understandably, this was a result of the very limited “ethnocentric gaze,” because cultures were still homogenous, largely because of restricted technology of transport and information. This was the time when the few European travellers who managed to reach the African continent described it as the “Dark Continent” totally overlooking what the local people knew or thought. To them Africa was in total darkness; socially, culturally and intellectually and it was up to them to shed the light of civilization upon it. The civilization discourse constructed enduring myths about many cultural others who were often described as “beasts,” “savages” and at best “primitives.” Brantlinger (1985) writes that “at the time, reporting about the “Dark Continent” back in Europe created excitements that can be likened to space exploration today.”
A transcultural gaze about phenomena we know nothing about can actually result in useful categorizations and functional stereotyping, which can help in dealing with cultural others. Nineteenth century Swahili ancestors in Tanzania for instance fondly described the white European explorers as wazungukaji (wanderers) because they seemed to be travelling about a lot. Although a form of caricaturing into “Us” and “Them” the word did not carry any negative connotation, instead it was a descriptive verb about what the white visitors were doing. Today in spoken Kiswahili the word is a noun for Caucasians Wazungu (plural) or Mzungu (singular) in a most positive manner, which explains why Wazungus are never offended when local people with big smiles address them as such. This simple cross-cultural encounter demonstrates how meaning can safely be created and sustained if the “gaze” of the observer is not clouded by negative prejudices about cultural other, instead uses wisdom, rationality and empathy.
Regarding what black African think of themselves, the late academic and political writer Ali Mazrui notes that, “one of the paradoxes of history is that it took Africa’s contact with the Arab world to make the Black people of Africa realize that they were black in description, but not necessarily in status. The term ‘Sudan,’ meaning ‘the Black ones,’ carries no pejorative implications. That is why Africa’s largest country in territory (capital Khartoum) still proudly calls itself ‘Sudan.’ In a European language one cannot imagine an African country calling itself today ‘Black Land,’ let alone ‘Negrostan,’ as the name of a modern state. On the other hand, it took European conceptualization and cartography to turn Africa into a continent. To Europeans, ‘black’ was not merely descriptive; it was judgmental. Whilst Arabs alerted the people of Africa that they were black, the Europeans tried to convince black people that they were inferior.”
The proverb above captures the need for an enlightened and compassionate framework for being, knowing and interacting in today’s world. A transcultural gaze will allow individuals to respectfully acknowledge human differences whilst embracing shared values. The methodology lies in ensuring that transcultural awareness penetrates consciousness particularly in young-adults. This will improve not only their self-esteem and well-being but globally, it will help build more empathic and prosperous societies.
Brantlinger, P. (1985) Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent.
Critical Inquiry, Vol 12(1) pp166-203)
Mazrui, A. A. (2014: 277-278). African Thought in comparative Perspective. Cambridge Scholars
Ortiz F. (1995: 98) Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Duke University Press Books. Durham,
USA & London, UK
»There can be no culture except where there is some consensus. Consensus is a matter of understanding. It is transmitted through communication, through example and through participation in a common life.«