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
Publishing, UK.

Ortiz F. (1995: 98) Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Duke University Press Books. Durham,
USA & London, UK

6 Comments on »Transcultural gaze: Towards lighting cultural blind spots in global society«

  1. Tapita Mfinanga says:

    It is interesting to note that we do see just how the world has become quite a small global village, due to what you term here as transculturalisation. But to me this is far from bringing the peace and coexistances we so desire. Political ambitions remain the same. The quest to dominate socially, economiclly and politically. Hence transcultural intergration for peace and serinity, to me gets lost in transition. Sad.

  2. Ulrike Tabbert says:

    Well presented thoughts and much needed in today‘s world.
    The quoted proverb carries another layer of meaning: a sense of belonging is a prerequisite for integration.

  3. Frida Vumilia Kyesi says:

    This makes me question what civilization is in the first place! According to oral knowledge, we know for sure that Africans were well organized, civil to one another able to resolve conflicts through sustained elder system and communities were run fairly without
    need for police or prisons!. That to me seems civilized enough. Sadly we will never know what would have happened if European ideas of civilization were not shoved down our throats, so rather than speculate or be bitter, let us indeed embrace our new found global village and be more respectful to each other.

  4. Regina Kessy says:

    Thank you for the input. @ Tapita Mfinanga…. Indeed the need to be better than someone, anyone, everyone; isn’t particularly helpful as peaceful cooperation gets totally lost in the process. Transculturalism is two ways; give and take, listen and be heard, respect and be respected. Most importantly understand that your “truth” ends where someone else’s “truth” start.

  5. Regina Kessy says:

    Dear Ulrike Tabbert. You are right about the belonging need. Abram Maslow did explain why in the hierarchy of need. It is important. We are social creatures and we must belong. However, this new interconnectedness is another “kettle of fish” altogether requiring that we re-learn what it is to be human and hang on to that, because diversity needs commonality….

  6. Regina Kessy says:

    Thank you Frida Vumilia Kyesi for the comment. You are right about focusing on our present challenges of the “global village”…..I touched on the historical trajectory just to show that the eye (gaze) is a result of history. As architect of meaning, the human gaze orders reality in a certain way and that is how we found ourselves in the ordered “truth” about superiour/inferiour etc etc. Now that we have technologies for interacting with each other, we simply have to learn to respect one another and do what is best for future generations and indeed the planet.

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