Cultural imperialism was one of the first terms I learned at Duke. It was an integral layer within my global health seminar, the layer reminding our class that international service is yet one more vehicle for Westernization. The concept of cultural imperialism within service work was also reflected in my conversations with other Duke students. Volunteering in Africa now seemed trite and patronizing. I became hyper-aware of how I dialogued about my passions, using words like service and development rather than “helping others.” Maybe that was the point of all the required readings on cultural imperialism in my seminar—to force me to think more critically about my international role—but I can’t help but wish there were more action and activism coupled with the increased amount of critical thinking.
Westerners are not the only people fighting for social and economic justice. Two weeks ago, Taliban members in Pakistan shot 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, a schoolgirl who was also an activist for girls’ education. In addressing the attack on Malala, a Taliban spokesman claimed his group was behind the shooting and said, “She was young but she was promoting Western culture.” Malala’s insistence on education for girls runs counter to the existing norms of her region. It’s counter to the desires of the Taliban, and maybe it’s even counter to the desires of the majority of people where she lives. By promoting girls’ education, Malala was seen as importing Westernization. In some ways, she was, since education is more prominent in developed areas of the world.
The day before Malala was shot, a 14-year-old girl in Indonesia returned to school after being raped and held captive. During the flag ceremony on the day she returned to school, a staff member referenced the situation in a speech and said that the school “could no longer accept a student that has tarnished the school’s image.” A teacher also told the young girl to pack her things and leave. The school has since apologized, but not surprisingly, the girl has not gone back to school. She is surrounded by people who degraded her for being raped.
Culture is inextricable to these stories, and I was reminded of the difficulty of acting within environments where I lack cultural competence, such as Pakistan or Indonesia. But I was also reminded of how enthusiastic I used to be about international service when I first arrived at Duke in the fall of 2009 and how hesitant I have become in the last three years. Whether I’m afraid of being a cultural imperialist, afraid others will see me as one or completely overwhelmed by the prospects of international work, I know that somehow I have become much more likely to feel disempowered when I hear stories involving people like Malala.
I’m taking the time now to remind myself how interconnected I am with people in all parts of the world. I may not understand their experiences, but that should not, and does not, exempt me from being interconnected with them. I don’t know what I want to do next year, but I’m trying to be in touch with how I think the world should be and stop apologizing for wanting to make a change. There has to be a way to not tarnish the drive toward social and economic justice, to not dub it as always a white savior complex and to improve it through practical knowledge from our Duke experiences.
In terms of going forward, I do think we should be having dialogues about cultural imperialism within service, but I don’t think we should be hesitating to act. I do want cultural traditions to remain distinct, but I don’t see a role for gender inequality, poverty or prejudice of any form within “cultural values.” There’s a separate culture that incorporates all of these pernicious facets—homophobia, rape, gender inequality, violence, racism, poverty, classism—but that’s a culture common to all regions and all countries. Our culture here at Duke doesn’t unequivocally support rape survivors. We’re bound up in systems that curtail women from being equal, whether it’s through workplace discrimination, gender roles or the lack of mentors. So when we’re fighting against this culture, whether at home or abroad, we’re not perpetuating Western dominance. Rather, we’re redefining ourselves.
Rajlakshmi De is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Rajlakshmi on Twitter @RajDe4.