I want to talk a bit about cultural relativism: what it’s used as shorthand for, what it’s useful for, and what it actually means. I’m going to talk specifically about how this plays out in conversations in white people-dominated Western contexts. Let’s lay some groundwork, shall we?
Let’s take my culture, where I’m going to take the example of women’s work in the home to illustrate what I’m talking about. I’m not using this example in order to examine white Western feminist critiques of how this plays out in my culture; critiques tend to focus on other elements of my culture that these feminists identify as misogynistic, and so I don’t think they ever quite reach this stage! Rather, I’m using it for reasons that will become evident shortly. So, in my culture, very generally speaking, women traditionally work inside the home, cleaning and cooking and raising the children and such. This is not strictly accurate – there are lots of ways in which the way I’ve constructed it doesn’t work considering class and historical change and all sorts of things, but a simplistic construction like that is what is going to work for us for this exercise, because it is those kinds of simplistic constructions that dominate white Western feminist thought about “other cultures”.
So. Is this misogynistic? Undoubtedly, especially given that men have a wider range of options for careers. But wait, you say. Chally is speaking of ‘careers’ and ‘women’s work.’ Is this simply feministspeak, Western feminist advocacy of what is in white-dominated Western cultures considered traditional women’s tasks? No, readers, this is not the case. For you see, in my culture, women’s work in the home, housework and nursing the babies and that manner of activity, is and has been considered work. Hard work, honourable work, work to be admired by the entire community. Work that guarantees women who run households a respected social place. Because that is what I am getting at: “women’s work” is highly valued in my culture. (This valuation, mark you, is just one way in which my culture’s ideas around women’s work are different to Western valuations.)
However, in the West, this work has been, and to a great extent is still not, considered real work. And whether because it’s seen as women’s work so it’s low status, or because it’s low status so it’s assigned as women’s work, the upshot is that Western women’s work in the home is low status, and so part of feminist work is a) expanding opportunities for women outside the home b) bolstering the status of women’s work in the home. Now, it’d be tempting for feminists of that context to read women of my culture experiencing the exact same thing. Sure, women of both – all of these – contexts are experiencing misogyny when they are relegated to the home. But they are experiencing it in fundamentally different ways.
Let’s keep that lens back on white-dominated Western cultures. Let’s take the idea of sexuality as dirty. What even is that? How can you construct something so wonderful and pleasurable and revelatory as shameful, dirty, disgusting? I find expressions such as ‘you’ve got a dirty mind,’ to be very, very jarring. Why, in Western cultures, are women traditionally tied to the body, constructed as either vessels for male sexuality or threatening sexual gluttons? How can the people of these contexts who are sexual live with themselves when they are brought up with these notions, in comparison to the rich and joyous and celebratory attitudes my culture has around sexuality?
Well, that’s the thing. This argument reads as totally ridiculous because it is. It presents these perceptions as applying universally across Western contexts, conflates a lot of historical contexts, uses a few examples to present a negative picture of sexuality and presents a small part of the picture as a whole. Not only does this argument do very little to describe the myriad sexualities of white and Western people, but it totally shrugs off the idea that they might have any agency, might construct their cultures’ notions of sexuality differently, might be exploring and interrogating and intervening in what they find problematic for themselves.
Sound familiar? That is the denial of agency, refusal to recognise cultural flow and change, shrinking, misrepresentative treatment white Westerners engage in against people like me and cultures like mine all the time. This dismissive, disempowering insistence on framing cultures outside white-dominated Western contexts on the terms of the latter. It’s treatment people of those contexts are meant to swallow where white Westerners never would.
I so resent being thought of as meek and powerless because I belong to my culture. I work pretty hard to hold on to my culture, to engage with it, despite the white Western forces that are and have been invested in tearing it down and making me assimilate. Moving towards Western ways of doing doesn’t spell enlightened feminist freedom for me, it spells O-P-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N.
Condemning people’s cultures as bad through the framework of the dominant culture makes me see red like little else. Positioning that which white Westerners do as the moral standard, as the landmark in navigating social justice, shits me to tears. You can’t relate across cultural difference if you’re taking the socially dominant ways of thought as your baseline. We don’t all run our lives relative to Western paradigms, and we don’t exist for your lot to judge yourselves relatively enlightened.