Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned

Posted on March 7, 1996 by
- 1 Comment

Author: Amoja Three Rivers
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #90

Racism and the racial stereotypes it spawns are so subtly interwoven into the fabric of Western society that very often, even those with the best of intentions will display bad cultural manners. This does not necessarily mean one is a bad person. Sometimes people just don’t know any better.

This guide is to help people avoid some of the obvious as well as not so obvious pitfalls of unwitting racism and anti-Semitism. This does not try to talk anyone out of being racist or anti-Semitic. Rather it seeks to help those with good and righteous intentions to refine behavior and attitudes bred in cultural ignorance.

Ethnocentrism, according to the Random House Dictionary of the English language, means “a tendency to view alien groups or cultures in terms of one’s own” and “the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own group and culture, accompanied by a feeling of contempt for other groups and cultures.”

The term “exotic,” when applied to human beings, is ethnocentric and racist. It defines people of color only as we relate to white people. It implies a state of other-ness, or foreign origin, apart from the norm. It is not a compliment.

“Ethnic” refers to nationality or race. Everyone’s nationality or race. Margaret Thatcher, Susan B. Anthony, and Bach are just as “ethnic” as Miriam Makeba, Indira Gandhi, and Johnny Colon.

While it is true that most citizens of the United States are white, at least four-fifths of the world’s population consists of people of color. Therefore, it is statistically incorrect as well as ethnocentrist to refer to us as minorities. The term “minority” is used to reinforce the idea of people of color as “other.”

Within the cultures of many people, more value is placed on relationships, and on the maintenance of tradition and spirituality than on the development and acquisition of machinery. It is ethnocentric and racist to apply words like backward, primitive, uncivilized, savage, barbaric, or undeveloped to people whose technology does not include plumbing, microwaves, and micro-chips. Are people somehow more human or more humane if they have more technological toys?

Monotheism is not more “advanced” than polytheism. It is simply another kind of spirituality, and both have equal validity. The notion of “one true god, one true faith” is often used to invalidate the ancient and complex religious traditions of millions of people.

“Fetish” is a term that means object of spiritual veneration, but in Western society, it is mainly applied to religious items of people of color in an effort to diminish their depth and importance. One never hears a crucifix referred to as a fetish, even though it basically serves the same purpose as an Acuaba or even the ancient Asherah.

Native Americans and Native American cultures are alive and thriving, thank you. In fact, you are on our land.

White people have not always been “white,” nor will they always be “white.” It is a political alliance. Things will change.

No person of color can be a racist as long as white people maintain power. This is because racism is “power over.” A person of color may have race prejudice, but until most of Congress, state, provincial, and local governments, the Pentagon, the FBI, CIA, all major industries, the Stock Exchange, Fortune 500 members, the educational system, health care system, the International Monetary Fund, the armed forces, and the police force are all operated and controlled by people of color and their cultural values, we do not have the kind of power that it takes to be racist toward anyone. Similarly, “reverse racism,” within the context of present society, is a contradiction in terms.

The media images we see of poor, miserable, starving, disease-ridden “third world” people of color are distorted and misleading. Nowhere among the tearful appeals for aid do they discuss the conditions that created and continue to create such hopeless poverty. In point of fact, these countries, even after they threw off the stranglehold of colonialism, have been subjected to a constant barrage of resource plundering, political meddling, and brutal economic manipulation by European and American interests. Most non-Western countries could function quite adequately and feed themselves quite well if they were permitted political and economic self-determination.
People do not have a hard time because of their race or cultural background. No one is attacked, abused, oppressed, pogromed upon, or enslaved because of their race, creed, or cultural background. People are attacked, abused, oppressed, pogromed upon, or enslaved because of racism and anti-Semitism! There is a subtle but important difference in the focus here. The first implies some inherent fault or shortcoming within the oppressed person or group. The second redirects the responsibility back to the real source of the problem.

The neighborhoods of urban people of color are sometimes run down because of poverty, depression, and hopelessness, and the racist behavior of banks, city planners, and government and industry. But before anyone again sighs, “There goes the neighborhood,” one should consider this: before white people invaded these lands, the air was clean, the water was pure, and the earth was unspoiled.

In 500 years of African cultures, we never had a drug problem until we were brought here.
Everyone speaks with an accent. Language is a fluid, flexible tool that naturally reflects the life and culture of the speaker, and always changes with the situation. All “accents” and “dialects” are legitimate, proper, and equal in value. Many people of color value and consciously choose to keep their “accents” because it is an affirmation of our respective cultural identities.

Just Don’t Do This, Okay?

It is not a compliment to tell someone:

“I don’t think of you as Jewish.”
” … Black.”
” … Asian.”
” … Latina.”
” … Middle Eastern”
” … Native American.”
Or, “I think of you as white.”

Do not use a Jewish person or person of color to hear your confession of past racist transgressions. If you have offended a particular person, then apologize to that person. But don’t (please don’t) just pick some person of color or Jewish person at random, or who is unrelated to the incident, to confess to and beg forgiveness from. Find a priest or a therapist.

Do not equate bad, depressing, or negative things with darkness. Observe how language reflects racism:

a black mood
a dark day
a black heart.

The meaning of the word “denigrate” is to demean by darkening. Be creative. There’s thousands of adjectives in the English language that do not equate evil with the way people of color look. How about instead of “the pot calling the kettle black,” you say, “the pus calling the maggot white”? Think of and use positive dark and black imagery. Dark can be rich and deep and cool and sweet.
As an exercise, pretend you are from another planet and you want examples of typical human beings for your photo album. Having never heard of racism, you’d probably pick someone who represents the majority of the people on the planet: an Asian woman.

It is not “racism in reverse” or “segregation” for Jews or people of color to come together in affinity groups for mutual support. Sometimes we need some time and space apart from the dominant group just to relax and be ourselves. It’s like family time. Most of the U.S.A. is white and gentile with white, gentile rules and values prevailing. Sometimes we need to be in control of our own space, time, and values, to shape our own reality or turf. Sometimes we need to be alone to commiserate with each other about racism and anti-Semitism, and to formulate plans and strategies for dealing with it. Sometimes we need time and space to explore who we are, free from outsider definitions, influences, and ethnocentric imagery. Sometimes we just need an environment that is totally free from even the possibility of racism and anti-Semitism. So when you see: “Native American Conference,” “Jewish Caucus,” “Womyn of Color Tent” … please know that we are not being against anybody by being for ourselves.

The various cultures of people of color often seem very attractive to white people. (Yes, we are wonderful, we can’t deny it.) But white people should not make a playground out of other people’s cultures. We are not quaint. We are not exotic. We are not cool. Our music, art, and spiritualities are but small, isolated parts of integrated and meaningful ancient traditions. They were developed within each group, for that group, by the deities and teachers of that group, according to their own particular conditions and connections to the cosmos, and their own particular histories and philosophies. In addition, our cultural expressions carry all the pain, joy, bitterness, and hope that reflect our lives and our struggles in dealing with so-called Western civilization. While most philosophies can have universal application, it has been the habit of many non-people of color to select unconnected pieces of our cultures for fads and fashion, taking them totally out of context and robbing them of all meaning and power.

It’s like we take all the beautiful old things from our own cultures. And we take the shit and blood and pain that whites have heaped upon us too,

And we deal with all of that,
Mix it up,
Compost it,
Plow it under,
Work the soil,
Pull the weeds,
Nurture the seedlings,
And finally
Here it is, our garden
These fruits,
These songs and dances,
These visions.
Then here YOU come,
Fresh from the Big House,
Having neither sowed nor plowed
But fully expecting to reap.

Now it is perfectly natural for human beings to share and blend cultures, but let us face a hard reality: 20th century white society is culturally addicted to exploitation. Cultivate an awareness of your own personal motivations. Do not simply take and consume. If you are white and you find yourself drawn to Native American spirituality, Middle Eastern religion, African drumming, Asian philosophies, or Latin rhythms, make an effort to maintain some kind of balance. Don’t just learn the fun and exciting things about us and then go home to your safe, isolated, white, privileged life. Learn about the history of the people whose culture you’re dabbling in. Learn how our history relates to your own, how your privilege connects and contributes to our oppression and exploitation. And most importantly, make it a fair exchange–give something back.

If you want to pick the fruit, then carry some manure and plow some fields. Give your land back to the Indians and the Mexicans. Make reparations to the Africans. Work for Native peoples’ autonomy and Puerto Rican independence. Send relief money to Middle Eastern and Asian disaster victims. Lobby Congress for fair immigration laws. Provide rides for Elders of color or single mothers who need to get to the market. Quietly contribute money to the African National Congress, Akwe sasne Notes,   and LaRaza. Then take your drum lesson and your dance class. Then burn your sage and cedar.

Sometimes white people who are drawn to other people’s cultures are hungry for a way of life with more depth and meaning than what we find in 20th-century Western society. Don’t forget that every white person alive today is also descended from tribal peoples. If you are white, don’t neglect your own ancient traditions. They are as valid as anybody else’s, and the ways of your own ancestors need to be honored, remembered, and carried on into the future.

“Race” is an arbitrary and meaningless concept. Races among humans don’t exist. If there ever was such a thing as race (which there isn’t), there has been so much constant criss-crossing of genes for the last 500,000 years, that it would have lost all meaning anyway. There are no real divisions between us, only a continuum of variations that constantly change, as we come together and separate according to the flow and movement of human populations.

Excerpted with permission from  Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the
Well-Intentioned, Amoja Three Rivers. Market Wimmin, 1991. Pb., 28 pgs.
Available for $6 from Market Wimmin, P.O. Box 12, Gladstone VA 24553, USA.

One Reply to “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned”


It’s an interesting article. A ‘dark day’or a ‘black heart’ does NOT in any way reflect racism. Think about the weight of a truly dark day – when the sun can not be seen and the sky is heavy with clouds. It is the feeling of a dark day that is related to the saying ‘dark day’. It has nothing to do with racism. Also, a black heart is not associated with the hearts of Black people, it is associated with a heart that is not exactly healthy – in other words, dying tissue. As for ‘the pot calling the kettle black’- it has nothing to do with black skin. It has to do with sitting on a fire and getting black with soot. A good pot and a good kettle – in the day when this saying came to life – was black. It means you should not criticize if you are exactly like the thing you are criticizing. I agree, we do use language in a way that promotes racism and sexism. However, these examples are not good examples of that. Using them only confuses the issue.

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