Wednesday, 27 April 2011

when in rome... do whatever you damn well please!

as a member of a cultural & religious minority group, one of the statement that completely and totally annoys the heck out of me* is the phrase "when in rome, do like the romans". the purpose of this phrase is to try to eliminate all difference, especially difference practiced by persons of colour. it's the cry of the fearful: "be like us, we don't want to have to deal with something we aren't familiar with; we're too lazy to adjust; it's your own fault for being different so you should do all the work required to change; and you're in OUR country, geddit, it's OUR country & you have to do what WE say."

the false premise underlying "when in rome etc" is this: if only you behaved more like us, we would love you and treat you exactly like one of us. when the only difference remaining is your skin colour, which you can't help**, then you will no longer face any kind of discrimination. lose your accent, lose that clothing, lose the smelly food, and YOU WILL BELONG.

this is a false premise because the people who believe in the "when in rome" doctrine have no intention of liking or treating certain people as equals. because people who do everything right & try to fit in still face problems, still get excluded. they are still "them" and "migrants" and other.

more than that, it nicely puts the responsibility for discrimination back on the discriminated. it is one of the most blatant forms of victim blaming i've seen. the people who blithely spit out this line can then comfortably go on being arrogant and hateful while smugly knowing they are completely in the right.

i recognise that one of the reasons behind this attitude is a fear of losing the local culture. but why? it's not like you aren't in the majority. it's not like you don't hold the positions of power and influence. it's not like you don't have the greatest public voice. and if one day you aren't in the majority any more, then according to your own beliefs, you don't have the right to cultural dominance any more. hopefully, when you're in the minority (around 2025 or so?), the new majority will have gone way past the "when in rome" thing, and will be happy for you to live, dress, pray & eat the way you want.

and what happens when the person you are directing the whole "when in rome" thing at is actually one of the romans? like me, for example. i'm one of the romans, so that surely means you're going to change your ways to become more like me? right?? ooohhh, of course not. cos i'm still in the minority therefore i must still be wrong.

in which case, let's break down each one of your cultural beliefs and practices. let's examine them one by one. and if any one of them fails to fall within the definition of what the "majority" does, then you will definitely stop doing that thing, right? right?? we're all going to wear the same types of clothing, and worship in the same way (too bad atheists, christians are in the majority), and eat meat & 2 veg for dinner (no more thai green curry, mate, that's not OUR traditional food) & a mince pie for lunch. majority rules, yippee, and we will live according to the weekly opinion polls on matters cultural, so that we will all know what is the appropriate way to be. it'll be a wonderful life. why don't you believe me?

or maybe you're going to pull the length-of-time-in-nz line. the one which starts with "well, i was BORN here" and keeps going with "and so were my parents and grand-parents [etc etc, as applies to your family situation]. this makes me MORE of a nz'er than you; it's means i have the greater entitlement than you and i get to tell you what to do, because YOU are in MY country. that means YOU'RE still the one that has to change".

i love it when people pull that one. because, people who pull the length-of-time argument do surely forget that there are a brown-skinned people who will totally win that one. so, i say sweetly, if it's length-of-time that makes you more of a nz'er than me, then surely you support the schools all switching to te reo for the full curriculum? you're totally willing to change and adopt tikanga, cos they are surely more nz'er than you could ever be, right?? right??? i thought not.

and finally, if you're really going to invoke romans, have you read about how the romans behaved when they went to other countries? do you know any history at all? because if those who migrate to this country behave like the romans did when they migrated, your goose is surely cooked. be careful what you ask for.

*i had to work really hard not to use swear words there, and only did so because i don't want filters to block the blog for those who are forced to have them. so just imagine a whole lot of f-itty-f words replacing what's there.

**well, actually you could help, if you would only take the time & trouble to invest in bleaching treatments, you lazy lot. michael jackson could do it, why can't you?


katy said...

If we are talking about local examples of xenophobia/impatience with difference, the one that constantly shocks me is the accent thing; there seems to be an amazing lack of tolerance in this country for different accents and different ways of speaking English.

The ex-expat said...

I always love when people assume that people who weren't born in New Zealand are 'asian'... because if recall correctly Britain was still our number one source of immigrants!

Deborah said...

I've always read 'when in rome' as an injunction to be polite and fit in with other people when I'm in their place. Literally, if I go to Rome, I shouldn't expect to eat vegemite and weetbix.

But I'm white, so I've never had to hear it any other way.

stargazer said...

@ katy: there's a very cool video done by office of ethnic affairs re accents, i'll try to find it tomorrow if i get the time.

@ ex-expat: so true. heaps of ethnic indians are british, for example. also like jax from masterchef - for some reason i expect her to have a jamaican accent. the conditioning is deep.

@ deborah: it's very often used re headscarves & burqa's, as well as other minority practices, and definitely has the underlying meaning of giving up your beliefs/culture because you're in someone else's country (ie you will never be considered a part of the country you happen to be living in, and you are rude & ungrateful when you don't conform).

Psycho Milt said...

I lived for a few years in a conservative Muslim country, and damned if I was going to do what the Romans do - much of which struck me as pointless, stupid or obnoxious. The "Romans" didn't seem to have any difficulty grasping the concept that Westerners living in their country didn't feel an obligation to go native. Hard to see why people coming to living here would feel any differently.

Deborah said...

Yes, I absolutely see that it gets used as a tool to bludgeon people from minority groups. And rather nastily so. It's of a piece with plaintive cries of, "Why can't we all just be New Zealanders" What the speaker means is that everyone should be New Zealanders just like him. Or her.

Hugh said...

The difference is Milt, when you were in a conservative muslim country and proudly practicing your western culture, you had the weight of western cultural hegemony assisting you in your little act of rebellious defiance.

Coley said...

I had only ever heard 'When in Rome', used as an invitation or excuse to join in on something a bit decadant. Like if you've gone on holiday and everyone is having cocktails at 11am, the 'When in Rome' rule applies.

The fact that as a white woman I have never heard it used in a racially-specific way, let alone a xenophobic way, just speaks to my priviledge. Thanks for the eye-opening analysis.

Psycho Milt said...

There are many countries in which the "weight of Western cultural hegemony" can feel somewhat lacking in heft. In any case, wearing your own culture's clothing, eating its food and speaking its language are not "little acts of rebellious defiance," they're just you living your life.

homepaddock said...

Like Deborah I've always seen this as a request to respect the culture of my hosts. It's good manners to do so.

But respect and good manners are two-way streets.

Hugh said...

"There are many countries in which the "weight of Western cultural hegemony" can feel somewhat lacking in heft."

Privileged guy denies he is privileged.

Well, that's a surprise.

Psycho Milt said...

Blog commenter doesn't know what "privilege" means - big surprise.

I was indeed extremely privileged in that country. For instance, my employer didn't get to confiscate my passport, had to actually pay me the wages it owed me, and so on. Those definitely were immunities granted due to political power or wealth, ie privilege. However, that privilege was relative only to other, non-Western expats. Relative to local citizens I had the opposite of privileges - no possibility of permanent residence or citizenship, no right to own land, employment only through a local sponsor, etc etc.

I know wet liberals like to biff the word "privilege" around as a synonym for "white with money and an education," but they really aren't synonyms.

Hugh said...

"I know wet liberals like to biff the word "privilege" around as a synonym for "white with money and an education," but they really aren't synonyms."


And please don't call me a 'liberal'.

stargazer said...

@ ele: perhaps you missed the bit in my post where i mentioned that i am one of the hosts? which means that i have equal rights to every other citizen to determine what the host culture is and will be. what would be polite is if people would recognise that the "hosts" in this country are not just white and christian, and they never have been. and that there isn't one standard culture that every single person in the country adheres to. in fact, i'd suggest that you just actually read my post, because it doesn't sound like you have read it.

Psycho Milt said...

Thanks for the links. Apart from the fact that the authors seem to regard receiving ordinary respect from your fellow citizens as some kind of unearned special benefit to which we have no natural right, there's the fact that they're writing for the US; I was in a country in which I was the minority and many of the locals have no love for my culture. Here in NZ, we do both have what wet liberals term "privilege" - there, things aren't so clear-cut for Whitey.

Back to the actual topic of the post: I wrote that I lived in a country in which I was of a minority culture, had no interest in going native, and the locals didn't make a big fuss about it - so there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to manage the same thing here.

You seem to have taken offence at that. I can't see why, unless you're trying to say Stargazer should shut up and follow local customs.

Hugh said...

Jesus Milt, strawman much?

I have not "taken offense", much as I'm sure the image of me fuming away in incoherent rage at my keyboard makes you feel smugly superior. What I'm doing is pointing out a flaw in your argument. Basically what I am saying is that the global structure of white privilege makes the experience of being a white person in a majority coloured state very different to the experience of being a coloured person in a majority white state. Your argument seems to be that white privilege doesn't exist. If that's your argument, then I guess we really don't have enough common ground to engage, but I hope others take note of your position on this issue because it may well make future statements from you make a lot more sense.

Psycho Milt said...

Blogger ate my response, the way it do. Short version:

1. Spend a few years in a conservative Gulf state, then feel free to preach to me about it.

2. I object to misuse of the word "privilege," not the concept that middle class Whitey like us have it pretty damn easy compared to a lot of other people.

katy said...

I am with Milt in that I think there is a distinction to be made between the "weight of western cultural hegemony", which is obviously there, and the reality of being a NZ worker in countries where as an individual the locals have very little interest in you and you have very little power. If you want to feel guilty then the angle I would take is that even though your work might be crap and the conditions of living quite insecure (3 month working visas anyone = absolutely disposable labour except you don't just lose your job you lose the right to even live there, very unlikely that you would run around asserting controversial cultural practices) having international mobility at all is something denied to huge numbers of our fellow humans and which as a NZer I am constantly thankful for.

Hugh said...

Katy and Milt, you appear to be under the misconception I don't have any experience living in a country where I'm a minority because I'm white. That isn't the case. Clearly my experience is very different to yours, so I don't think this is a case of "uninformed vs informed".

And Milt, if you object to the word "privilege" but not the idea that white people have it easier because they're white, isn't that just semantics?

Psycho Milt said...

Semantics is the meanings of words, so I never have any problem with something being just semantics.

Looking through that "white privilege" checklist, I see a number of items that are ordinary, unavoidable consequences of being part of a minority culture regardless of what colour you are (and which can therefore be disregarded) and a number that consist of outright racism. I don't see "privilege" there - the respect of your fellow citizens isn't a privilege, it's a right.

Likewise, if we enjoy a higher standard of living than some other group, calling it "privilege" implies we should be stripped of said unearned, undeserved extra benefits and subjected to the same hardships they are - a concept for which linguists might use the technical term "arse about face." The issue is not one group being privileged, but another group being deprived.

Hugh said...

The idea that the things minorities go through are "Unavoidable" is, well, a very privileged thing to say. This is the first excuse of the privileged when confronted with their privilege - "That's not anybody's fault, it's just the way the world works, we all have to deal. And when I say we, I mean you, mr-minority-person".

But really I'm kind of sick of, and not very good at, educating you on this point, which is sociology 101. I will say again that if you don't believe privilege exists you are going to find a lot of posts on this blog very confusing, but that's your lookout. I'm going to decline to comment on this any further. Feel free to call me a coward and declare victory if that's what lights your ring. Kia kaha.

Psycho Milt said...

Trying to persuade someone an error you're making isn't actually an error doesn't constitute educating them.

As mentioned above, I'm familiar with what wet liberals intend "privilege" to mean and don't deny that we have it a lot better than a lot of other people, not through merit but courtesy of being in the dominant culture. However, calling
the respect of your fellow citizens a "privilege" is a terrible misuse of the word privilege and you should all stop doing it.

In this case, you've tried to declare my point of view invalid and when called on it, issued the term "privilege" as though it were some kind of trump card, rather than a lazy insult favoured by people who've done Soc101. Yes I do find that annoying and yes I am going to have the last word on it, unless the blog owner does.

katy said...

Hugh, what I was talking about wasn't about the day-to-day experience of being white/western in a place where most people aren't but how institutions, in particular, those around immigration are a better measure. If you have worked abroad the you will know that your working visa is almighty so strict working visas that are of a short duration or that are linked to particular jobs are an example of how white western privilege can seem pretty irrelevant (while acknowledging that your experience at the immigration office is likely to be more positive if you are a young NZer than an elderly Ghanian.

Giarne said...

Assimilation pressure is really tough to deal with. I even felt it between Australia and NZ. I was born in ChCh, moved to Aussie when I was 6yrs and came back to ChCh at 25yrs.

What I witnessed in media and on the streets around assimilation was a really sad indictment of colonisation. Mostly the assimilation was about aborigines, luckily the suburb I lived in through schooling was sooo diverse and fairly tolerant but there was a bit of tension with the asian and jewish population which I noticed later on.

I worry about how my children will grow up in ChCh which I see to be very white middle class and conservative when it comes to culture. There is far more overt racism and assimilation pressure here in NZ than in Australia with cultures other than indigenous cultures.

I used to feel proud about the way NZ had dealt with Maori but I realise that this was not and is not the case.

If we (Aust and NZ) can't come to terms and start resolving the way colonists dealt with our indigenous populations then the signs aren't great for us being able to be truly tolerant of other cultures.

Maybe "when in rome" isn't always intended to make people feel like they don't fit in but sometimes that really is the intention.

Anonymous said...

I've always used the phrase as an excuse to do something that I wouldn't be able to do in my home culture.

I've used the phrase in a caption for a photograph I took while walking along the train tracks in Sri Lanka.