Understanding self to understand others


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 Read course content and assigned core readings provided below
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Introductory video

Core readings

Austin, J. (2005).  Identity and Identity Formation.  Prepublication manuscript

Understanding our own culture to understand 'others'

If you’ve worked through the previous module on Culture, you will appreciate that culture is an all-pervasive function of human activity, regardless of geographic location, ethnicity, age, or any of the plethora of aspects that make up human societies. One of the aspects of culture that has become increasingly important, and therefore far more intensely researched or investigated, is that of dominant and subordinate relationships between cultures. It is important to realise that whilst this material talks about cultures as if it is possible to clearly identify and contain specific cultures as if there are certain homogeneities or commonalities that allow distinctive cultures to be identified and named, each person experiences culture in their own idiosyncratic way. That is, despite the need for the purposes of this module to talk about cultures as if they are internally consistent, by no means is this the case in the lived experience of people. For example, to talk about Greek culture or Indigenous culture is to perpetuate a very serious error in understanding the fluid and relational aspect of what constitutes culture. However, for the purposes of this module, we will work with this sense of broadly monolithic or homogenous cultures.

To say that every person has ‘culture’ potentially casts the individual and their communities as passive recipients and carriers of culture.  This perspective ignores the very important fact that we all also create (and re-create) or construct (and re-construct) culture through the very practices of everyday living.  As Paulo Freire pointed out, culture is made by people, and can therefore be remade by people to better serve their emerging needs and purposes. In other words, being ‘cultured’ is a continuously active process, and forms the basis for what we might see as the ongoing development of identity, as well as social change.

Once we understand that everyone has ‘culture’ and that this is not just the  province of those who would seem to be culturally different or Other to us, then the focus of areas of study such as anthropology, history, and sociology in particular broaden considerably to include the culture of those undertaking the enquiry. This has not always been the case. By way of example, anthropology grew as a discipline that had as its core purpose to make the seemingly strange cultures of Others understandable to those of Western European backgrounds. In its early days, anthropologists undertook extensive fieldwork in ‘exotic’ locations, attempting to understand the strangeness that they found (or created) there. 

Abel and Calabresi, in Oscar Lewis’s 1951 book, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied, acknowledged that “there are limitations in the effectiveness of interpreting material from a cultural group with which we are but slightly familiar and to which we have not been directly exposed” (p. 307).  It is important to note that the ‘strangeness’ of the studied community or society was strange only from the point of view of the anthropologists – those who inhabited and created the culture being studied experienced such ‘strangeness’ as normal and it was the anthropologists, with their unusual ways, looks and technologies, who were strange. The eye of the beholder, indeed!

The Gaze

Because we live the large part of our lives within our own primary or home culture, because that culture is the one that we have been born into educated regarding and live on a daily basis, each of our own ways of living or being or knowing seem to us to be 'the way things are'. That is, our own cultural perspective seems to be the right, proper, or the way people should aspire and be helped to live. This is because we have grown up and been acculturated into a way of living that we see almost daily as universal or applicable to everyone.  Our way is the best way. Those for whom a different cultural context is the norm similarly see the world from that different cultural perspective. the end result is that each of us sees, interprets, and labels cultures other than hours in a particular way whilst at the same time reinforcing views of the acceptability of our own culture. This process might be simply represented thus:

The Gaze Diagram

This diagram attempts to represent a complex process in a graphical way. In it, there are two cultures – blue and pink – that are in some relationship with each other. That is, each is aware of the other's existence, has had some limited experience with that other culture and each tries to make sense of the other relative to its own standards of right and wrong, normal and deviant, acceptable and unacceptable, et cetera. The process whereby members of one culture come to observe or in some way try to determine the features of another culture is sometimes called the Gaze. Whilst this term suggests a purely visual process, clearly there are many other sense-based ways in which we come to know about or experience the culture of others – think music and speech (hearing), food (taste and smell), clothing (touch).

In this diagram, neither of the cultures is clearly bounded or impenetrable. The dotted line boundary around each of the main cultural circles this is meant to suggest the fact that no culture is unchanging or impenetrable. The location of the gazing arrows is also important to notice. Both the right-looking and the left -looking arrows start from deep within the blue and the pink circle, that is from deep within the culture doing the looking. However, each arrow only marginally pierces the current boundaries of the other culture, the culture being looked at. This is meant to suggest that the initial gaze is often largely purely superficial or a first encounter with the other culture and thereby not a deeply experienced and understood encounter with that culture.

What is the impact of the gaze? Not only do the formal and informal processes that constitute "gazing" lead to the collection of knowledge about another culture, they also have significantly important impacts upon the culture doing the looking. In the diagram above, those cultural workers from within Pink culture will contribute to the ongoing process of developing 'knowledge' or ‘the truth’ (and this is a very contested term in this sense) about Blue culture. The promulgation of such information and purported understandings need to be made available to the broader membership of Pink culture. This was the role of the early anthropologists, as mentioned above, and remains a core purpose of ethnographic research today. This continual addition to knowledge about Blue culture is represented by the small blue circle flowing out of the Pink culture circle. In other words, as Pink culture’s understanding of Blue culture spreads through Pink culture, broader community understandings and perspectives on Blue culture become embedded and seen as 'the truth' about Blue culture.

At the same time, as members of Pink culture come to understand and ‘know’ other cultures in the world, Pink culture's view of itself is also impacted upon. Comparisons between what is seen to be the essence of Pink culture are formally and subconsciously culturally compared with those of Blue culture, and typically those comparisons will favour the culture doing the comparison – in this case, Pink culture.

Such a constant comparative process, we would argue, is a constant one engaged in by all cultural groups at all times. In many ways, this is what the so-called culture industry has as its central educative or public pedagogical purpose: to reflect back to the home culture images of its own essence and worth whilst at the same time presenting comparative ideas and images about those who are different.

In summary, the process of coming to understand Others is one that involves two very distinctly connected developmental characteristics – one, coming to know something about the Other and the second, a process of maintaining or challenging what the gazing culture understands of itself.

As you might imagine, this is clearly the basis for a fairly universal facet of all cultures, racism. (Perhaps this term should be more appropriately called culturism). All cultures utilise forms of intellectual abstractions and cultural shorthand to try to capture the infinitely complex aspects of cultures other than their own. Invariably, such reductionisms lead to overly-simplistic, stereotypic, and practices regarding other cultures that are frequently discriminatory and detrimental.

Hegemony and Cultural domination

At various times, and for various reasons, some cultures will become more powerful, influential, in thereby dominating than others. Sometimes this occurs where the ratio of dominant to subordinate numbers would suggest this to be an impossibility. By way of an historical but still highly relevant example, we could look at the common aspects of European colonisation over the last few centuries. How, it might be asked, could numerically minute numbers of European colonisers/invaders/settlers manage to subdue whole continents of people and cultures? This is a very complex question, and is beyond the scope of this module to explore in detail. However, there is a very important term that needs to be drawn out of this type of consideration: hegemony.

In almost all cases of colonisation, the initial point of conflict and engagement is force-based – physical battles utilising what French sociologist Louis Althusser called "repressive state apparatuses" (1971), those forms of domination and control that result from forms of explicit violence enacted by military, police, judicial and prison systems and the like. The second phase of domination works more on the level of ideas and beliefs, what Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses – education, cultural extinguishment, religion, etc.

The success of the operation of such processes, from a coloniser point-of-view, is clearly evident around the world. But there is an important point to be drawn out here: why do those large numbers of people and cultures under domination persist in such a subordinate position, and more often than not, end up embracing the culture of the coloniser or dominator and all that entails at the expense of their own home culture? This is where the idea of hegemony it is important to understand.

One of the most commonly referenced writers on this concept is Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist who, while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy from1928 until his death in 1937, wrote over 30 what became known as Prison Notebooks. One of the several significant philosophical and sociological concepts he explored in those notebooks was that of hegemony –the cultural, moral and ideological leadership of a group over allied and subaltern groups (1971). In a very basic sense, hegemony is the process whereby dominant groups secure the consent of the dominated to their own domination and managed to retained their dominance by virtue of having the dominated see the relationship between dominant and sub-ordinate cultures as “commonsensical” or “natural”. It is from this point of understanding that we need to consider our own location within these relationships of dominance.

Turning the Gaze back onto ourselves

For those from a White cultural background, this means looking at how that position privileges us – that is, turning the Gaze this time back upon ourselves in order to try to understand how our cultural location(s) set us up for benefit or advantage, and how our particular ways of seeing and making sense of the world influences the way we see, position and treat Others.

Turning The Gaze Diagram

This relatively recent concern has spawned a whole new and very intense field of research and philosophy termed Whiteness studies. A very good example of such concrete inquiry into what Whiteness and being identified as White means to White people (and others) Is provided by Peggy McIntosh through a brilliant idea of what she termed “unpacking the invisible knapsack of privilege” that those of us identifying and identified by others as White carry around (metaphorically). A list of the types of things she ‘found’ in her knapsack, once she started to closely look, can be found at

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Watch this short video clip of Peggy McIntosh explaining how she came to start thinking about how she became conscious of her particular “knapsack”

Through more focussed attention to the typically invisible culture of Whiteness, the myriad ways in which the (currently) dominant group is itself “cultured” has become far more confronting to many of that cultural group – think of the Whiteness ‘wars’ currently being waged within many White Western nations between (so-called) White supremacists and their opponents.

bell hooks (she deliberately uses lower case letters for her name) in challenging white theorists to turn the critical gaze upon their own ethnicity opens up the importance of understanding two aspects of identity and identifying with a particular cultural group:

One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness.  It would be just so interesting for all those white folks who are giving blacks their take on blackness to let them know what’s going on with whiteness. (1990, p.54, emphasis added)

The whole question of belonging to a particular cultural group revolves around two important aspects of identity. One of these is the identity and identification we claim for ourselves: we self-identify as white Australian, Anglo-Australian, Indigenous Australian, and so forth. But, as the discussion about the operation of the Gaze above exposes, we are also identified BY others as well. Whilst we see ourselves in particular ways, others see us in ways that might sometimes fit with those ways or, at least as frequently, differ considerably from how we see ourselves. What is important here is that it is the power of the dominant group, through its hegemonic direction of views of community members, to be able to formulate a view of Self and Others that is so powerful and embedded so deeply within the dominant culture that these views become universalised – they become ‘commonsensical’  ‘natural’ statements about just the way people are.  In the hooks’  quote above, she suggests that it might be time or ‘white folks’ to stop focusing exclusively on how they see ‘blacks’  and start to tell the world a little bit more about how they also see ‘whiteness’.

So what does this all mean for multicultural education?

In order to be able to approach the question of the appropriate ways to deal with multiple cultures through education, we need to be very determined to include the dominant culture as one of those cultures being investigated. In other words, a genuine multicultural education in contemporary Australian society must, of necessity, focus on white culture and its impact as well as on non-white or subordinate cultures.  Examples of the types of things such a focus might include in an education sense would be to look at the ways in which whiteness is normalised – how whiteness is conflated with ‘human nature’ – and how this renders those who don’t share the characteristics of white culture as being deviant from a norm. Unfortunately, this is the most common approach and outcome of much that passes as multicultural or cultural diversity education at present – the view of cultural difference as cultural deficit or cultural deviance (deviance here meaning deviating from the White norm).  An interrogation of the ways in which white culture re-embeds and reasserts its superiority over other cultures and similarly the commensurate inferiority or subordination of other cultures to such superiority can be seen as a necessary starting point in the development of any genuinely culturally aware and respectful person. In other words, it is essential to understand Self in order to more genuinely understand Others.

Richard Dyer’s book White  (1997) opens with the following paragraph:

Racial imagery is central to the organisation of the modern world...There has been an enormous amount of analysis of racial in the past decades, ranging from studies of images of, say, blacks or American Indians in the media to the deconstruction of the fetish of the racial Other in the texts of colonialism and post-colonialism.  Yet until recently, a notable absence from such work has been the study of images of white people.  Indeed, to say that one is interested in race has come to mean that one is interested in any racial category other than that of white people" (page 1).

By way of a seemingly simple activity, make a list of five words you would associate with the word White and a parallel list of words you would associate with Black. When you look at the two lists, can you suggest the ways in which colours convey something of these cultural preferences and senses of inadequacy or deficit?   Do any of your words for White carry a negative meaning? Why do you think this is? 

In a broad ranging analysis of the way in which racial imagery through colour has permeated and become naturalised  in Western societies– that is, an investigation of the hegemonic presumptions about (skin) colour –  Dyer arrived at a fairly basic conclusion: white equals good, and black equals badThink: who wears the white hat and the black hat? Which colour symbolises cleanliness, purity, and light? Which colour symbolises dirt, decay, evil-heartedness? It is in such subtle ways that the views of a particular group highlighting its own self-perceived superiority become embedded, ingrained, and perpetuated, all largely unnoticed. Typically, such naturalised representations advantage those making the representations and disadvantage those on the receiving end. Can you make the connection to what a genuine multicultural education might start to focus on?

References & further readings

  1. Althusser, L. (2001). Lenin and Philosophy and other essays (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Monthly Review Press. 
  2. Dyer, R. (1997). White. London: Routledge.
  3. Gramsci, A. (1971 and 1986). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
  4. hooks, b. (1990). Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press.
  5. Lewis, Oscar (1951) Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlan Restudied, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

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Last modified: Tuesday, 4 September 2018, 1:43 PM