Last night I attended a book festival presentation entitled Wayward Sons - it featured two authors whose latests books explore the parent/child relationship. One of them was a young Israeli with a head full of political commentary and a terrible reading voice. One was an older Irishman who, during the Q&A, mentioned to a suddenly-silent audience that he was gay. I was having a good time and laughing at inappropriate moments (as I do) when a bald man in last year's festival t-shirt stood up to say,
"We Americans come from nothing, we inherit nothing. What influence do your cultures have on your writing?"
The Israeli, the Irishman, and I were shocked into silence.
I'm sure the man thought he was being clever and complimentary. But the question itself was what sociologists call "otherizing." Inherent within it is the idea that America is the baseline, the norm, and all other cultures are different. It put both of these authors, brilliant men with important things to say, on a shelf labeled Ethnic Writers*... a shelf tucked into the back corner of the book shop, between Alternative Medicine and Self Help.
Ethnocentrism is not a uniquely American vice; if anything, we inherited it from the British. But nowadays we have a reputation for it all over the world. Among the Indian community I grew up in, 'American' is synonymous with 'ignorant.' I had to fight - I still have to fight - to be proud of being American (without sounding like a mindless sycophant of the current regime).
The answer to the problem of ethnocentrism is not to make tokens out of other cultures and wear them around our necks like badges of honor. Instead we must take a hard look at ourselves, recognize our own unique cultural perspective, and then see the world with new eyes. Not as anthropologists, dissecting and documenting, but as neighbors getting to know the people next door.
Needless to say I wanted to punch the bald man in the face. Luckily, the authors handled it well - their tactful answers covered much of what I just said, only kinder and with less violence. This is why when I am a famous author I can never do book signings. Somebody is liable to get hurt.
*I wonder if I'm putting myself on the same shelf with Desi Kids. Thoughts?