Dominant Cultures

3 Colonialist Cultures Every Organization Should Challenge

How many times have you heard that the U.S. is a place where people from every culture are welcome and can succeed?

When did you realize that this wasn’t true?

I can still remember the moment when I understood that joining the U.S. “melting pot” (i.e. the idea that everyone can be a part of the U.S., just as long as you follow the same cultural norms as the dominant group) meant losing your identity (and even health!).

The more “inclusive” view I’ve seen, beyond the “melting pot,” is the “salad bowl” (i.e. where distinct cultures can be celebrated and recognized, without having to be one whole culture).

However, “Both [the melting pot and salad bowl] liquidate issue of power and domination…Both are molded by a national identify firmly rooted in an Anglo-American culture and perspective” as Elizabeth Martinez writes in De Colores Means All Of Us.

This cultural pluralist model focuses its advocacy on tolerance and acceptance of others, and I know I want to see way more than simply tolerance.

While wanting people to help people and make them feel accepted in the group is not necessary a bad desire, I think we can push for everyone to be able to fully participate and succeed in society, regardless of their cultural expression.

So where do these beliefs stem from?


3 colonialist outputs: assimilation, appropriation, and “saving”


“It [Colonialism] is violence in its natural state.”

This quote from Franz Fanon, one of the 20th century’s most powerful voices for decolonization, captures the sentiment of colonization as one of the darkest institutions that not only shows up as violence through government/military, but in culture and language as well.

The three interrelated cultures of assimilation, appropriation, and “saving” serve as stark examples of how colonialism directly persists in the U.S.

1. Assimilation – “Join us [by force]”

This narrative of homogeneity, though frequently proclaimed as an idealistic outcome for the country, often expressed itself through forced assimilation (e.g. early 20th century policies that targeted Asian Americans to adopt structures based around the nuclear family).

The U.S.’s culture of assimilation forces one to either leave behind all traces of their former heritage or face constant fear and suspicion.

2. Appropriation – “Now that we’ve taken your land, let’s take your culture too”

The White Cultural value that people have a “right” to cultures, knowledge, and traditions and that they are free to “share/take” as they wish, has maintained its immovable presence (e.g. the practice of many New Agers to exploit indigenous beliefs).

Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations brilliantly highlights how entrenched the U.S.’s culture of appropriation remains in our systems of education, politics, sports, etc. In particular, there seems to be a growing trend in (mis)using Native designs in fashion and media.

3. “Saving” – “Our civilization is best, so let us help you”

One of the most insidious of colonialization’s impacts. The idea of “saving” a group by force/deceptive persuasion often comes from mistaken good intents that led to destructive results.

Groups that resist this “[Western] civilizing” often face the dominant culture’s antagonistic confusion for why they don’t want “our [white savior] help.” However, refuting this “civilizing help” is essential for ending our colonialist institutions.

Elizabeth Martinez writes that one of the most important ways to resist these impacts is by “rejecting the colonized mentality, that pernicious, destructive process of internalizing a belief in the master’s superiority and our inferiority.”


Developing a Culture of Complex Identities: Going beyond “inclusion” and tolerance


As many decolinizing activists note, it’s time to move beyond privileged norms and policies pushing for a “core culture,” while either trying to “include” or tolerate the “other.”

Photo: Wall in Palestine via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Wall in Palestine via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It’s time for a Culture of Complex Identities; a culture that not only accepts difference, but actively promotes a variety of cultures and simultaneously accepts indigenous groups’ right to cultural sovereignty and self-determination.

I can imagine that in a place that strongly promoted this type of society, it may be a bit more challenging to say something is a “core culture”, but it would help people to achieve their potential in whatever they choose to grow.

This would impact not only interpersonal relations, but also how we define leadership, collaboration, education, etc.

This world would certainly be much more dynamic and rely less on centralized or hierarchical systems that demand conformity and obedience.


Ways to push for a Culture of Complex Identities


So how do we get started with moving toward complexity?

Describe your personal and/or organizational culture and identity – not all culture needs to be changed, but we do need to know where we are currently at to understand what needs to be different

Identify how you currently encourage assimilation to your norms and/or mere acceptance of others’ norms – look at your actions, practices, or policies to get a sense of how you might be limiting the potential of others

Consider how you promote the achievements of others – look at how you select people for certain roles/positions, what actions you choose to recognize, whose ideas get turned into projects, etc. to determine whether you are focusing on one type of cultural expression

Continue the struggle for decolonization – which means listening to words of people who fought their entire lives (e.g. Frantz Fanon) along with those who are upholding those past traditions (e.g. Decolonize PDX).

Figure out your own conscientious culture and actions steps – now that you have thought a little about your current practices, now is most exciting step! Decide how you would like your personal or organizational culture to be an ideal scenario and the steps you will need to achieve it.

This struggle for a conscientious culture and sovereignty that disrupts the 3 colonialist cultures of assimilation, appropriation, and “saving” has been ongoing for the past 500 years of resistance. Decolonization is what we seek, and this history shows the deep commitment to ensure this vision is realized.

What other ideas do you have for creating a conscientious culture? Leave a comment below to share!