Even before I knew it had a name, and even before I knew it was actually a phenomenon, I’ve had a huge problem with cultural imperialism.
A friend used to joke that I would complain about Americans because I had lived in Canada for a spell. This irritated me too, because in Canada, I don’t recall any rivalry between the two North American countries, but the media portrayed it as such.
I had just always assumed this natural disdain came from the internalisation of the “Americans are stupid and ignorant” rule. It wasn’t that, really. The fact that the US knows nothing about my country didn’t really bug me. What bugged me, is that if I saw a two-letter US state code, I could tell you what it stood for. I could probably name the capitals of several states, too. What bugged me is I knew exactly who George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and JFK were. I could show you where, on a map, California, Texas, Florida and New York are, and possibly others. I knew the stars on the flag represented the 50 states and given time, I could probably name each damn one. This was not the result of a class in American history. This was not even from an interest in the goddamn place. This was from the media. This felt so unbalanced to me.
How many Americans would be able to name the capital of South Africa? Or even point out where it is on a map? The only famous South African Americans know is Nelson Mandela. It felt to me like a very creepy unrequited love affair, and I wanted no part in it.
I was very disapointed with what television had done to us. I shuddered when my classmates pronounced words with an American affectation. I was disgusted when people would regurgitate culturally irrelevant cliches. I was horrified when SA music and movies and television were regarded as so far inferior to international media. I felt like screaming at people to wake the hell up when they knew more about the Obama vs Clinton election saga than who was actually going to run the very country they’re living in.
In university, I learned the term for this horrifying display of idiocy. Cultural imperialism. Knowing the monster’s name has not made it easier to deal with. But discovering feminism and, through that, the concept of white and male to be “neutral” states, I realised how terribly, terribly messed up everything is.
I’ve read pages and pages of blogs where people complain that men are “neutral” and women are “other”, where white is “neutral” and anything else is “other”, where heterosexual is “neutral” and all other orientations are “other”. But these bloggers? They’re American. So I guess that makes me… “other”.
Why is it that the US snatched up the .com domain extension? The rest of the world is .co.country code. Proving again that if you are not American, you are “other”. I remember my mom used to get annoyed in Canada, when a missing person or criminal at large was announced, they would sometimes describe the person as having “no accent”. NO accent? You might as well say a white person has no ethnicity.
I felt it was time for a blog on this subject because A) it has been bugging me for at least ten years now and B) I don’t consider the bloggers I would usually expect to blog about this stuff as qualified in anyway on this subject. Sorry guys, but I don’t. Not even you British or Australian folk.
It can be blamed, quite easily, on lack of exposure. We are not active in the media. We only have 4.5 million internet users, so we’re not well-represented online. No one gives a shit about SA news unless it’s to show that we’re either still racists, or we’re moving on despite the Injustices of the Past(tm). For those that do care about us, we’re like a plucky goddamn underdog. “Aw… look at that… South Africa has won a gold medal in the Olympics! I suport them because I didn’t even know they had decent swimming pools there.” Screw your gold medals. We produce that stuff. And diamonds. And hordes of platinum.
As a South African I’ve had to defend my country so, so many times against my fellow citizens. Things are bad enough with our own mess ups (yes, we know we have bad crime and corrupt a government) but now I have to handle being constantly and I mean CONSTANTLY compared to America. “Oh, what kind of a hellhole is SA anyway? We don’t have a Starbucks or internet as fast as in the States.” It is true, we don’t. But we still have decent coffee and we still manage to run businesses online.
But what exactly can we do about it, besides discussing and lamenting? The whole of the developing world is in a similar boat. We can’t refuse to consume Western media. And we really can’t expect those in developed countries to learn about the world around them.
I suppose I just wrote this article for the hope of awareness. Maybe, maybe an American will read this and think about cultutral imperialism and what it must be like to have an even number of patriots and haters. There. I tried to do my bit to dispel a teensy bit of ignorance.