The two teenaged girls tiptoe through the endless aisles of the American supermarket Walmart. The store is bursting of cheap everyday products, kilos of ready-made foods presented in colourful labels. The girls find themselves amongst the many wonders of the 21 century.
Their wide eyes checked their surroundings like wild dear, fearing the presence of their predator. They throw quick looks over their shoulders, and seemingly avoid eye contact. The girls’ ankle long dresses contrast the uncovered thighs or cleavage some of other customers show. The girls’ hair is held back in neatly tied buns covered by a cap, reminding of passed centuries, an Amish bonnet as people later tell me.
I try not to stare at them while I choose a huge family pack of almond-honey cereal mix and throw it in my shopping trolley, but catch myself following the girls with my eyes, full of fascination as they quietly disappear around the corner.
“The Amish came to the US and Canada, specifically here to Lancaster, Pennsylvania centuries ago”, tells us the Tour Guide of the Amish visitor center. We are a classroom sized group of international students squeezed into an old fashioned house which was once inhabited by an Amish family.
She continues talking about Pennsylvania Dutch, a distinct German language Amish people have preserved since they came from Switzerland in the early 18th century and speak to this day.
The house’s furniture is kept simple – only useful objects are allowed. The Amish do not use electricity or any modern technology. With horse carriages for long distance travel and gas and petrol used for the stove, lamps and other household aids, families manage to avoid most modern technology. The Amish are very close to their families and their faith, there are many rules to be followed, surely a character that allowed them to survive and maintain their traditions for so long.
Despite the common rumor that teenagers are abandoned from the community if unwilling to continue the Amish traditions after their ‘trail year’ in US-American society, the exhibition reveals that there is more behind it. Young adults have to be baptized to fully commit to the community and to be able to get married. When they are teenagers and young adults they are allowed to ‘experiment’ with the Western lifestyle and a person is only excluded from the community if they abandon the rules after their baptism. However, there is the option to never get baptized and remain ‘English’, the way children are called and all non-Amish are revered to.
When the orientation team for the international students first advertised the trip I didn’t feel like coming. After all, what does it mean to exhibit a people? See the Amish? Now I am happy to have learned about Amish people, culture and traditions, as we didn’t literally exhibit them like animals in the zoo.
From now on, instead of making fun of them, pointing at them or staring at them in the supermarket. I shall treat them respectfully. Even if that’s in this case as simple as not staring at them.
When we come across a culture and people that we perceive as entirely different from us, it is easy and natural to come up with stereotypes and assumptions that unconsciously fill out the blank spaces in our heads.
But it is exactly then, when we must reflect on our assumptions. And ask, am I respecting them in my thoughts, my speech and actions?
It is important to consider cultural background and where traditions come from, especially when they are not our own. It is when we are unaware of our impact on others and how we treat them, when we find ourselves in the majority. When we feel reassured in our behavior as it is the common norm, that we can so easily harm others. Take up old stereotypes, reinforce them and legitimize them, creating a vicious circle fueling injustice and inequality.
It is when we are making fun of native American cultures, not purposefully(!!) but by dressing up in feather costumes, claiming to be an ‘Indian’ or beating our flat hand against our O formed lips to imitate an ‘Indian’s’ call at a dress up party.
It is when we paint our faces black and jump around like a monkey, supposedly being an African.
It is when people forget that wearing symbols and artefacts, have a meaning. A meaning that in this moment and time is being disgraced, ripped away from its context, ridiculed.
It happens when white people wear dreadlocks and don’t know what the hairstyle means and do not support or don’t understand Rastafarianism and the powerful movement it embodies.
It is when the blond girl in class gets complements for her cornrows and the black boy that has always worn them is made fun of for the exact same thing.
So please, if you have beard with me until now, be one of the people that doesn’t moan about Black people’s rage about cultural appropriation, or dresses up as a dead ‘Indian’ for Halloween. But instead, be our ally. Cherish our cultures. Find out where the traditions come from. And do not claim them to be your own.
Because imagine if as Amandla Stenberg put it, We Loved Black People as Much as Black Culture?