Getting into culture

Cultural Studies

06 January 2018

I work in the cultural field and now I also teach about culture. Not culture with a capital C, not high culture or low culture, but culture as in the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. "Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies." (Wikipedia, 2018).


When I first heard I was going to teach at Chancellor College, the University of Malawi in Zomba, I was over the moon. I started writing about cultural studies, and some parts of this writing is the new blog.


What you call witchcraft, people in Europe might try to explain through science or they call it superstition. If you get HIV/AIDS, can it be cured through sleeping with a virgin or do you need western medicine? If an uncle dies of AIDS, is it the disease that killed him or jealous neighbours because he was successful? In England a lot of people believe in ghosts and witches, most people in The Netherlands do not. Some believe in science, others believe in ancestral spirits and/or witchcraft. There is not one truth and every culture has its own beliefs. I trust science, but I have respect for other people’s views and I do believe in the healing power of plants. I also think the mind is strong and that witch doctors can do many good things, heal people and make the feel better. If I ever get a terrible disease like cancer, I surely will use a mix of Western medicine, Eastern spiritual guidance through yoga and meditation and I might drink some African herbal teas to get better or at least to feel better. I will never think someone has put a spell on me, as I don’t believe in that, and I will always try to find (scientific) causes if something bad happens to me.

Why is in many countries number 7 the lucky number (in China it is 8) and 13 the unlucky number? I say I am not superstitious, but I was as a child and I probably still have some habits based on superstitions. I have a lot of respect for people who thank their ancestors in their prayers; I do something similar, as I talk to my dead parents and ask them for guidance in difficult times. I think of them, remember them and will never forget them, because they are part of me and I am who I am because of them and before them my grandparents and great grandparents.

We have a lot in common, but there are also differences! I hate the way some people speak to their maids, drivers, waiters or shop assistants – I do not consider groups of people socially inferior. I am raised with the knowledge that we are all equal (read Animal Farm; we are all equal but some are more equal than others). My husband and I don’t want cleaning ladies in our house, as we are not used to that: in The Netherlands only the very (very!) rich have a maid, a nanny, a cleaner and a gardener. The majority of people do their own cleaning, cooking, and gardening. The idea that there is always someone around, is an awkward feeling, like an invasion of our privacy.


“Before you are of any race, nationality, religion, party or family, you are a woman” (Germaine Greer, 1999). We have separate gender identities because of the way a culture deals with gender. How a culture deals with gender reveals much about that culture’s values. Gender identity may be defined more by one’s culture than by one’s biology.

In some countries it is hard to make a career as a woman. In many countries men find it hard to work under a woman and women have to work harder than men to gain respect. I worked in the music industry, definitely male dominated! There might be girl bands and famous female singers, but there are not many female club promoters or A&R managers in the music industry.


One of my former employees asked if I could help him to find work, “because I was white it would be easier”. I told him it doesn’t have anything to do with my skin colour, but more with my upbringing and education. The fact that I was born and raised in The Netherlands makes me privileged; I had parents reading to me and stimulated me to explore the world; I went to pre-school playing with educational toys and learning in a playful way; I was lucky to grow up in a country with good schools and affordable universities; I lived in a country where women have equal rights (but are not always treated equally) and where religion or skin colour should not influence how people approach me (but it does!). The country I come from is generally respected and liked by many people who just visited The Netherlands or heard about it. So yes, I admit that I am privileged; I am white, I have never been hungry, I have a university degree, and I have social skills that come in handy – it would be easier for me to find work and also easier for me to find him a job, but as I am Dutch (and a progressive thinking politically left highly educated – called ‘left elite’ by some..) , I do not like inequality and find it hard to accept that race and skin colour are regulators of human life. McIntosh (1994) describes white privilege as an invisible knapsack of unearned assets, full of maps, passports, visas, tools and blank checks. Before I worked with BCUC, before the ‘zwarte pietendiscussie’ in The Netherlands and before moving to Malawi, I was relatively unaware of my racial identity compared to people of colour. My awareness has grown and sometimes I feel like the evil nemesis who is responsible for racism.

I live in a multiracial society at home, and I love living in a multiracial world. I do think everybody is equal but surely I am guilty too of socially constructed stereotypes and prejudice based on racial disparity. In a tram in Amsterdam you might see a lot of people hold their bag a bit closer to them if a group of black people walk in, and I cannot guarantee that I am not one of those people doing that. Studies showed that people tend to associate positive traits with light skinned people and the darker the skin of someone, the more negative traits are associated with that person. Acknowledging the superiority and privilege in a country like the United States, can cause people of colour to internalise their status as inferior and beliefs that white people might regard them as mediocre, underprivileged and subordinate (Jackson, Chang in Sin and Wilson, 2000).