NPR did a piece yesterday evening on a speech school for Brooklyners (Brooklynites? Brookies?) who want to get rid of their accent. These are people who feel that speaking with a Brooklyn accent makes people perceive them poorly, and that it’s holding them back socially or professionally. Predictably, this leads to a kickback from the non-Brooklyners who feel that regional dialects are part of the richness and charm of our nation, as well as from other Brooklyners who feel that these ones are “betraying their culture”.
Is culture something that can be betrayed? And do we have a responsibility to retain the distinctive identities of our birth?
My personal feeling is that it’s wrong for us to try and trap others within their cultures. When I hear my first-world compatriots lament the loss of obscure native cultures and languages, I can’t help but feel like these cultures are being treated as if they are sitting in a museum or zoo. Native cultures don’t exist for our amusement. When people forsake a native language for a popular language, they are doing it because they believe it will better their circumstances and opportunities in life. It’s wrong for me to expect Ainu speakers not to learn Japanese, or Kerek speakers not to learn Russian. There isn’t a lot of economic demand for Ainu.
When I was attending BYU ten years ago, an alumnus from an earlier generation wrote into the Daily Universe expressing his concern that BYU students today aren’t getting the authentic “1950s BYU experience” that meant so much to him as a student. A girl responded that she isn’t attending BYU today in order to get the 1950s experience. She wants the experience that relevant to her needs now.
I saw a poster at UC Davis a while back. It showed Gwen Stefani in traditional Indian dress and asked the question, “Is this cultural robbery?” We in America love to appropriate little bits of people’s cultures without taking the time to understand what our actions signify in that root culture.
Is culture something that can be borrowed? And do we have a responsibility not to take on the distinctive traits of cultures that we don’t belong to?