Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Greeks & Germans: Cultural contrasts

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

There are a number of contentious issues in the conflict between Greece and the European Union over the country’s economic situation. What we hear about in the media are disagreements related to taxes and pensions.  The popular perception outside of Greece, and particularly in Germany, is that the Greeks have not been good shepherds of their resources; they retire early with fat pensions and do not pay the taxes they owe. It turns out that those views are outdated; there have been major reforms of the pension system and crackdowns on tax evaders (see the story in this week’s On the Media about that). But popular perceptions are slow to change, especially when there are compelling and long-established stereotypes at work: Germans are industrious; Greeks (and southern Europeans) are lazy. However, there are indeed some striking cultural distinctions of interest.

One of the aspects of the Greek crisis that I’ve been following with interest are the conflicts that have arisen that have nothing to do with money. A few weeks ago, when the Greek prime minister and other officials were in Brussels to continue negotiations, German TV news conducted an interview with Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Schäuble said he didn’t think the Greeks were serious about finding a solution to the crisis. Why? Not because their proposals were deficient, but because the Greek delegation wasn’t showing up on time for meetings. He gave specifics. He also commented on the fact that at the time of the interview, in the morning, the Greeks were having a leisurely breakfast, rather than showing up for meetings. For Schäuble, if you are serious about getting work done, the first requirement is that you be on time. The Greek perspective is different, seeing deadlines as less important. When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras pulled out of negotiations and announced the referendum that was held last Sunday, he was asked about the problem of missing the June 30 deadline for Greek to pay back 1.6 billion euros. His response: he couldn’t imagine that it would be a problem if there were a delay of a few days while a deal was worked out. Yesterday, the EU officials were flabbergasted that the Greeks did not show up for the meetings of finance ministers with a new proposal. Prime Minister Tsiparas had promised to deliver a new plan within 48 hours, if the Greeks voted “no” in the referendum. The Greeks responded yesterday that they were working on it.

For individuals used to a “monochronic” time orientation (doing one thing at a time; keeping to deadlines), like Schäuble, it was inconceivable that agreed-on time commitments were not kept. For those with a “polychronic” time orientation, time is not seen as segmented, but fluid, and other priorities may have precedence. From the Greek perspective, the Germans were being unnecessarily rigid and unreasonable. The problem here is not really related to being on time, but on establishing and maintaining a cooperative attitude that could lead to a successful negotiation. The Germans, not taking into consideration the different time orientation of the Greeks, interpreted their behavior as one more signal that the Greeks were not serious negotiation partners. The Greeks didn’t help by not being aware of and taking into consideration the German imperative for punctuality. It’s not just the Germans who have this perspective; the Lithuanian prime minister said today that for the Greeks “everything is always mañana“,  thus taking a swipe at several different cultures.

This was not the only cultural conflict. Schäuble offered a dramatic contrast in style and tone to the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who announced his resignation yesterday. Schäuble is tight-lipped and serious, being cautious in his pronouncements. Varoufakis, in contrast, is free with his opinions and has not hid his disdain for some EU and German officials. Schäuble wears dark suits with conservative ties; Varoufakis goes for leather jackets. The Greek prime minister also does not wear ties. The German convention is that if you are doing serious business, you dress the part. Of course, the contrast between the two finance ministers is also a case of different personalities, as well as a generational divide. But it remains that if the German and Greeks are far apart on economic issues, they are as well in terms of some social norms and practices.