We’re suffering from a false sense of cosmopolitanism. Access to the worldwide Interwebs leads us to imagine ourselves global thinkers. But we’re not -- unless we’re true xenophiles, bridging cultures, immersed and knowledgeable about multiple worlds. Most people hang out in “like-minded microcosms” and when we cross a boundary online the new light shed on everyone’s prejudices and assumptions can take us by surprise.
“Xeno-confusion” is happening more often in the virtual world, like this stumble into unfamiliar territory. Viewed through the lens of American civil politics, an American company's skin whitening product campaign on Facebook targeting Indians raised an anticolonialist uproar -- but not from the Indians. (No similar protests reported for popular self tanners that darken the skin.)
The launch of TEDWomen, a conference examining the effect of women and girls on the world’s future, created its own online culture shockwave. Are we all on the same page, North American feminists blogged here and here and here, wondering if a gathering separate from the main TED event to discuss the impact of womankind is brilliant or belittling. A blog sought a more nuanced perspective and tried the group replacement test, substituting one marginalized group for another. Imagine TEDGay. TEDMinority. TEDPoor.
Recently in a 10,000-person international network for women writers I found myself in an alternate online reality. An author asked the general community of “White people” (sic) to promote her new work, sight unseen besides a short synopsis, because booksellers relegate titles by black authors like her to a separate section and that negatively affects sales.
Her book substance-free promotion was at odds with how and why people share information and recommendations about books, even marginalized, discriminated against writers. Instead she let everyone know she “loves White people” and her “Spanish husband looks white on the street”.
A majority of the responses were “Sure, I’ll do that for you.” I expressed my confusion. Why was she talking to us like we were part of the problem? Why not normalize the work by taking it off the margins and offer to show it to those of us fellow writers who want to review it in our respective media and communities?
What a baffling corner of the Internet: a place where I'm addressed like a person who normally chooses reading material based on the author’s skin color -- that would be dumbly racist, no? -- someone who today can be convinced to promote a title (to my Great White People Book Club) based on the original poster’s shelving problems at the bookstore and the-more-palatable-to-me skin tone of her husband glimpsed from afar.
Does it matter that there is definitively no such thing as a White people, or a Great White People Book Club, or that the motivation for word of mouth marketing requires a product to be “extremely helpful, interesting, unique, or valuable to a specific niche market”? Not in that particular microcosm, a place running on logic inherently foreign to me.
In this SheWrites universe I don’t even need to do a group replacement test (“Rich people”, “Powerful people”, “Beautiful people”) to know someone imagines it’s that easy to butter me up for their own purpose.
We may believe we’re global thinkers, and not be. But we’ve got other challenges. To be a global thinker demands we navigate and find a way to bridge worlds that might make only a sinister kind of sense.
As a xenophile, where online do you stumble?