Art, Culture & Exploitation

When do displays of culture as art become exploitation?

You walk into a coffee shop. All you want is a strong, soothing cup of coffee to brighten your day, to get you started. You smell the alluring aromas. (It’s most likely an independent establishment.) You order at the counter and walk away with your warm brew for which you probably paid more than your bank account should allow.

This coffee shop sources its beans from around the world – Asia, Africa, South America. Lining the walls are stimulating photographs of the people who live in these regions of the world. Today, the shop is going through a phase of African villages. Today, hanging on the walls are the photos of African children and workers and people living their daily lives to harvest that which they will probably never taste in its final form. The coffee that’s harvested and industrialized and barista-ed for the people’s $5 Sunday pleasure. These photos are intended to decorate, transporting you, making you feel connected and sustainable and grateful…

But something feels gross about it. I’m sitting here, gazing upon a photo and it feels invasive. This person’s way of life is so different from mine. And I wasn’t invited. This person’s way of life and appearance and norms captured in photos that line all of the walls are my “decoration” to view upon on this Sunday morning.

Most people walk in hardly taking a glance at the walls. They’re too focused on the work that they have to do or the person sitting across from them or the book in their hands. But it still creates an ambiance. It subscribes to the “responsibility” of an independent coffee shop. This isn’t the mass production of Starbucks, it screams. (As I listen to the barista/cashier denounce all that is wrong about Starbucks.)

We’ve seen the #InstagrammingAfrica and phenomenon of African voluntourism. And what about “art” and “décor”? And I’m truly asking – where exactly is that line? When does it become some form of self-serving exploitation?

The Coupling Constant

I’m at that age. I’m at the age where everyone is coupling up. The age where things are done in couples. It crept up on me. I didn’t realize that this was a new baseline until it was impossible to ignore. I found myself on a long weekend trip of 11 people, five pairs of these 11 were (surprise!) couples. Let me add by saying that one of the sources of entertainment of the weekend was pairing up the lonely lingering one. The Couples were expected to do the entire weekend together. Maybe they normally do anyway. Still, the declared status of togetherness was overwhelming. People now come in pairs.

I found the realization disturbing whether or not you define yourself as being one half of a couple. It’s something that you don’t necessarily realize or care about when it’s just you and the other person. You’re wrapped up in life with this other person. Me and you. I suppose that’s what companionship is taken to mean. But with a group of couples, it seems to morph into something else. Navigation of the social space is different. You’re attached. You’re expected to know one another, complement one another, and present this to the world.

Now, I’m finding it a rarity for people not to be paired up. It’s all too tangible that this is the age where I should expect my peers to have significant others, husbands, and wives, if not families. Too many times in the past month have I already made decidedly wrong assumptions.

“So, you have roommates?”

“No, I have a family.”

“Oh…yeah, those are like roommates…”

It’s a different frame of mind. People come in pairs. Whether it’s the natural course of life, I’m open to debate. Companionship is, of course, a goal from a young age. It’s rooted in humans as the ultra-social species, perhaps even in our wiring for survival. The challenge of it all is maintaining independence and individuality within the couple, even if we’re horribly attached.

Second Best, Always

“You’ll spend your whole life with your first choice just out of reach – what you really wanted, what would mean real fulfillment. You will always get second best.”

That’s what he said to me. It’s followed me around. It haunts. It haunts effectively. I question major decisions – is this only second best? My choice in schools, that exam that needed just one more point, this career, that first real job and the next, the last boyfriend – is that why it didn’t work? Is that why I didn’t make the grade?…I’m not taking first, or I’ve failed to achieve first. I’ve fought my own growing resentment attached to those words. He meant well. They don’t actually influence my life. But is that really the case? Perhaps I let them.

How did he suggest I fix it? I change my name, only slightly. Changing one letter of the spelling to match some sort of birth path, defined by the state of the universe at the second I was aware. With this change, I would be in alignment with what the universe has planned for only the best me. And through that best me, only then will I realize the highest possible levels of happiness and have the world work with me in mind. Events will fall at my feet and I will excel in all things because my place in the world is aligned. Based on a name. My name in this world.

How ridiculous. My hyper-rational mind scoffs.

I have always been a proponent for the idea that you create your own destiny and achieve your own achievements, earned, earned to the extent that that credit is possible to possess according to the cards dealt to you at birth. There is nothing in the stars that directs you along a singular, unchanging, fateful path. But another part, the part that accepts that this world is ultimately unknowable – that there are mystical instances that mean things to happen in some fashion as opposed to another – nags.

How can all of this destiny, path, and fate be wrapped up in a name? And even, it’s spelling? In some ways, it makes sense. Your identity becomes wrapped up in your name. Or it could be another way around – your identity is defined and created by your name, which is, in my opinion, the more frightening of the two. Maybe I’m too entrenched in the idea of freedom in my American upbringing, even if it is a qualified freedom. The idea that something is set in stone without a role for our own rationalization and choice is terrifying. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who thinks so.

He told me this as a freshman in college. Perhaps it was a particularly impressionable time, but I’ve yet to fully let it go. I wouldn’t say that I’ve accepted it either. Second is hard to accept as an alternative to first. Such an idea forces acknowledgment of different potential levels of happiness across life stages, and that achieving one level over the other is out of your control. One can’t help but reject the idea.

In fact, it would only be healthy to reject such an idea. The alternative is a diminished perception of self-worth and acceptance of impossibility that would only stunt or kill creativity and achievement and happiness. Who is to judge whether you’ve taken first or second? It’s only yourself, your harshest critic. The one that will follow you incessantly, and without reprieve.

But I do resent his words. And I’ve resolved that I cannot accept them. However, I suspect that this decision made does little to mitigate any thoughts that arise around the idea when a choice comes to pass. Still, it’s been written here. Perhaps that makes it a little more real. Coming to this point has only taken seven years or so, with perhaps a few more to go.

Something Borrowed

It’s an old pastime of young girls to imagine their future selves, embodied in a future name – written and signed. Using the last name of a crush, perhaps, just to see how it all fits together, and the vibrations through the air as it rolls off the tongue. It sounds just perfect, and so does the imagined pride of having this new identity, to be this new someone that matters to a particular someone. This pastime is learned at a young age and continues into adulthood. Don’t even try to deny it now. It is learned at a young age that we, as girls, take our husband’s surname – because we will marry. Most girls learn this from their mother and their own family. Mom took dad’s name – and that is how the world works.

There has been a lot of chatter around whether a woman should take the name of her husband’s. And a lot of judgment. It isn’t a new discussion. There are a number of ways that this could go.

  • The traditionalist: a woman changes her family name to her husband’s upon marriage.
  • The relegation: adding the new name last, demoting her name to a middle name that is really never used, let’s be honest.
  • The egalitarian: the abhorred hyphen.
  • The keeper: no change. You modern woman, you.
  • The feminist: man takes her name – I know, rare. It happens. So for completeness, humor me here.

There are issues with each of these options, as there are issues with the concept and act of committing to sharing your entire life forever with a single, often dynamic, person in an unstable world of circumstance. But, that is a discussion for another time.

Now, a necessary aside: this is coming from the perspective of a straight, (partially) white, educated, middle-class female and in the context of getting married, though there are plenty of other reasons to be changing your name. Changing names with the added attachment of another person, however, brings about these particular complex and curious ruminations.

Judgment is always passed on our choices. This choice in particular puts a label on an identity. This change is out in the open, on exhibition to the public. This change brands a shiny new scarlet A – there to be recognized and acknowledged, and judged. She’s anti-feminist. She’s lost herself. She’s attached. She’s no longer her own individual. She doesn’t care about her career and what this will do to her professional life. The hyphen is so unattractive. It makes your name too long, how inconvenient. The name no longer speaks to a pure heritage. It’s a jumbled mess. She doesn’t want to be attached to him. She doesn’t want to label herself. She doesn’t love him enough. And, how emasculating.

Why the judgment? Why is so much physical and virtual brain space dedicated to this choice?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

But names carry so much, even if all they hold is a mental construct to which we are unwillingly subjugated by the perceptions of others. It’s the first experience of labeling and identity about which we usually have little choice in today’s Western society. And it follows you around. It is a label, that once attached, is to encapsulate a personality, career, self-image, judgment, and social experience – and the choice is so seemingly arbitrary. So what does it mean to change it, when it’s been established and when, say, things like marriage maybe come along? Well, with all of the hullabaloo about it, we seem to think it means a lot.

Much of this discussion has been built around the rise of the “career woman” and how we must lean in to get ahead in this world. In the relatively new professional world of females, keeping one’s name has become an indicator of an independent, ambition-driven woman, entrenched in circumstances where her own brand carries weight enough to warrant breaking tradition and forever attaching her label to her past, current, and future achievements. Alternatively, she could simply like her name, just the way it is.

Still, there are long lists of how-tos that in themselves reflect the impending judgment and re-evaluation. You’re urged to introduce it in the right way to soften the blow: “How to Change Your Name and Keep Your Professional Identity,” “Changing Your Name? Tips for the Workplace,” how to write that first email. Regardless of how it’s done, you can hear it already, “Oh…, she got married. And this makes it different from before. She has concerns and obligations to someone else, and relationships and character facets that I can’t discern from over here.” When taking marriage and a changed surname as public announcement of a woman’s capacity for care and empathy but also dependence, this change can be perceived as weakness. This decidedly does not pair well with the image of the career woman.

So, here it is. The public discussion and judgment and professional & social reception and identity and brand, all laid out in various spaces of physical and virtual reality. So, how does one choose?

I consider myself independent, a feminist. My career is important to me. My name is attached to things. Regardless of whether or not I get married, it’s a choice that captures identity and forces greater understanding of its facets and veiled values. So…would I change my name?

The conclusion that I’ve come upon is that this choice is a deeply personal one, which means high variation for different kinds of people and different circumstances. Anti-climactic, I know. I’m sorry to disappoint. I never claim to have these answers. I’m better at the questions. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll share my thoughts of the moment on the matter and how others might start to think through this choice.

To begin with, it’s simple. Based on my most primitive fancies, what do I want? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t particularly like my name – its appearance, spelling, sound. I’m not attached to it in the way I find that many are – by their family life and experiences. My last name has never carried the label feature, characteristic of my identity in the same way as my first name. Instead, it floats in my wake, as if connected by a shimmering string of a spider web, easily severed.

Names seem to fit others, while I’ve always had a hard time saying and explaining my own. It’s something I’ve been working on getting used to and I’d say it’s been growing on me for nearly 25 years now. Based on this, my choice seems moderately straightforward: welcome a change that may be more fitting. However, I work in a space where keeping your published name is ideal, if only for the sake of convenience, historic record, respect, and recognition. This is the challenge. What is to be weighed?

Again, my primordial inclination is to say fuck others’ perceptions and judgments and do what you feel. But then, years of socialization force some level of rationalized discussion. These changes induce perceptions and judgments that affect, if only by a smidgeon, respect, recognition, and experience. And experience shapes your life. Or maybe I’m making a bigger deal of this whole thing than it really is.

Luckily or not, I still have time to make my choice. Or I think I do. All I can say if it comes to it is that I hope that I will be the one to shape the name and what it means as applied to me in my past, present, and future – and not all the rest of it.