Talking Story

There’s an image cropping up in diversity in literature presentations that describes culture as an iceberg.

People love this graphic. It’s of a massive chunk of ice floating in a deep blue sea with labels stuck to places above and below the waterline. On the surface, there’s the readily seen ten percent experienced by foreigners, things like food, dress, language, music, art, and festivals. A little below the waterline are layers labeled body language, personal space, etiquette, and gender roles. Deeper still are sections labeled attitudes toward elders, authority, religion, and work. Down in the depths you’ll find spaces reserved for things like approaches to marriage, death, child raising, and problem solving. It’s a slick visual that’s often used to segue into the dangers of cultural appropriation.

Too bad it’s wrong.

By their very nature, icebergs are frozen and adrift, traveling only by the whims of ocean currents and breezes. They’re constantly eroding, shrinking, melting into a sea of conformity until one day they just disappear.

It’s hard to imagine a less inspiring metaphor for cultural sensitivity.

That’s why I like the metaphor of culture as a lotus growing in a pond.

Think about it. A lotus is integral to an entire ecosystem. On the surface are beautiful flowers. Out of sight, hidden but known, is a long stem tethering the lotus to the bottom of the pond where it grows, nourished by the bones of lotuses gone before. A lotus isn’t simply acted on by currents or eroded by waves and heat. Lotuses have both roots and branches; seed pods slip from the mother plant, drift a little, settle, and eventually form their own flowers—similar, but not the same. There is an interconnectedness to lotuses in a pond, a dependence on shared resources, a history and lineage.

That’s culture.

From a boat, it’s easy to observe lotuses in relationship to the other—the landings of frogs and dragonflies, the effects of light and wind, how fish shelter in the lotus’s shade. Grounded on shore, observers intuitively know that no matter how they try, they are not lotuses, no more than a bear or a sparrow or a pine tree is a lotus.
Basking in the beauty of a lotus pond is cultural appreciation. Writing as a dragonfly or frog about your lotus experiences is cultural appreciation. Plucking lotuses, regardless of good intentions of bringing blossoms to the pondless masses, is cultural appropriation. Unmoored from all that nourished and supported it, separated from its purpose in life, a lotus in a vase is just a dying flower.

Now that’s an image I can get behind.

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