The Problem with Cultural Voyeurism

At AMAZEworks, we promote listening and dialogue as a means of improving cross-racial and cross-cultural understanding. We believe there is much to be gained from intentional, respectful discourse. However, it is important that we shine a critical lens on the give-and-take dynamics within these discussions and interactions. Too often, the experience and knowledge of marginalized groups are exploited by dominant groups under the guise of learning.

This form of exploitation is sometimes referred to as cultural or racial voyeurism. Andrew Hernández defines cultural voyeurism as “the practice of seeking some kind of gratification by objectifying a culture different from one’s own.” We can extend this definition to race. We see this objectification in many forms: when white people see people of color as an educational handbook for becoming woke; when straight people attend gay bars purely for the entertainment value; when tourists indiscriminately photograph the locals; when a teacher asks the one Hmong student in class for the refugee experience. The common denominator in all these examples? The expectation of the marginalized to perform for the dominant.

What makes these situations problematic is that they are ephemeral, and they disproportionately assign responsibility. When in the realm of cultural or racial voyeurism, once the diversity seminar, drag show, vacation, or class period is over, so is the interaction. Additionally, those seeking information or enjoyment fail to recognize their own complicity in maintaining an unequal exchange.

So what does a more respectful exchange look like? First and foremost, it takes greater effort from those in privileged groups. For white people, understand your whiteness before you ask to understand someone’s blackness or nativeness. For heterosexual people, learn about the role of LGBTQ-friendly establishments in providing safety, not just entertainment. For tourists, investigate the colonial, political, and cultural history of the places you travel. For teachers, consistently include authentically-written sources from diverse voices, and don’t expect your students to serve as representational experts. There are so many resources available for those willing to do the work, and by doing these things, you assume your own responsibility in improving racial and cultural dialogue.

Of course, making these efforts does not entitle someone to any sort of honorary status within these marginalized groups. Safe spaces and group-specific activities deserve to be respected. As Hernández writes, “It’s about being invited – on their terms, not yours.” Cultural and racial voyeurism exists in environments with a one-directional flow of knowledge and experience. We disrupt this flow when we stop asking, “What can I gain,” and start asking, “What can I do.” 

Sources:

1. Susan Hawthorne. “The Politics of the Exotic: The Paradox of Cultural Voyeurism.” NWSA Journal, vol. 1, no. 4, 1989, pp. 617–629. JSTOR.

  • Be mindful of how we use language, which identities we privilege or which we assume in the absence of an identifier.
  • “Relationship to place and to the culture of place” (627).
  • “Guilt does not enhance exchange of knowledge and understanding” (628).
  • “Cultural voyeurism relies on a belief in ‘objective knowledge’ (that there is an object, an ‘other’ to objectify)” (628)

2. Hernández, Andrew. “How Your ‘Interest’ in Other Cultures Can Perpetuate Racism with Cultural Voyeurism.” Everyday Feminism, 30 Jan. 2017, https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/11/racism-with-cultural-voyeurism/.

  • “Cultural voyeurism is the practice of seeking some kind of gratification by objectifying a culture different from one’s own.”
  • “It’s about sharing, not taking. It’s about being invited – on their terms, not yours.”
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