International Night is a longstanding St. Olaf tradition, now in its 51st year. Students from a variety of countries around the world come together to showcase and celebrate their countries of origin through a variety of exciting performances including dance, song and spoken word.
While it is always an impressive show, and certainly has the potential to foster appreciation of other cultures, we must also consider some of the political nuances involved in such an event. When students from the United States attend International Night without a sense of mutual empathy and a degree of self-awareness, we risk reducing cultures to something consumable and entertaining while ignoring the larger political implications.
Please note, this is not to say that International Night is inherently bad or that we shouldn’t do it, but rather, I would ask that students recognize the framework around which the majority of us attend this event. For example, I might start with the name of the event itself: International Night. The labeling of non-U.S. countries as “international” centers the United States as a default, and people not from this country are automatically relegated to a kind of “other” status. The idea that non-U.S. countries are “international” is part of a larger hegemonic discourse that privileges the United States and its citizens (note: citizens, not residents or undocumented folks) over other places in the world. We might consider how we attend this event, already expecting something other than what we know, and how this “othering” can become dehumanizing.
Furthermore, the idea that students can somehow access and understand other cultures simply through one night of curated performance is absurd. Even the fact that it needs a specific day has some tokenizing connotations; if this is the one International Night, the implication is that all other nights focus on United States culture. We risk becoming objectifying cultural tourists when we believe that we are more worldly by having the world’s brown people dance for us one time. International Night is primarily about entertainment rather than a thorough, thoughtful, empathetic educational experience, and it is dangerous to conflate the two.
Again, this is not to say International Night is a bad thing. It’s wonderful to enjoy and learn about some aspects of other countries’ cultures, and International Night offers a helpful and accessible way to do so. However, the conversation cannot begin and end with this one event.
True cultural empathy and appreciation is not a one-night-a-year sort of thing. Working to better understand your peers and your relationship to them must be a sustained process, an ongoing project rather than a brief, passive glimpse into what we have deemed “international.” It does not and cannot stop at mere consumption and entertainment.
American St. Olaf students who attend International Night might consider the event a useful gateway into appreciating and respecting the traditions and experiences of other countries. It can be a way to discover cultural production (music, dance, writing) with which you weren’t previously familiar, prompting you to explore and learn more in your free time. It can begin to elicit more worldly thinking in considering how some of our countries of origin afford us great privilege, and others do not.
International Night can serve as the impetus to this kind of critical global thinking, but the event itself cannot be the sole method of bringing acute cultural awareness.
I would encourage Oles who attend International Night to do so, but to do so with an awareness of your position in the global society. Consider where you were born, where and how you were socialized and how all of this creates a particular worldview. International Night has the potential to be celebratory rather than objectifying, but this distinction depends on how each of us approaches and interprets it.
Katie Jeddeloh ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Centennial, Colo. She majors in English.