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My Experience with the Contact Zone

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Jasmine 2


     The exchange of cultures, values, and traditions is a phenomenon that has been occurring for centuries. Through growing communication and globalization, countries are more connected than ever. This couples the many other connections that were made with more adverse results such as colonialization and slavery. With transcontinental exchange of culture there is bound to be positive or negative impacts. This is often determined when power comes into play. One invading group may have a goal to benefit themselves and inflict their values as the “right: values, thus resulting in a negative cultural exchange. Or on the other hand the exchange of culture can simply be a result of an attempt to make positive connections with a group different than your own.


     This concept of cultural exchange resulting in positive or negative affects is better defined by Mary Louise Pratt in her publication of “Arts of the Contact Zone”. Pratt defines a contact zone as a “social [space] where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (page34, Pratt). I feel as though the majority of my life, if not my whole life, has been lived in a constant contact zone. From living in a majority white suburb in Columbus, Ohio to living in one of the most diverse counties in the United States in Silver Spring, Maryland, I have constantly been in contact with people of various races, religions, ideologies, habits, etc. What is interesting is the people I’ve met have experience either one or both of the types of contact zones that Pratt lays out just as I have. This is what makes us very interesting, unique people. People have had to maintain their culture despite negative influences that tried to destroy them. People have shared their culture in parades and festivals. The fact that people of different cultures all have a passion for maintaining their heritage is something that makes us similar.


     A more specific story of a time that I was in a contact zone was that of the time I first met my Taiwanese friend’s parents. It took me almost two years of knowing their daughter for me to be invited to their home. Their minds were full of outrageous stereotypes of black people that inhibited them from trusting me. One of which, that really shocked me, was that if I was invited over I would end up stabbing someone. They were certain that I was dumb and poor because I went to a high school that was 45% African American instead of attending their daughters 52% white school. Throughout history, white has been painted as a picture of good and black has been painted as a picture of bad. The media is typically skewed to show the worst of African Americans and neglects the majority of the population which are normal citizens. Due to this, I can see why as immigrants my friend’s parents would have such a negative view on African Americans, on me. The went off what they saw and not off what they knew.


     As time went on, I imagine they began to get positive feedback on me from their daughter and I was finally invited over for her birthday. On her birthday she loves to make dumplings and other traditional dishes with all her friends and family. I happened to be seated right next to her father, in the kitchen with her mother and here we were together in the contact zone.

     I remember my friend telling us all about how great her father is at crafting traditional dumplings. And he began to show us his technique that he had learned from his family. As he taught us many people went back to the simpler method but I actually got his method down pretty well. He acknowledged this and from there he began to tell me different stories about living in Taiwan. For his work he also travels the world and has been to all different countries. He told me about his travels to many countries in Western Africa. He then asked me where my ancestors were from. I told him that I didn’t know because our documents were burned along with thousands of other slaves’ documents in Alabama. So there is no easy way to find out where I am actually from. His heritage means so much to him and he couldn’t imagine not knowing where he was from. But what I explained to him was that even though I didn’t know my origins, my ancestors made their own culture here in America that carries many traits from West Africa. We have our cuisine, fashion, music, and values that were passed down to me and I will pass down to my children (Stanton).


       In that day, my friend’s dad shared with me many parts of his culture and I shared parts of mine. This is an example of a positive contact zone. Neither of us was trying to gain power over the other. We simply wanted to have an open conversation where we could understand each other better based on our history. Interesting enough we shared the experience of living through the results of negative contact zones. Mine being that of the lasting racial tensions and oppression as a result of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Through his work going to different countries that have been adversely impacted by colonialization he has seen how these countries have been greatly damaged to the point where repair seems impossible. Us exchanging our cultures brought us closer together. They have taken me in almost as another daughter, bringing me to their favorite places that serve the most authentic foods and sharing more stories the impacted their history such as the Rape of Nanking.


      I think Pratt would agree that my experience was an example of a contact zone because it is very similar to the example she gave, her experience in the contact zone as a teacher. She talks about a course that was given about the Americas and the intersection of the multiple cultural histories that have shaped them (page39, Pratt). You can say that my friend’s kitchen was the classroom where two different cultures can together to learn about each other’s history. There was respect which really made the conversation healthy. One of my favorite quotes from the whole passage is in this section which is, “Along with rage, incomprehension, and pain, there were exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom…”(page 39, Pratt). There was no rage in the conversation I had with my friend’s father but there were definitely revelations that were made that day. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and coming to a mutual understanding.

       Contact zones are the most healthy when they involve healthy discussion or the goal to only inform instead of control. It is when power driven group tries to impose their culture onto another when the zone becomes negatively impacted. We as humans will only continue to create these contact zones as we continue to make contact with one another, but the major goal behind all this should be to come to a common understanding with each other. We cannot alter our past but we can control the future. Healthy diplomatic relationships with restorative goals can aid in the destruction that was caused in the past my negatively impacted contact zones.




Pratt, Mary Louise Modern Language Association, 1991. Print.

Stanton, Jasmime Ayanna. 2016. Print