I’m back where I love to be, starting a new book and building the world where my story will grow. Background work for this new project has me digging into the history of conquest and nation building, and my research is intersecting directly with the rest of my life, where I’m an active member of a community focused on valuing diversity. Culture and identity are on my mind, and I find that where I live both things are misunderstood or, more often, never considered. That’s why for the next couple of months I’m using this space to open a discussion of culture: what it is, why it matters, and how we bridge cultural gaps. This whole conversation a bit like trying to move an ocean with a child’s bucket, but being destined to fall short is no reason not to begin. And so we dip our bucket in.
Race is a volatile topic in our country and around the world today. It’s serious, and it needs to be talked about. There is real discrimination that takes place on the basis of skin color or other supposed racial characteristics.
As a white woman, I don’t know what it feels like to have people take one look at me and assume I’m a single mom. I don’t know what it feels like to be talked down to at my kids’ school. I don’t know what it feels like to be afraid when I get pulled over or to fear daily for my son’s life and future. I don’t know what it’s like to be called names in public or to have people lock their doors when I walk by. I do know that those things are real and that they are devastating. Racism is alive and well and causing destruction every day. To pretend otherwise is to be a part of the problem, and I have no intention of ever doing that.
What I also know is that there is mass of people (I want to say a majority, but unfortunately, I don’t dare) who reject that racism and want things to change. I talk to people every week who don’t think race should matter and who want to learn how to live at peace with everyone. But nearly all of them struggle to know how to do that. They truly believe that all men are created equal, but they can’t stop feeling deeply uncomfortable around people of other races.
They don’t know how to bridge the divide. Why? Because their problem is way more than skin deep.
Without a doubt, people make assumptions based on physical characteristics like age, gender, skin color, hair color or style, clothing, etc. We call that stereotyping, and it’s the first step toward racism. In my experience, though, it’s relatively easy for us to identify our stereotypes and work to correct them.
I say relatively easy only because there’s something way harder to wrap our minds around: culture.
Culture is what offends us, what threatens us, what terrifies and angers us.
Let me show you what I mean.
Take an average white American living in the midwest. (I say midwest only because that’s where I live, not because the problem is worse there than anywhere else.) He’s had very little real interaction with other races and cultures, but one Saturday, a moving truck pulls in and a Hispanic family begins unloading their furniture into the house next door. Very likely, even with the best of intentions, he will begin to make assumptions about these new neighbors. His assumptions will be based on the stereotypes he’s absorbed over the years.
The assumptions might be negative: “Oh great. The new neighbors are Mexican. They probably don’t speak English very well and it will be hard to talk to them. They’ll play loud music and drive too fast through the neighborhood.”
But the assumptions might also be positive: “Oh great! The new neighbors are Mexican! They can help me with my Spanish! They’ll bring delicious food to our block parties!”
All this on a first glance. Both versions are stereotypes because he’s assuming certain behaviors just based on how the neighbors look. He could be wildly mistaken. Reality is that there’s really no way to avoid those kinds of instinctive reactions, and so far, it hasn’t hurt anyone. He has time to adjust his thinking. Our midwesterner may be apprehensive about Hispanic neighbors, but he doesn’t hate them.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t mind having neighbors of color. He’s determined to be accepting. As a friendly midwesterner, he goes over and introduces himself. Here’s where we move from race to culture. We’re stepping past how someone looks and having our first interaction with their behaviors and the values and beliefs that drive them.
The family is dad, mom, grandmother, a teenager, and two smaller children. When our midwesterner tells them his name and welcomes them to the neighborhood, they smile, and the parents beckon the teenager over to translate. They tell him their own names. They aren’t Mexican. They’re from Honduras, but they’ve lived in the US for a few years. The Midwesterner asks if they need any help moving. They say no, they are fine. He heads back home and notices throughout the afternoon that they work for hours unloading everything, and that even the kids are helping carry large mattresses and heavy furniture. He doesn’t understand why they didn’t let him help.
As time goes on, their behavior begins to be annoying. Every Saturday they have lots of friends over. Sure enough, the music is loud. Worse, they park a dozen cars on the street and make driving difficult. Often they block his mailbox and sometimes his driveway. When they do, and he has to go ask them to move cars, they are always very friendly about it and invite him in and offer food and drink, but the language difficulty is awkward and they make him wait forever before actually moving the vehicle. (And it never stops them from doing the same thing the next week.) After less than a year, our midwesterner is actively thinking of moving away. When the house down the street goes up for sale and he sees a hispanic family looking at it, he calls a realtor.
Is our midwesterner racist? Honestly, no. It wasn’t their race that he had a problem with. It was their culture.
Because imagine the scenario is different. Imagine that the family looks exactly the same. They have brown skin and dark hair. The grandmother lives with them, and Spanish is their native language. But this family is from the capitol of Mexico. They lived in a wealthy part of town, and both parents have university degrees. They’ve moved to the US for the father to take a job as an engineer and the mother to work at a local university. Their English isn’t perfect, but it’s passable. Their son plays soccer with the midwesterner’s son. They meet up at the mailbox and chat briefly some evenings after work. They discover that they both love Indy car racing. Sometimes the family has large parties and loud music, but the first time it happened, they apologized the next day for the noise. After nearly every party, they bring over leftover pastries. Our midwesterner gets annoyed sometimes, but overall, they’re friendlier neighbors than most. He’s glad they moved in and hopes to get to know them better and even learn more about their Mexican culture.
See? He isn’t racist. He isn’t opposed to people from other countries or with other skin color. When they’ve adapted to his culture, even if there are still some small differences, he likes them. It’s only when the cultural gap is too wide that he isn’t prepared to deal with it.
Now, if you are reading this and you are a white American, there’s a decent chance you’re thinking, “No, it’s not the culture of the Hondurans that he had a problem with. It was their rudeness. No one wants inconsiderate neighbors. It has nothing to do with culture.”
That is the basis of almost all serious cultural clashes. Your attitudes or behaviors don’t just seem different to me, they seem reprehensible. I’m not just inconvenienced by them, I’m angry because you consistently show that you are a bad person. In turn, that affects our future interactions. And so the divide grows.
This is why we need to understand culture. Because that Honduran family? They aren’t inherently rude. They’re just doing what is normal in their culture. Having family and friends over as often as possible. What are silly little details like quiet and sleep and convenient parking compared to enjoying life with the people you love? And if your neighbor comes over, you invite him to join the party! Sure, you’ll move the car, but you don’t want to make him feel unwelcome by hurrying to carry out his request and get rid of him. Make sure he gets something to eat and drink first. It’s a little hurtful that he never stays, but you won’t hold it against him that he’s wound so tight. He’s probably just used to being alone, poor guy. His friends and family hardly ever visit.
Clearly this is also a generalization. Maybe they aren’t that wonderful of people. Some Hondurans are jerks just like some Americans are jerks. But the point is that the actions I described above aren’t inherently inconsiderate. They’re just considering a different set of values.
And in this example, our Midwesterner is at least aware that a cultural interaction is taking place. He knows his neighbors come from another country. How much worse is it when a black family moves in and begins acting in a similar way? They’re African-American, have lived in the same state their whole lives. Theoretically they’re from the same culture, and therefore the only difference is skin color. Except they aren’t and it isn’t. They do have a different culture, and their behavior is also being informed by a different set of values. Though it’s harder to see, this is still more about culture than about race.
If I understand that, will I still be annoyed to come home and find my driveway blocked by a car? Of course I will. Just because you understand something doesn’t mean you like it. But understanding what’s going on from my neighbors’ point of view is the first step toward being able to communicate with my neighbors in a way that will actually be helpful. Maybe I need to stay at the party a time or two and get to know them. Maybe I need to get to know their cousins and uncles who come over every week. Maybe I need to let them get to know me. And then maybe one day I’ll be able to tell them how I feel about the parking as a friend and not an irritated stranger. Maybe.
My hope is that if we can begin to understand culture, it will shed new light on issues of race. If I recognize the vast cultural differences that exist even between members of the same race, maybe I can wait to get to know someone before making assumptions based on their appearance. As I develop the skill of looking under behaviors for the values and beliefs that inform them, maybe I will find it easier to lay down my ever-ready defenses and give people the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t want to ignore racism; I want to attack it from a different angle.
I want to undermine it at its roots.