Cultural Identity

In order to talk about cultures (the values, beliefs, and behaviors of a group) we’ve made a lot of generalizations. It’s helpful to understand these patterns of value and belief, especially as we consider adapting systems to be equitable for people of all cultures. As we think about our day-to-day interactions with individuals, though, it’s useful to ask ourselves how we know what culture someone belongs to.

Consider four people with the same ethnic heritage and the same country of birth. Just as an example, let’s say all four had parent born in China and all four were born in the United States, in the state of California.

Li’s parents were well educated in China and came to California for the economic opportunity. Both speak fluent English and have successful careers in the tech industry. Li was born after they had lived in the US for several years. She grew up in an upper-middle class urban area, had no siblings, and was educated in private schools. Her family claimed no religion, though her mother encouraged her to be spiritual. Her parents taught her some Chinese, but English was spoken at home. She now attends UC Berkeley.

Min’s parents came to the United States fleeing oppression. They spoke only a few words of English and had no money. Both took labor-intensive jobs in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Min was born three months after they arrived. Min was raised in a lower-class urban neighborhood, is the oldest of two children, and spoke only Chinese until she began attending public school at age 6. Her family is Christian, and were dedicated members of a Chinese-speaking church. Her parents eventually saved enough to open a small business, and Min was expected to work shifts in the business in addition to her studies. She eventually worked her way through college at California State.

Brian’s parents were both born in China but came to the U.S. as small children. Neither speaks Chinese, having grown up embarrassed by their parents’ lack of English skill. They met in college and bonded over their similar background. Brian is one of three children, was raised in a small town in northern California, and played soccer at his public school. His family is Christian and only sometimes attended a large, mostly-white church in town. Though his grandparents only live a few hours away, his family visited them only a couple times a year. His first real introduction to China happened on a trip he took to Beijing with his college soccer team.

Jin’s parents came to California to join his aunt and uncle and work for their business in the tourism industry. Jin is the youngest of four children and the only one born in the US. His parents were determined that their children would learn English, so no Chinese was spoken at home. Jin grew up in a small beach town, attended a small public school, and is an avid surfer. When he was fifteen, his grandmother came from China to live with his family. He became fascinated with the Chinese culture he never knew growing up, adopted his grandmother’s Buddhist religion, and studied Chinese in college.

Li, Min, Brian, and Jin are all Chinese-American. Not only do they share certain physical characteristics, they all are products of the same two national cultures. But it would be a huge mistake to think that these four have the same values, beliefs, and behaviors. In spite of their commonalities, their cultural identities are quite different.

When we talk about someone’s cultural identity, we’re not referring to their genetics. The culture that someone belongs to is the one that shaped them and that they identify with.

Each person’s cultural identity is made up of many factors, and the importance of each factor depends on its significance to the person. Some of the most important of those factors are race/ethnicity (recognizing again that this isn’t so much an issue of genetics as of the way society has defined race), socio-economic status, religion, place of residence, family structure, and degree of personal conformity to cultural norms.

Think about your own cultural identity, starting with what shaped you. What race or ethnicity do you claim? How significantly did you feel your race or ethnicity impacted your life? What was the economic status of your family of origin? How did that compare with the economic status of those you spent the most time with? What religion were you raised in? How important was that religion to your family? To you? Where did you live? In what country and in what region? Did you live in the city or in a small town or in the country? What was your family status? How many parents lived with you? How many siblings did you have? What was your position among those siblings? How much did you fit in with your family’s values? How much did your family fit in with your community’s values?

All of those answers go into forming your cultural identity. And as if that weren’t complicated enough, your cultural identity can shift over time. To be clear, it takes a lifetime to alter the beliefs and values of the culture that formed you, if it ever happens at all, but your behaviors (and then later, maybe, your values and beliefs) will be influenced by the culture you choose to identify with as an adult. Most adults remain pretty closely tied to their culture of origin, but in some cases radical changes can occur.

You may find your cultural identity changing due to your education level, your career choice, your choice of religion, where you choose to live, the status of the family you found as an adult and your adult socio-economic status.

Can you think of ways that you identify with a different culture than you did as a child? How different are your own values, beliefs, and behaviors from those of your parents?

What’s the point of these questions? As I’ve already said, it’s critical that we develop cultural understanding so that we can get past the behaviors of those around us and see the values, beliefs and attitudes underneath. But as we become more culturally aware, we can’t ever use our broad cultural brush to make assumptions about the people we meet. If we do, we fall into the trap of stereotyping, just with more educated language. Generalizations are helpful in understanding groups, but dangerous in understanding individuals.

Always, always, we are truly culturally aware only when we take the time to get to know individuals, when we discover what cultural factors formed them and what cultural identity they choose to claim. We have to allow for complexity and for change.

We have to do the hard work of listening.

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