Discussions about cultural identity, regardless of their outcome, tell us a lot about ourselves, the people we know, the communities we’re a part of, and the world around us. Cultural identity in the first place, encompasses a wide variety of subjects from elements of specific cultures such as dance, fashion, and language, to social constructions that have to do with gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc.
Prompted by an article, 10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Date A Mexican Man, I believe that when wanting to identify and explain culture, both in a personal and communal way, there are benefits to being conscious of particular elements. The hope of course is that this consciousness leads to more productive dialogues and outcomes.
1. Be conscious of the fact that everyone has hundreds if not thousands of identities.
Interesectionality in the academic arena, tends to look at multiple forms of disadvantage and oppression a person may experience. In the lay sense however, it is used to discuss how multiple identities need to be considered in any given context. We all have intersectionality. For example, when talking about race, I will never just be a Black person talking about race. I will be a Black, African, Nigerian woman with social, education, and professional privilege talking about race. How I see the world and even how I discuss race will always reflect those things. Consider how your identities inform your perspectives of the cultural ideas that you discuss.
2. Be conscious of your privileges and your disadvantages in any given context.
There has been a proliferation of the ideology of “privilege” and who does and doesn’t have them, depending on the subject in question. I do believe that one should always be aware of their privileges, however much discomfort it brings. I think forgetting privilege especially, often prevents us from recognizing that social realities are not equal even when people occupy the same physical or virtual space. However, I can wholeheartedly agree that saying “Check your privilege,” in an indignant manner is not the way to go about it. Acknowledging that in some ways some of your identities privilege you while others put you at a disadvantage, and that the context of privileges and disadvantages are not always clear-cut but may be dependent on space and time, allows for greater awareness in approaching cultural conversations.
3. Be conscious that stereotypes and generalizations don’t expose the truth.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,” writes Chimamanda Adichie, “but they are incomplete.” When discussing cultural identity, it is always best to avoid speaking in terms of generalizations and stereotypes, and presenting them as facts. Generalizations are useful because they help us see patterns in communities. But what they do not reflect is individual social reality. Identity, as we know, is complex and dynamic. Our generalizations cause us to forget that. But the truth is we are all prejudiced. None of us are exempt. This doesn’t mean though we should act out on these prejudices, or stereotypes. Instead, it means we should be even more focused on going beyond them and presenting complexity not simple binary distinctions. It is not only more interesting to do so, it is more empathetic and arguably closer to the truth.
4. Be conscious that you have limited knowledge about the diversity of any one culture.
A difficult problem to resolve in our cultural experiences and subsequently our dialogues that ensue, is that we tend to only be exposed to particular elements of any one culture. And for many, that scope tends to be the viewpoint by which they perceive a culture and describe it. Again, being African, I often give the example of people who do business in an African city, versus people who may volunteer in an African village, versus people who may go on vacation in an African city or town that attracts tourism, will most certainly have different views, even when they may all be in one African country. But the tendency might be to describe that country and its people in a monolithic way. Actively thinking of a place and its people as complex, and of ourselves as ultimately being unable to know it in its entirety, actually has the result of making us better at truly capturing its diversity even with our limited experiences.
5. Be conscious that you might be proven wrong by someone with a greater knowledge-base, or wider lived experience than you.
It gets very tricky when you talk about your experiences within a certain framework and culture, especially when you are speaking as an outsider or an out-group member. Because in-group members will almost certainly be more knowledgeable than you and I. Now this is not to make any one person the spokesperson for whatever community they represent at one particular moment in time. But it is to keep in mind that nobody can speak better of an experience than someone who has lived through that experience. That whatever our relationship is to a particular identity or culture, if it is not one that we represent, our framework is simply limited by virtue of being born under different constructions. This is the most difficult point to be conscious of, but it is one that gives us the most capacity to view our engagements with others as an opportunity for learning and exposure.
When it comes to culture and cultural identities, we will at one point express an unintentionally false idea, or put our foot in our mouth, or simply get it wrong. Nobody knows everything about everything. But having the humility to be opening to listening, having the prudence to do our due diligence by reading and speaking with a variety of sources, hopefully we can improve the ways in which we learn and participate in culture, and cultural conversations.