Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Culture - One

For the purposes of the Intercultural Studies Project, culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.
University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition
Two things have happened recently that have me thinking about culture. One was an online discussion about McDonald's outreach to black communities in America. (As an aside, do White Supremacists have radar for these sorts of discussions, or what?) The other was reading an article in The Atlantic about the debate over the term "rape culture" (and how that debate has become dysfunctional).

Now when we talk about "African-American Culture" and "Rape Culture," it's worthwhile to keep in mind that these are related concepts, but very different things. African-American culture in the United States identifies members of that culture and distinguishes non-members. As a marginally attached (at best) member of African-American culture, I can attest to this, as I'm often effectively a non-member. When we talk about rape culture in the United States, it's more about the process and cultural constricts behind normalizing sexual violence against women - membership or non-membership is very much secondary.

But are these concepts "real?" For many people, the idea of African-American culture is simply racist people-sorting with an academic-sounding name - they would attach the words "so-called" to the front it whenever they could. But having grown up black in a nearly exclusively white neighborhood, I noticed that there are specific patters of acting and dealing with others, thinking about the world, and understanding other people's emotional and cognitive states that I learned through being around people and fitting in with them. And the patterns that I learned from my parents and extended family were somewhat different than those that I learned from my peers, my classmates and the adults that we interacted with. But what really drove it home for me was going to college. I spent my freshman year at Hampton University, a Traditionally Black College/University in (not-surprisingly) Hampton, Virginia. It was the first time that I'd ever been in a large group of exclusively African-Americans that weren't relatives. And they, I found out, had shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understandings that were more or less consistent between them - and nearly completely foreign to me. It was literally weeks before I could understand people well enough to converse with them without screwing it up.

Where the cultural and the racial collided was in the idea that as someone who was visibly black, I was also, by default, automatically culturally black. And so the white suburban culture that I expressed (the one that I had grown up in) was a deliberate affectation - an attempt to mimic a culture that I had not been socialized into, in order to identify myself as a member of a "foreign" (and often hostile) culture, while distinguishing them as being of "another group." They felt that rejection keenly, and we fought over it. While members of my extended family understood me as different (and I them), family carries a lot of weight. They understood that my parents had moved away from the inner city in search of better jobs and less dangerous streets on which to raise my sister and I. The people I met for the first time in college saw me as just another random person, and were unaware of any mitigating history.

I only stayed at Hampton a year. The culture clash resulted in a constant, behind the scenes, conflict that I was tired of navigating. And when the whiff of money entered the picture, things became even more complicated. And so I went to school closer to home, more on the borderlands between cultures, so that I knew my avenue of retreat was always open. But, it's not like white people were immune from the idea that race and culture went hand-in-hand. My ability to play their game as well as they did was often a source of surprise (I lost count of how many times people remarked on how "articulate" I was - as if someone with a Liberal Arts Bachelor's degree should be anything but) and I often dealt with first impressions where people assumed that the fact that I looked a certain way meant that I would behave in a certain way, and understand certain things. I was being distinguished as belonging to another group.

It's worth understanding that racial/ethnic culture in the United States is learned, and I'm not the only person who failed learn the one that people expect of them. There are a lot of cultural outcasts - some by circumstance, and others by choice. The reality of the concept does not lead to its ironclad universality. The United States is a large place, full of groups that don't always interact with one another. This allows for the evolution of many different shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understandings as the processes of socialization vary from place to place. And cultures are not mutually exclusive. What we term "African-American Culture" is actually a fairly narrow set of cultural artifacts that tie a widely disparate group of people together. The consistency I noted in college was simply a result of proximity - interaction demands a common frame of reference, and so the individual, local cultural aspects people brought with them were downplayed in favor of the common, broader ones. To my freshman math teacher, an African immigrant, we were likely all a single homogeneous group. The conflicts between me and the other people in the class were likely completely invisible to him. Similarly, to a Greek student I knew later in college, the entire United States was a single, homogeneous cultural group. The narrow set of cultural artifacts that wound throughout America were the whole of all American culture to him, and the bits and pieces of different subcultures were simply individual quirks.

And I've learned that it's not simply people from outside the United States that understand things this way. For many Americans, certain cultural constructs are invisible, and so are the cultures that they then represent. From high enough up, everything is the same.

P.S.: By the way, if you're not hip to "affective understanding" here's a quick rundown. This describes how people would like it to work for machines, but since that's basically just a model of what people do, you may find it enlightening.

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