We Are All Culture
I’ve long harbored a simmering disdain for the toxic effects that cultural norms and expectations instill in each of us. I can find many instances in my own life where I allowed cultural expectations to override my own natural instincts, causing me much unnecessary pain and suffering. I’ve decried the ways in which culture twists us into trying to achieve things that don’t serve us, including a mostly hollow form of success that centers materialism and wealth. I’ve often felt at the mercy of culture, as if it’s a toxic, poisonous gas that I breathe in without even realizing it. It’s easy to blame culture for our woes, afterall, it is extremely influential and its norms are powerful.
Until recently, I thought of these influences as some unknown force that defied explanation, as if culture wasn’t made up of people. I viewed it as this strange entity of unknown origin that circulated through my life and tried to get me to adhere to its prescribed ways of being. I recently attended a talk given by diversity speaker Joy Chen where she stated that everything we say and do as individuals creates culture. This may seem like an obvious statement, but to me it was revolutionary. I, too, am culture. I had never considered myself a part of culture before I heard Chen’s statement. Every time I let a racist comment stand unchallenged, every time I laugh at a joke at the expense of someone else, I am upholding and contributing to a culture that I say I disdain.
Reframing culture as something personal makes it easier for me to speak out against language I find offensive, or to offer a suggestion on how to be more inclusive in our use of language. Last week, on visits to two different healthcare clinics I was asked who my daughter’s dad was. The assumption that every child has a father or that there are two parents in every family is exclusionary. If I can offer a respectful suggestion that the person instead ask if there is another parent and, if so, then ask in a gender neutral way who that parent is, then I can begin to alter the cultural expectation that all families have two parents and a mother and father. It may be only one person that hears this message, but that one person can learn to be more inclusive in their language and then others can learn from their example. This is how change happens, slowly and often starting with one person speaking up.
I’m still working on using my voice to create the changes I want to see in our culture. I was raised to not make others feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by voicing my own opinion. Thinking of my words and actions as cementing cultural norms has helped me be more assertive. I don’t want to be part of the culture that creates exclusive norms. I want to be part of the change to usher in belonging and acceptance for all of us to be our true selves.