As part of my job, I am required to complete extensive training each year on a variety of topics but usually on the laws and regulations that govern the industry in which I work. This month’s training was on the topic of culture and identity, a slightly different topic from the norm but important nevertheless since my employer takes ethics very seriously and instills a culture of inclusion for all of its employees.
Two questions were asked to begin the training: What identity do you have? How many cultures do you belong to? Simple answers are the first things that come to mind but the real answers are much more complex. For example, in terms of identity I think of myself as a wife, mother, grandmother. Those are my first thoughts. But I also can identify as sister, youngest sibling, aunt, working woman, baby boomer, survivor, writer. Actually, there are many more labels that can be applied depending on the context I find myself in when needing to self-identify.
The culture thing was a little trickier for me. When asked how many cultures I am a part of, I naively answered one. As it turns out, I am a part of several since I am a white, college graduate, middle-aged, employed, married, hearing-impaired, female, American. Each one of those characteristics places me into a unique group. And each one of those groups to which I belong has its own rules and values that drive my behaviors. If a culture values hard work, behaviors will look like focusing on goals, being organized and determined, striving for success. If a culture values family, behaviors will look like respecting elders, honoring parents, offering support and encouragement to siblings.
As “one nation”, the United States is a diverse blend of communities and cultures, all sharing experiences and common influences. Our lives are governed by the same laws, systems, and processes, and yet we behave in ways that we learned from our cultural identities, based on who we identify as and how important certain values are to us.
Think of the community in which you live. How many cultures are reflected in that community? How different are the values and behaviors among all of the cultures that exist? Do you consider your community successful? Do cultures co-exist easily or is there a constant tension?
What happens when a culture is mired in despair and hopelessness, if common values are focused around the mere act to survive? How does a community blend that set of values with the values of its other cultures that don’t have to worry about survival and instead focus on achievements and success? Can members of “successful” cultures even comprehend the lives of those in other cultures just trying to live to see another day?
Cultural differences influence how we are treated simply in how others identify us or in how we self-identify. As a white person I never thought I would be subjected to profiling in America. It never used to matter that I was a woman. I was told I could grow up to be anything I wanted and I taught my daughters the same thing. But things changed during last year’s presidential campaigns and election. The Women’s March and other protests caused some men to start treating me differently, labeling me emotional, hysterical even, simply because I am a female and despite the fact that I didn’t participate in any of those events. As a citizen of the United States, I never thought I would live in a country ruled by a dictator. I still don’t, but the fear is real now when before I couldn’t imagine it. Right before my very eyes I’ve witnessed the man in the office of President of the United States knowingly lie and mislead people, blatantly and strategically breaking ethical and moral bounds if not legal ones. If a culture begins to allow lies and deceits and ambiguity, what rules and values do those behaviors create?
I am embarrassed to admit I am married to someone who defends Trump’s every word. I try to justify it by saying my husband doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand women, he’s from the “old school”. But what do my words and my behavior say to the culture of women to which I belong? When my husband defends Trump by saying it’s within the President’s authority to pardon anyone he wants, what does that say about the values and rules we have in our home?
I am an American. I am a woman. Nothing will change those identities. But I have fear today that I didn’t have a year ago, that I never imagined I would feel, ever. How do I stay a member of my cultural groups when their values and behaviors are changing in catastrophic ways that I disagree with? These sweeping changes carry the potential to destroy the America I love and crack the foundation of my marriage and my home. How does one maneuver through a minefield like the one that has sprouted up around us?