Tuesday, April 20, 2010

IDENTITY VERSUS CULTURE

Everyone struggles with their identity at some point. Sometimes we struggle to find ourselves as distinct members of a family, community, society. Other times we must face the challenge of recognizing ourselves outside of those boundaries or in a new context, outside of a stereotype or an expectation and in a new place, time, age. We may live with a slight discomfort our whole lives, an uneasiness, a sense of isolation but we may never discover the root causes of these feelings until forced, or simply asked, to examine the situations from which they arose. When we do so, I think many of us will find the same thing, as many of the authors of these essays have. In essence, our insecurities within society seem to stem from insecurities within the family, regardless of our particular struggles. Insecurities about race stem from cultural expectations upheld by parents that may not apply to a new, expanded culture. Or they can come from a shared racial insecurity, as depicted in The Bluest Eye. Or they simply arise because in everyone’s life, especially in America, we are at one point severed from a family of shared experiences, cultures, genes, and cast into the melting pot. Our shared struggle – regardless of race, gender, or sexual preference – is maintaining our shape over the flame of a greater culture, a pressure larger and more intrusive than even our families. Despite their obvious differences, I see this struggle in each of the stories we’ve read.

We all struggle not to get lost in the melting pot of American culture.
source:http://iron.lcc.gatech.edu/~ntrivedi6/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/malting-pot.jpg

As a society, I feel that we are obsessed both with maintaining unique ancestral cultures and rejecting them. We at once want to be unique and fit in. So where does diversity, the ideological byproduct of our country’s foundation, sit in this innate contradiction? We obviously don’t know how to deal with it, despite its pervasiveness. I feel that the essays we read for this discussion focus less on racial tension and more on the culture war that we all face in America, especially those who must struggle to solidify their place in this country, this culture. I was struck by the observation in the first essay: “Race and culture are synonymous when people with a similar history or genetic make-up share common life experiences unique to their heritage (p.866).” Outside of those conditions, the two are not synonymous, and in America especially, may have very little to do with another. So in America, one isn’t necessarily born into a culture, typecast by appearance alone; and in many ways one has the freedom to escape any standards of culture pressed upon them by parents or communities. In the second essay, the author wasn’t embarrassed or outcast because of his race – there were many other Asians at his school – but rather because of his culture, something foreign, noticeable, unique – the smell of his food at lunch.

I can imagine that it would be easy to vilify one’s native culture during youth since it not only presents a challenge to “fitting in” but is also representative of parental dominance. It would be natural for any young person to rebel against the culture their parents forced onto them. I think that this ease of rebellion is unfortunate, because it sets up an identity crisis lying dormant, a cultural rift within a family, and a general loss of culture. I saw the trend in the essays that as the authors aged, they began to revisit the cultures they thought they had lost, or been cast out from, as adolescents. It’s a question of finding the right balance that people growing up in America, especially those raised by immigrant parents, must answer in order to function both within a family and within a larger society. In the third essay the author realizes that “Part of coming to terms with who I was involved reconciling the distant personal relationship I had with my father, but I also realized that I needed to reconcile myself with what it really meant to be Chinese, since that was the source of much of our conflict (p.887).” It is a discomfort with one’s culture, a struggle to reconcile it with the pervasive culture (or anti-culture) of America, which leads to problems within families. But it can also work the other way – a cultural identity associated with a dysfunctional family may not be held onto as a means of coping, or repressing, the pain of a fractured family life. I agree with the statement from the second essay that “we all exist with scars that seem too deep and too painful (p.879).” These scars may be experiences that sever us from our heritage, our history, our families. Or they could be those glimpses of an identity unexpected and unwelcomed by the safety net of sociocultural standards, those revelations that you don’t necessarily fit the niche you’ve been given.

"Who are you?" may be an unanswerable question.
source: http://www.alexross.com/whoareyoubenson.jpg


It’s hard to know who you are. I can only imagine the added struggle of growing up with multiple parties constantly telling you who you should be, with the threat of disownment at the betrayal of their expectations. I can only be in shock to read about the reaction of the parents in the second essay, their complete denial and disgrace at their son’s homosexuality. Though it isn’t their reaction that is most striking, in fact I might say its typical, shallow even. Rather, it is the predicament of the son who wants to love his parents and belong to his family but can’t live within their expectations that haunts me. To have to pit one’s own identity – a tentative and elusive definition – against the establishment of family, of ancestry, of an entire culture would be a debilitating struggle. But I suppose it’s a necessary one. We can’t forget where we come from, even if its vestiges appear only as guilt or resentment. The author of the third essay seemed to reconcile the dichotomy of familial culture and personal identity thusly: “While I see my roots as an important connection to my past, I do not see them as defining my future (p.887).” In the end, it takes confidence to move away from one’s roots. I don’t see this as a rejection or dismissal of culture, but rather as a necessary attempt to separate one’s identity from a cultural identity that may be susceptible to generalization and subsequent discrimination or persecution. I think it is just as dangerous for a person to devote themselves wholly to a cultural identity – to say “I am Korean” or “I am a Latino” or “I am a homosexual” – as it is to reject one’s cultural, or sexual, identity completely. In both cases, we become hollow shells of people, type-cast, narrowly defined. It is easy to get into the habit of “constructing layers of social identities that do not communicate a consistent core self across space and time (p.888),” because those layers, those social identities, are easy for others to process and judge and react to accordingly. If we only represent ourselves as this race or that culture, we not only alienate others, but we isolate ourselves, we become detached from our true identities as complex, multidimensional personalities. Racism, sexism, and homophobia will never go away if we keep representing ourselves in singular, static ways, because the generalities, the assumptions, are created in our own narrow definitions, in our own inability to reconcile diverse cultures/identities/roles within ourselves - much less among others.

33 comments:

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