I remember how excited my father was when my brother was born, you would’ve thought it was his first child. Growing up the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant meant a lot of things. It meant no eating or grabbing things with the left hand. It meant always remembering to greet your elders and calling every familiar man and women “auntie” and “uncle.” It meant focusing on your studies and excelling in your academics, minding your senior siblings at all times. But most of all it meant that myself and my four sisters were a liability to my father. Cultures?
My brother was a legacy. At my brother’s naming ceremony, there was food and drink, cultural dancers and masquerade costumes, I’d never seen my father so unreserved. He carried my brother around in his arms, smiling from ear to ear as guests placed their hands on my brother’s tiny forehead to offer their blessing. I watched from the porch stairs with my sisters, all dolled up for the occasion, and I’m not gonna lie, we were peeved. We grew up in a household where holidays and special occasions were planned around dad’s six-day mass schedule. What was it about this particular kid out of all of my father’s children that warranted such a jubilee?
Later that evening, we asked my dad why none of us got a naming ceremony, not even the first born. He explained that my brother was prayed for, that although we were all gifts from God, my brother was a fulfillment of cultural prophecy. Not to mention, my brother would carry our last name, even after marriage, while we would belong to our future husbands. In other words, it was my fathers’ cultural responsibility to have a son, for the preservation of our family legacy, as Igbo teaches. And for that reason, he had every cause to celebrate my brother’s birth, although he loved us all equally, no less. And although we loved our father the same, we questioned if he could truly love us through a culture that didn’t.
Culture is an all encompassing term that umbrellas the many varied forms that collective human behavior can take. Traditional Culture, for example, specifically refers to collective experiences that are passed on from generation to generation. Examples of this include language, holidays, music, and rituals and ceremonies. Another variation is what’s known as a Subculture, which refers to a collection of traditions or behaviors that accompany a specific lifestyle. Within a subculture, it’s not uncommon to find that the beliefs divert from mainstream ideologies, thus causing members of the culture to bond around their distinctions. Goth, Hipster, and Steam Punk are some of the more well known examples in American culture. And a Super Culture is one of the more impactful forms that a culture can take, being comprised of a collection of pre-existing cultures (sometimes subcultures) for the sake of sharing in a sense of unity. Europeans are a prime example of a Super Culture. Despite having different ways of life based on their traditional cultures and subcultures, people of European descent share an overarching Super Culture that elevates the norms and beliefs they share over the ones they don’t. But as much as culture seems to dictate how we live, it’s also subject to the collective movement of the people it governs.
“Cultural Change”, which describes this movement, refers to change that occurs over time within a group of people and affects the shared way of life. Plainly put, it change when the people change, for better or worse. Sometimes these changes are facilitated by the members of the actual culture, like when new inventions are introduced to a community, changing an activity or behavior. And other times the changes are less than consensual, like in instances of war and natural disaster. So what does something like slavery do to a people’s culture? How about gendered and systemic oppression? Cultures can be birthed from orchestrated dysfunction, ie. soul food from scraps, and when that happens, it’s necessary to assess if the it can still be of service to the people in spite of its origins. When the individuals responsible for shifting and influencing a culture do it solely for the culture’s demise, the repackaging of said dysfunction as it is all apart of the influence. The labeling of archaic viewpoints and beliefs as culture is a convenient way of admonishing oneself of the responsibility of social evolution. We get a crash course in this every time we hear white Southerners defend the confederate flag as being a cultural relic.
So who is responsible when the culture doesn’t promote itself, but instead pushes a way of life that undermines it? We’ve already acknowledged that we’ve become victims of our own culture, held captive by rigid, unrealistic cultural expectations that serve only to keep us in line. If the culture doesn’t serve the people, the people shouldn’t expect to flourish under its guidelines. Women cannot flourish under a culture that says they are to be subjugated and controlled. Boys don’t become healthy, well-adjusted men when raised within a culture that values their brute over their social and emotional intelligence. The expectation for many people of color attempting to squeeze purpose out of flawed human policy is that adhering to dysfunctional culture is less disruptive then rejecting the culture all together. The idea is that if we’ve been wrong this long, the dysfunction has somewhat become our way of functioning, and therefore challenging that aspect would result in more dysfunction. But under a culture that is fundamentally unwell, no one gets to claim victory for surviving its influence. And besides, only a dysfunctional culture would use survival as a measure of success anyway.
Slavery was once the culture. As well as apartheid, as well as Nazi Germany, as well as colonialism. If a culture can be built around the objectification of another, why is it too much for those impacted by it to reestablish it on their own terms? We can continue to dismiss things like corporal punishment and soul food as historical aspects of our cultures, no matter how destructive we’ve determined them to be, or we can acknowledge the origins of those ideas and choose to shift the culture in a way that best serves us. We are not slaves to our culture, we are the creators of it, good or bad. If the culture dictates that left handed people be ostracized and we are acknowledging in 2019 that this is completely nonsensical, then how nonsensical are we to uphold such beliefs under the guise of culture? If the culture says that children are to be seen and not heard and we are acknowledging that children are often victimized in communities where their voices are silenced, then how much do we love the children if we choose to ignore this finding in exchange for culture? If the culture says that men and women are restricted to only a portion of their human emotions based on their gender and we don’t challenge the minimization of human emotion, then we should stop complaining about dead-end love lives and meaningless interactions.
Culture doesn’t change itself, it’s on us to challenge the aspects of our way of life that we no longer wish to accept. And that doesn’t dishonor the ones who endured before us, it honors our ability to mold our society as we see fit, a right our ancestors were denied. It doesn’t disgrace our past to mold our cultures around a future we desire. After all, doing it for the culture serves no purpose if the culture doesn’t do it for the people.