Thinking About Cultural Heritage
I am an American citizen with fairly standard-issue Northern European mixed heritage. This means that sometimes I feel boring, or like I don’t really have a culture to call my own. That is an illusion created by the fact that my culture is everywhere. I am represented in every book I read, every show I watch. I spend the vast majority of my days swimming in my traditions and culture. They are as pervasive as the air and I pay them about as much attention. This means that I do not truly understand when someone else has a driving need to connect with their heritage and a vital need to protect it from absorption and dilution. I can intellectually comprehend, but I’ve never been alienated or separated from my culture of birth. I don’t have that emotional experience, which means I should listen carefully when those who do have it, choose to speak in a forum where I can listen.
I do have one aspect of my life that is non-standard. I’m a born and raised member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. On my mother’s side I am steeped in pioneer heritage, stories of people who trekked across the wilderness in order to build a place where they could practice their beliefs freely. That heritage is praised and used to shape modern LDS culture. On my Dad’s side is a conversion story, which is also a strong part of LDS culture. We love stories of people changing their lives in response to personal spiritual experiences and exercises of faith. My childhood is steeped in this culture and my adulthood continues to be, because I choose it, even though there are aspects of modern LDS culture that trouble or annoy me. Note that there is a difference between the doctrines of the religion and the culture that forms around them.
Any time there is a news article or media event that throws general attention on the LDS faith, I feel anxious. Often the attention is neutral or positive, but I still feel cautious anyway, as when I heard about Book of Mormon the Musical. I did not know whether that play would accurately represent my faith or culture as I experience it. Logically, I knew that a misrepresentation would not do me any harm, but I paid attention anyway. I pay similar attention to any other news stories relating to Mormonism. I worry that people will make assumptions about who I am based on what they think they know about my faith and culture. I know that there are some people who will automatically be antagonistic toward me because of it. Yet I skip most of that negative attention, because my sub-culture does not show on first glance.
Then I think about what it would be like if my Mormonism were written on my face. What if, like the Jewish people in Nazi Germany, I had to display my cultural alignment for all to react to every time I went out in public. When I imagine that, I begin to understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. Then I begin to understand why the “It’s a culture not a costume” campaigns matter. Some people are not given the option to blend in. They have no choice but to stand out wherever they go and that makes them a walking target, not just for hateful things, but also for people like me, who mean well, but are still fumbling around trying to understand. I don’t understand. I haven’t lived it. This means that I should listen on these issues more than I should speak. I should give my attention to when people tweet about Being Black on University of Michigan campus (#BBUM) and the twitter hashtag #IAmNotYourAsianSidekick. And if I’m tempted to think the issues are being blown out of proportion, I should remember to do a comparison of the google image searches for Caucasian and Asian. Then I should think about how I would feel to have my heritage represented by such a search.
We are all products of our cultures, and one of the aspects of white American culture is to assume that our experience of life is what everyone gets. It is not true. Life is not fair. We all have different difficulty settings and if we’re aware of that, then we have a chance to see all the people around us as equals who are shaped and made interesting by their cultural heritages.
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