Describing the Water

When you are part of the ingroup or the majority, it can be difficult to answer the question, what is culture? I recently talked about right handed people not having to think about being right handed. It is like asking a fish to describe water. When the water is all around you and it’s all you see and all you know, it can be difficult to even notice the water. Let alone describe it.

The times I have been most aware of the water around me is when I have experienced what it is like to be in the outgroup or part of the minority. These moments have brought a range of emotions; from discomfort, frustration, confusion, disbelief, and anger. They have been unforgettable teaching moments that have stayed with me for decades. For now, I will highlight a few of the times that I became very aware of the water based on three different dimensions of culture:

  • I can remember a wonderful night spent with a bunch of friends. All of them were native Spanish-speakers. Even though I knew some Spanish, I was not fully engaged and involved. It was a super fun evening with lots of laughter and everyone did their best to make sure I felt included. Although I enjoyed the people, the music, and the food, I still felt just the slightest bit detached and isolated. I wasn’t part of something that I wanted to be a part of. It made me think about people who are constantly surrounded by people who don’t share their native language and what that must feel like day after day.
  • I’ll never forget a rainy day that I spent with a friend who uses a motorized wheelchair. I drove her accessible van to a music concert that was held in a historic building that was not accessible. To get to our seats, we had to enter the concert hall from the back of the building and go through the kitchen. After the concert, someone parked too close to the van and we couldn’t use the ramps. After that experience, I try to remember the challenges that my friend faces every day when she leaves her home and I also watch the lines when I park near an accessible space.
  • I vividly recall a meal shared with an African-American friend at Cornell. After going through the cafeteria line together, I could tell he was upset about something. When I asked, he shared his frustration with the racist cashier. We talked and I told him the cashier was always super disrespectful to me too. We eventually came to the conclusion that she was just a nasty person. But I suddenly realized that my friend interpreted negative interactions based on his skin color and the possibility of racism, while I had never once had that thought occur to me.

Have there been times in your life that you noticed the water? How did it make you feel? Did it have a lasting impact?

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Dimensions of Culture

Let’s continue exploring the question: What is culture? I hope you have spent time thinking about this important question and writing down those cultural dimensions of your life that have shaped and guided your worldview.

You’ll find that there are many different ways to teach about culture. One popular approach is to think of culture like an iceberg. The main idea is to remind people that the visible aspects of culture (food, clothing, language, skin color, etc.) often make up a small part of a person’s culture. There are also invisible aspects of culture that are below the surface and invisible to an observer. These dimensions of culture are more numerous and contain more depth. The key is to remember that people are more complex and complicated than we often realize. Assumptions based on the visible dimensions of culture often end up missing the depth and richness that culture bestows upon all of us. The iceberg may not be a perfect model, but it is another helpful way to think about culture.

Years ago, I developed a graphic to help illustrate 14 different dimensions of culture. Over the course of time and through many enlightening conversations, my list has grown and it continues to grow. I am aware that this old graphic is not all-inclusive. It does, however, provide a good starting point for our discussion about the dimensions of culture. Let’s start at the top and continue clockwise. As you consider each of these dimensions, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

Graphic with dimensions of culture

  • Ability: Do you have any physical, mental, developmental, or psychological limitations or disabilities?
  • Sexual Orientation: Do you identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender or questioning?
  • Time of Arrival in the U.S.: How long have you and/or your family lived in the U.S.?
  • Age/Cohort: How old are you? What world events have occurred in your lifetime that help define the way you view the world?
  • Education: How much formal and/or informal education do you have?
  • Religiosity/Spirituality: Do you have any religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical beliefs?
  • Family of Origin: What roles and rules did you learn from your family while you were growing up?
  • Skin Color: How would you describe your skin color?
  • Gender: Do you identify as female, male, transgender, non-conforming, or something else?
  • Social Class: How would you define your socioeconomic background?
  • Migration Experience: Did you or your family migrate to the U.S.? Why? Was it forced or was it a choice?
  • Language: What language or languages do you speak?
  • Family Structure: Who is in your family?
  • Ethnicity: What ethnic group(s) do you identify with?

I wonder how this compares to the list you wrote down. I learn something new each time I do this exercise and am truly interested in your answers. Remember, you can’t be wrong. We’ll continue to talk about the dimensions of culture in the next post. Until then, here is my question: did you write anything down that isn’t included in this graphic?

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