Unpacking Culture

I’ve started Certificate in International Development from UBC! Currently I’m enrolled in Culture, Communication, and Development. The homework this week was to unpack your own cultural identities. A sort of self-reflection. Mine is below.

My homework:

The cultural identities that most strongly influence me are nationality, generation, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, religion/ spirituality, family/ marital status, and voluntary group identification. (By voluntary group identification, I’m referring to the peer groups that people choose based on their profession/education, values, worldview, and interests.) Some of these identities I was “born into,” some are related to my own personal experiences, and some are by choice. All of these identities interplay with one another to create my worldview and values system, and these drive my choices and behavior.

I am an American and was raised in the South. The South is very conservative and Christian, and people there tend to be wary of and exclude outsiders. My parents are from the northeast and are atheists. They are politically liberal and value education. So, I grew up in a context where I was a bit of an outsider since my family culture didn’t match with the majority culture in many ways. This experience strongly influenced me and led me to reflect on issues of culture at an early age, though I didn’t have the language or conceptual framework to describe this until later.

As an adult who actively learns about and reflects on issues of culture, I’ve come to a different place. I’ve found that I can see my own cultural influences more and more objectively, and I tend to make intentional decisions about which aspects to keep or to challenge. For example, Americans are known for enthusiasm (awesome!), adventurousness, and self-reliance. I’ll keep that. Our culture also tends to be a bit “war-like” with tendencies to be vengeful, resolve conflict by force, and find difference to be threatening. I’ll leave that.

Here are some other values related to my cultural identities.

  • Generation (Gen X): work/ play balance, efficiency, and respect for achievement rather than authority.
  • Ethnicity (white) and sexuality (straight): recognition of privilege and ongoing learning and efforts regarding allyhood.
  • Gender: feminist and fighting a personal fight against “imposter syndrome.”
  • Socio-economic status (middle class): value on education and work, value of saving money, balance of authenticity and fitting in.
  • Religion/ spirituality: residual bristling against the Christian mainstream and, strangely, finding a group that I share beliefs with (Buddhism).
  • Family/ marital status (not married and no kids): value on personal choice and validity of pursuing our own goals as well as the ongoing burden of explaining your choices to others who may see my life as lacking or selfish.
  • Voluntary group identification (helping professional, outdoorsy, crafty, traveler): as a helping professional (and someone whose friends are also) I value compassion, equality, “making a difference,” and social justice. Since becoming a social worker I’ve found a group of people who believe as I do which has normalized, energized, and refined this value system.

These identities and values certainly “show up” in my international work, and I’ve been working very hard to understand cultural vs. ethical relativism. An example may best illustrate this. In Asia when someone has a cancer diagnosis, it’s common to disclose this information to the head of the family who decides how or if the patient will receive the news and what the treatment will be. At first, I was appalled; I saw this as an infringement on basic patient rights such as confidentiality, informed consent, right to information and decision-making, and dignity. After some research and reflection, I’ve come to see how this fits with Bhutanese culture (too long to explain here) and how I can respect this while also accommodate my own ethical decision-making practices. My resolution has been to ask the patient whether he wants to be given information and decision making responsibility. I will also provide a full range of choices about how this could impact treatment provision. Finally, I remind myself that I may understand and more culturally competent way of resolving this dilemma in the future, and that’s ok.

Question: Any cultural identity that I forgot?

Often we forget the areas of privilege. For example, I realized after I turned this in that I didn’t mention health/ ability status.

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