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  • About Exploring Our Roots – How Culture Connects with Intent and Impact

    My apologies for being late on this week’s installment of I’m Having a Thought. I’m transitioning from full-time work to parental leave and I quickly am learning that trying to do anything on time with a four-month old is both highly stressful and near impossible. But what I’ve also learned is that while I am holding my extremely adorable tiny nugget, I get lots of time to read and process and think – which has helped significantly with spinning today’s text, because to be honest, I’ve been having a hard time putting language to the concepts I want to cover today.

    Currently, we’re working our way through a segment on communication and how the impact of what we say and do often doesn’t match our intent. Last time, we discussed the high level and somewhat ambiguous concepts of power, privilege, and oppression, and with each installment, we will be narrowing our focus until we reach our messy internalized stuff. So today, we are discussing a topic I mentioned last time, but will be exploring it more in depth: culture.

    According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture as we’re discussing it today is
    a: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
    also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
    Examples: popular culture & Southern culture
    b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
    Example: a corporate culture focused on the bottom line
    c: the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

    Really, I think we should synthesize those three pieces into one working definition: the culture of a group of people is its shared attitudes, values, social forms, customary beliefs, and material traits. A visual representation of this definition, and a tool we’ll be using for much of this discussion, is Zaretta Hammond’s Culture Tree. Hammond uses this graphic in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain, and while she applies it to the larger context of addressing the achievement gap based on race in public education, I think it’s applicable to conversations around communication between people of differing cultures.


    Let’s take a look. You’ll see that uppermost branches and leaves are what Hammond defines as Surface Culture. Things like music, dress, observed holidays, etc.. Interestingly, many of these top tier traits are how we typically define culture, and we don’t delve much past that. However, Hammond suggests that culture goes much deeper than the forest canopy, and I agree.

    Looking further down the graphic, you’ll notice the Culture Tree’s trunk consists of what Hammond calls Shallow Culture. These are ideas that have to do with how we perceive ourselves and our character, the different ways we’re socialized, and the dynamics and expectations of the relationships we have.

    Most significant yet, we have the Culture Tree’s roots – these are notions that Hammond calls Deep Culture. These aspects of our culture deal with our belief systems about the world, about our relationships with nature and to higher powers (if you’re a believing person of any sort), about how we feel about working with others.

    Now, let’s pull out our handy-dandy notebooks (I was a kid of the 90s – Blue’s Clues was a thing), and let’s get to work. First, take some time to fill in all the aspects of your culture tree – all the way from the highest leaf to the deepest root. What’s it like to tease apart your culture?

    I was at a training with a colleague a while back, and he suggested that certain aspects of the Shallow Culture category should be moved further down the tree because our responses when those things are offended are much more severe and visceral. He specifically believed that hairstyle, art, music, stories, drama, and literature have deep cultural connections for communities that have been objectified or silenced (i.e. non-dominant communities). For instance, (this was a Black man speaking) the objectification of Black hair is tied directly to slavery, then later, to passing as White if you could dye or straighten your hair – often to the extreme detriment and health of your hair and scalp. There’s a reason Solange has the song “Don’t Touch My Hair” and a reason for the natural hair movement – kinky hair, especially Black kinky hair, has been objectified and violently treated by White folks for near forever (Trigger Warning on the video). So it makes sense that he would suggest that for some cultures, hairstyle has a much deeper cultural significance.

    In a different, but similar vein, art, music, stories, drama, and literature all are how we communicate our lived experiences to a broader audience. They are the tools we use to relate to one another, to build community, and to pass along wisdom. Often, these tools communicate many of the ideas and values at the Shallow and Deep Cultural levels. So it’s not a far jump to say “If you come for my stories or my art, you come for the values they communicate, and if you come for my values, then you come for me.”

    And up until very, very recently, we could only really see the art, music, stories, drama, and literature of dominant culture. Thinking back on my reading lists in high school, I think only a few contained works by people of color (Bless Me, Ultima and Things Fall Apart come to mind) – the rest were written by cisgender White folks. Similarly, if any of those authors or the content were queer or had queer themes, we certainly weren’t talking about it. Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams. Queer, queer, and queer. But erasure is a real thing, and so we conveniently skipped over huge aspects of these authors’ lives that significantly impacted the stories they told. Even more important, if you’re not part of the dominant culture, but you’re being force fed its media and messaging, where do you ever see or find yourself?

    What does all this have to do with intent and impact, you ask? Well, here we go! (Pull out that handy notebook again!)

    Let’s go back to the Culture Tree that you completed for yourself. Look at the Surface Culture level, and choose the item that is most important to you. Think or write about a time someone you know and respect said or did something that offended this particular part of your culture.

    1. What happened?
    2. ​How did you feel
    3. What was the consequence?

    Complete this same activity with the Shallow and Deep cultural ties.

    1. Choose the one that is most important to you.
    2. Think or write about a time someone you know and respect said or did something that offended this particular part of your culture.
    3. How did you feel?
    4. What was the consequence?

    I’m willing to bet that as you did the activity, and recalled instances that had deeper and deeper cultural significance, your responses became more and more pronounced.  Maybe your Surface level response was something like, “they don’t know what they’re talking about” and you simply brushed off whatever happened or were slightly more wary of that person. However, as we move deeper into the trunk of the Culture Tree, we find that comments or behaviors that objectify or degrade Shallow Culture ideals often result in serious mistrust of the offending person – even if their intent was good (remember: intent doesn’t actually matter).

    As the parent of a four-month old, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve silently yelled “EFF OFF” at people who offer unsolicited or misguided parenting advice. For the umteenth time, no, I will not feed my child rice cereal to make her sleep, thanks. I’d rather be tired and cranky from being awake all night than sacrifice her nutrition with empty carbs before bed. But I digress…(And that’s my opinion, I will not tell you how to parent your child unless there’s some therapeutic value to it 🙂 My point is that if we consistently get the same judgmental message from the same person or people, we inevitably will pull away a) because we don’t trust their judgment, b) because the continued behavior is hurtful, and c) because the continued behavior actually is about them and not about us.

    So what happens when we get to language or behavior that hurts an aspect of our Deep Culture? We have a deep response. Typically, these are our fight, flight, or freeze responses. A part of our heart has been so wounded that we either shut down, punch the offending party in the face, or run away. What are the consequences when the impacts of our behavior harm another person in this way? We lose relationships. We lose community. We lose our humanity because we objectified and degraded another person.

    How do we make it work? We get curious like JVN. We ask questions to learn, not to explain. We show humility and deference for other’s life experience. We consider all the aspects of culture our and weigh our power and privilege in the situation. We do research because we know that it’s not someone else’s responsibility to educate us; and we understand that sometimes research is a box into which people won’t fit. We sit in the discomfort of knowing that some folks’ cultural values and norms just don’t jive with our own, and that’s okay, as long as we’re respectful. We approach each other with open hearts and open minds because people want to be in good relationships and because we’re all deeply interconnected. And most importantly, we treat others the way they want to be treated because we may be speaking to a culture that’s not our own.