Culture Shaping

A group in deep thought during the Accelerator in 2019.

We often think about culture as something that is happening around us and shaping our experience. It is easy to forget (or never realize) our own power to either perpetuate or change culture. With the language we use and don’t use, the behaviors we reinforce and discourage, and the ways in which we interact with others, we are shaping culture even as we are being shaped by it.

In Desiree Adaway‘s Freedom School, instructor Key Jackson defines culture this way: “Culture is the everyday replication and normalization of a thing.” What you replicate, you normalize. What you normalize becomes culture.

In Clarissa Pinkola Estés classic Women Who Run with The Wolves she writes, “Culture is the family of the family.” Culture is shaping our family, all the while we are also shaping culture by what we do and say without thinking in our most intimate spheres.

For example, in the seemingly innocuous act of complimenting another person’s looks after weight loss or in lamenting one’s own facial wrinkles in conversation, a person reinforces a culture that is fat phobic and ageist. (Cue the eye roll from the person deflecting the impact of words, the one who’s sick of how sensitive people are these days.) A person who decides not to be weighed, or have their children weighed at the doctor’s office, is beginning to shape a culture where all bodies belong and are offered the same care.

If you’ve ever looked at Dr. Bobbie J. Harro’s Cycle of Socialization, you can see that culture is already in motion when you were born into the world. This culture is first reinforced in your familial sphere, then again in the institutions and systems that you participate in, like school, church, the medical system, sports.  Cultural norms are communicated through facial expression, what we do not say, the way our bodies move toward or contract. 

Humans are social creatures whose survival has depended on belonging. Thus the unspoken threat of banishment keeps us in line. It registers in our nervous system below the awareness of our cognition.

It takes courage to question and challenge a culture, whether it’s within one’s own family, workplace or friend group. If you’ve ever challenged “the way things are always done” by people with power, you know the flood of adrenaline that comes, the self-doubt, the worries about having overreacted, and the fear of rejection or alienation. 

In our society, BIPOC folks challenge and question white supremacy culture every day and live with the daily banishment embedded in a culture that doesn’t recognize their full humanity and dignity.

Conversely, according to Carlin Quinn, LMFT, in the course Foundations in Somatic Abolitionism, white people are socialized not to know how to break with whiteness; they become “de-skilled” when speaking and acting against white supremacy culture. There’s a reactive “I can’t do it. Tell me what to do.” For white people, compliance with white supremacy culture is so strong that even when white folks do speak up or act against it, this defiance  creates an initial destabilization, which is actually a necessary experience in the work. 

Resmaa Menakem, trauma specialist, author of My Grandmother’s Hands and creator of the Foundations course, said in an interview last year, “White fragility is a lie, a dodge, a myth, and a form of denial. White Americans can create culture that confronts and dismantles white-body supremacy. Any suggestion that they are unable to rise to this occasion is a lie. White Americans are anything but helpless or fragile; they are (of course) precisely as capable as other human beings. But they need to refuse to dodge the responsibility of confronting white-body supremacy – or the responsibility of growing up.”

The work of dismantling white supremacy culture is the work of white people. And because culture is a relational phenomena – what we agree together to do/say/reinforce every day – it’s work white people must do together.

Doing the work together.

One of the goals of Inclusive Life is supporting people in their ability to see themselves as creators of culture. Once we see that culture is a result of our consent to go with the grain, then we can see culture is also a result of our ability to work against it where it is harmful and inhumane.

Changing the culture of our relationships isn’t a one-and-done thing. Going back to Key’s definition of culture:  it’s “the everyday replication and normalization of a thing.” It’s not speaking up or changing our behavior once. It’s moving against the grain of supremacy culture in our families, in our workplaces and community over and over until what is considered a norm evolves and is supported by behavior, words, and policies.

In the aftermath of a violent racist attack, or in the face of legislation intended to strip marginalized folks of choices about their own bodies, it’s easy to fall into overwhelm and paralysis. In these times it’s important to think big picture, yes, but to also turn our focus on our closer spheres of influence. Are we engaging in conversations in our families and amongst the folks we see everyday about how to more equitably live in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world? Are we supporting one another and challenging one another?

You are, in truth, a shaper of culture. What is the culture you are shaping? 

If you are not talking to the kids you love about race, please do better.

There is no one who doesn’t have what it takes to raise antiracist kids. When you actively engage your children on an ongoing basis about race, racism, privilege and whiteness, you are equipping them with tools to skillfully and compassionately move through a multi-racial world. Antiracism must be taught daily and in context.

If you need to know how, pick up a copy of Raising Antiracist Kids: The Power of Intentional Conversations about Race and Parenting.

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