Race & Culture: Be Like The Rhinoceros and The Giraffe

Despite wanting to be, and living like a giraffe, a rhinoceros will always be a rhinoceros. It will have a horn that it can alter, embellish, or cut off; but it will have a large body and short neck, never a long tongue or a spotted coat. The price of evolution means the rhinoceros will always be a rhinoceros. It can however, adapt to be more like a giraffe if it so wishes. But does this mean that race is not a social construct, whilst culture is? 
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Photo: Marianna Michael, The High Line (2014)

Culture is openly accepted as a social construct. It falls into levels: National, regional and/or ethnic, and/or religious, and/or with linguistic affiliation. A gender level, generation level, a role category, a social class level or by work/work-organisation. Then subcultures are formed. The Goths, Industrial, New Age, Hipsters, Mod Revival, and everyone else in-between. We choose by mutual interests, values, our artefacts and creations. We can by choice, or somewhat subconsciously, alter our culture. Culture can vacillate. Consequently, each face their own adversities within society at some point. 

Race, on the other hand, forms two counterarguments. One which implies that ‘transracial’, a controversial term suggesting the ability to cross racial boundaries, is false. It is seen this way because that which is said to make up race: our DNA, hormones, family, physical body (bone structure, skin, hair, eye-colour), are the things we cannot change. Though transracial adoption and ethnic modification are accepted principles. However, it is thought, as the counterargument that race is not biological, and thus racial identity can be fluid. Race can therefore be seen as both a social construct, and not. 

We are so often summarised by such factors of race and culture; but how, why and to what degree do we identify with our assigned/proclaimed/suggested or believed race and culture? And can we choose which parts? Helen Spencer-Oatey defined culture as a “fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions.” Similarly in 1996, David Matsumoto said “the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next”, was the way in which he explained the elements of individualism in theorising culture. 

If you move to a new country, city, social class, workforce or any other categorical culture, you will adapt in some way. But it is your decision, or your willingness to hold onto that which you had acquired from where you came from (metaphorically/physically), and what you would like to acquire from your new surroundings. 

Generally in society, race and culture discussions can become problematic if we circumvent mentioning how they are often held as rigid orthodoxies. To some extent, they are. For example, to certain social classes, ways of spending money, dressing and eating are encouraged, whist others are abhorred. In ethnicity, religion and of a generation level, through the generations, we pick up distinctive behaviours, traditions and customs, forgetting that it’s indistinct. They’re open to opinion.

Spring through summer 2015, I had been roaming London parks and standing at crowed bars, waiting for drinks with people I had met only ten minutes, perhaps a week prior. Frequently and somewhat understandably in the height of Brexit, it was consequently going to come up over half-pints, coffees and sourdough-filled brunches alike. First-date talk and work-meetings interchangeably/irrespectively- the one topic suggested we circumvent. Each conversation took on a different pattern. But at some point, every conversation examined my tenets of culture, often leading to me being asked whether I’d consider going “back home”. To clarify, my “home”, is London. But I know that’s not what they meant. 

I am a British-born Greek-Cypriot. My parents were also born in the UK- though my father lived in Cyprus for most of his primary education, prior to migrating back in 1974 due to the island’s invasion. It sparks discussion either way. People have always delved into assumptions upon the links I have to my race and culture. Although sometimes false, and occasionally true and funny, stigmas and stereotypes become infuriating, because I don’t fall into one categorical culture. I do however, find myself defending my own convoluted affiliations. Elements from my religious/ethnic culture, as with many, have been born out of old ideas that don’t translate well in the modern world. They can be seen to oppress equality and haven’t often moved ahead with changing times and social changes. Other times, we don’t agree with certain principles because they clash with certain affiliations we have to the principles from the subcultures we have chosen to live by. 

My own values, traditions, ideas, ideals and concepts, are born from an amalgamation of conflicting idiosyncrasies. I bear progressive ideas on careers, sex, equality and culture, aptly born from living in a city, partly developed from a life encapsulated by the arts, and the other part from my race and cultural influences. It can be hard to adapt to a certain lifestyle whilst holding onto the things that don’t fit. Certain ways of living cannot work in the world of a twenty-something freelancer in London, without making certain sacrifices. Other times, I simply don’t want too. It is a different world than that which my grandparents endured, even my parents and my cousins- despite them being my peers. I have been exposed to different things, from education, to art and experiences. 

I identify with being Greek-Cypriot, as much as I identify with being British. Even so, I have chosen which elements of each that I want to adhere to. Inevitably, this has caused some form of conflict, both personal and socially. People shared their concerns of the possibility that I could lose my roots; drumming into me, a false desire to engage in certain parts of my ethnic/religious culture, that I would have otherwise abandoned. I had a penchant for certain aspects that hadn’t come by force, in the same way I have had a certain penchant for the subcultures I’ve joined. But growing up in-between cultures, there came a point where I began to wonder why I was doing these things. Was it by habit? Force? For a way for me to be seen as purely one culture, good or clever? Or perhaps to be daring, rebellious or individual? 

I learnt the Greek language out of embarrassment. On my first trip to Cyprus, aged just three-and-a-half, I hadn’t fully grasped the language. Me and my cousins played on balmy balconies and ran through dry and hot overgrown fields. I wanted to fit in and not have to have my parents translate; thus making a subconscious vow to learn the language on the premise that I be allowed to decline Greek school for ballet on Saturdays, and do my best to learn. And I did. On every visit back, I would buy the slippers with the pom-poms on the toes, not because my ancestors and probably my great-grandfather used to wear them, but because I was drawn to the very aesthetic of Peter-Pan, and what would later develop into a love of rustic/vintage style. 

I am enticed by parts of the lifestyle. It’s one however, that couldn’t translate in the same way if i introduced it here in London without placing rigid rules on my lifestyle. My surroundings would also clash. 

I am no conventional Hipster, nor am I a solid Francophile despite my love and occasional upkeep of certain Parisienne lifestyle principles. My connections to cultures are all in part. Similarly, the breakthrough of cultural concept ‘Hygge’, which stemmed from 18th century Denmark, is now being adopted into the lives of many thousands. In society, creating our own ideologies can be seen as making an excuse in not maintaining our culture, or said race. But the cultures that we live by, can come by developing our own rules and thus forming our own identity.

We have the right to pick and choose the things that we are interested in, as much as the traditions, customs and values that we chose to uphold, as long as we acknowledge the reasons behind our choices, and the choices of others.

Life experiences, personal epiphanies, social change and a general fondness towards something, has meant that people often choose to, at any age and point in their life, to follow Buddhism or turn to atheism, a nomadic lifestyle or pick a new subculture when it suits their current needs and loves. 

Peoples own affiliations with culture and race is endearing, and it should be more widely welcomed that people make these conscious choices. Roots may be lost along the way, but with the opportunity for a better life, we should all be allowed the freedom to choose how we exist.

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