Understanding Culture

Don’t you love when totally different aspects of your life, for one shining moment, overlap and you see a connection? This happened to me recently. I wrote and published a book review of Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, an African American. The author is most famous for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was also an anthropologist studying under Franz Boas. He helped change anthropology when he and his protegees looked at cultures and didn’t rank them as superior or inferior to Western culture, nor did he believe race is biological. In order to write Tell My Horse, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to immerse herself in the culture and learn about Voodoo as an anthropologist.

In the comments of my post about Tell My Horse my readers and I volleyed back and forth, asking if it’s possible to really know or understand another culture. If culture is a “way of being,” can we understand alternate ways of being? Did Hurston truly see Voodoo culture at its purest, or did the Haitians and Jamaicans leave parts out, misinform the American, or even lie to misdirect her? Simply by examining a culture as an outsider, we change the results of our research. In fact, Hurston finds herself comparing Haitian and Jamaican culture to America.

How does this tie to ASL? Much of my interpreting homework lately has been studying Deaf culture. Not only what is the “way of being” for Deaf people, but a host of factors. Is the Deaf person African American, Asian American, Latino/Hispanic, or from an Indigenous culture? Though my textbook* has not (yet?) covered the Deaf LGBTQ community, there are many ways a person’s culture shifts.

So, connecting back to Tell My Horse, I’m wondering in what ways Deaf culture appears to me as I interact with the Deaf community vs. what the members are like when hearing people are not around. To my knowledge, the key factors are to learn about a culture before engaging with it to avoid embarrassing faux pas, be respectful and defer to the Deaf person, and always be mindful of the privileges I have that create an unfair power dynamic.

Have you studied culture? What is your culture?

*So You Want to Be An Interpreter? An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting for Deaf and Hearing Students to Become Professional Practitions, 5th edition, by Janice H. Humphrey, William F. Ross III, LeWana M. Clark, and Joseph Featherstone. 2020.

Published by Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame, which inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing. I also have an MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I used to teach composition, creative writing, and literature in higher education, then did a brief stint at a civic theater, followed by two years at a references desk at a public library. I'm now working toward my ASL Interpreter license.

8 thoughts on “Understanding Culture

  1. I thought I’d followed this blog but I don’t think I have so I’ll try again.

    Yes, I have studied culture, but long (well, a decade or so!) before you were born so things have moved on. We’ve discussed this on your other blog so I won’t say much except that I like your description of how to interact with other cultures. I am aware of avoiding interacting with cultures very different to my own, particularly “minority”ones for fear of offending. It’s difficult to be both empathetic without being condescending and honest without being offensive. I know it can be done but I’m anxious because there isn’t one way of doing this is there? Within that “other”culture are differences to meaning one person will react well to your approach while another won’t. I like to think people are generous if they see you are genuine, but I also understand that some are tired of being generous and getting nowhere. My, I’ve gone off track!

    I guess we all belong to many, often intersecting cultures? I’m Australian, I’m a middle-class Australian, I’m a white female Australian, I’m an older Australian, I’m an older white female middle class Australian… then, also, I’m a reader, I’m a reader who blogs, I’m a literary fiction reader… and so on. Some of these have aspects unique to them but each has aspects that crossover with others. In other words, It’s complicated isn’t it?

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    1. I wonder what other cultures you come across frequently. I know you’re in the capital, so I’m assuming there’s a good mix of cultures; I’m just not familiar with which may be there.

      In my area, there are many Black, Mexican, and South American people. My neighbor across the hall is from the South (in the U.S.), which has a different culture altogether. I do wonder if one of the best approaches is to be quiet, listen, and follow the lead of someone in the culture that is not yours, but then I wonder, “What if being quiet is considered rude in that culture?” Sometimes, it is!

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      1. We have a good mix of cultures here I think, though it’s probably not as obvious as it is in the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Canberra is quite small, at less than half a million people. The most obvious nationalities are Asian, including the Indian subcontinent. It’s a highly diverse group, from Nepal to Vietnam, from China to Sri Lanka, and everything in between.

        While there are of course some differences between Australian states and regions I don’t think they are as pronounced as your North and South.

        As for engaging with other cultures, you’re right, but in the absence of knowledge I’d err on the side of caution and be quiet and listen.

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        1. That is interesting to think about cultural division not being as pronounced. When you’re in “the South” in the U.S., you know. I’ve been in Toronto where they have little “towns” of ethnicities, Chinatown being a popular one.

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          1. Oh yes, we do have that in our cities, some “named” like Chinatown, and some enclaves where groups have gathered. They might last two or three generations after which many will disperse with intermarriage etc

            BTW I thought of you last night when watching a signer (interpreter) at an outside press conference. He was happily signing away when PLOP a rather large amount of bird poo landed on his head, face and shoulder. Everytime he did something, like take off his jacket or wipe his head, someone would call out “and there’s some on…” He handled it all in excellent spirit. Have they discussed this in your classes? The challenges of working outside? Rule no 1 might be , don’t stand under a tree -haha- except of course trees do provide shade.

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