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You’re a White Woman; You Ain’t Got No Culture!*

March 19, 2010

For Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Everybody’s got soul. Everybody doesn’t have the same culture to draw on, but everybody’s got soul.
• James Brown

My heritage is a bit like that of our dog Whiskers. He’s long departed, but when we got him many years ago, his previous owners told us that his mother was a cockapoo and his father got away. Many of the students with whom I’ve worked over the years have backgrounds similar to mine, leaving them too disconnected from parts of their families to be certain of the entirety of their cultural heritage.

As an autoethnographer who continues to explore my own culture in the context of other cultures in which I’m situated, I am fascinated by the things I’m drawn to that don’t represent any known personal cultural connection: masks of all kinds, for example, and just about anything representing El Dia de Los Muertes.

I am also drawn to those aspects of my personal culture that I am familiar with. My grandmother’s father, Thomas Riley, known as Barney, ran away from home at thirteen, snuck onto a ship, and sailed to New York from County Cork in Ireland. His father, a cobbler, had sent him to the docks to get leather for shoelaces, and the lure of adventure captured him.

Autoethnographic exploration of personal culture can include many things:

• Cultures we were born into: regional, religious, political, ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, family, gender, and more.

• Cultures we choose for our lives: education, parenthood, occupation, neighborhood, and more.

• Cultures we engage in: athletic, social, political, recreational, religious, and more.

Recognizing the multiple aspects of personal culture can be useful when you are trying to determine direction for your life, helping you understand the origin of your preferences.

I identify as a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a poet, an artist, a learner, a colleague, an Irishwoman, an aesthetic recycler, and so many others. What subcultures do you belong to? What stories from your life illustrate your membership in multiple cultures? How are those cultures connected? What do they mean for your life?

In her 1988 essay, “How to Be the Heroine of Your Own Life,” she [Gail Godwin] rejects the “fashionable cynics” when they claim that it is “childish to go looking for a consistent, continuous self.” Instead, she asserts  that “you have to recognize the design in your own being before you can contribute anything of value to the larger design of your civilization.”
Introduction to First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors, collected and edited by Paul Mandelbaum (1993)

* The title comment was made to me by a high school student during a discussion of personal culture. As an African-American, she felt connected to a more identifiable culture than she could imagine for someone like me of mixed and partly unknown white and probably mostly European origins.

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