Born cultured?

The focus of my first year Geography this week was culture and globalization. The challenge is how to broach culture with students from a multitude of different backgrounds. It may seem a simple task to think about global culture in abstraction and focus on how the diverse localities of the earth all feature similar trends in terms of food, music, consumerism and of course Starbucks! But in doing this the all important dialectical relationship between the local and the global, an all important concept to geographers, is lost. Culture does not materialize in a vacuum, it is born or created in place and according to a set of circumstances or processes which are unique in time and context. Even when we think about the global chains which are eating up local small businesses, they too base their advertising or local appeal on the culture of the country they are in.

I gave my students the example of the ‘birth’ of hip-hop music in the South Bronx at the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s. Hip-hop music grew out of the social destruction of the South Bronx through the building of the highways though local communities, and the tearing down of the low-income housing to replace it with tower blocks. Young people were left with little to aim for except joining a gang or joining a block-party: the birth of hip-hop. More than half my students had volunteered at the start of the lecture that they did enjoy listening to hip-hop music, but there were faces of shock and awe as I transformed their understanding of where the music actually comes from. Hip-hop today is a global brand with artists singing in a multitude of languages and on an array of topics but we should not forget the origins of the beat and the lyrics.


The example of hip-hop was in order to open up a wider conversation on what culture means particularly given our increasingly interconnected world. The challenge seemed to be how can people relate to each other but at the same time remain rooted in their local culture. In exploring this with the students and giving them the platform to discuss and share examples of elements of their societies, the question of whether culture is something we are born with or is something that we learn, became the focal point. Half of my students thought culture is something you learn while the other half thought it is something you learn but are also born with. For an instance I was stunned as fear that all our discussions of environmental determinism and eugenics had fallen on deaf ears. Probing deeper though and the consensus was that where we are born and into what home/family plays a huge part in shaping who we are, this was what many of my students were suggesting.

The discussion stayed with me as I contemplated the origins of culture. I have often thought of myself in the past as belonging to a ‘global’ culture, one produced and maintained by my diverse homes and connections. However, recent events in my own life including a major relocation for professional reasons 3 years ago and the untimely tragic passing of my mother last year, have made me reflect a lot more on where my own cultural identity originates from. It led me to delve deeper on contemplating on identity in contemporary life and a growing sense of what I would term dislocation. I do indeed contend that our global connections, our social network ‘families’ are important parts of our contemporary identity and culture, but it cannot be at the expense of the more local. By local I do not mean inward-looking and exclusionary but rather a sense of “bloom where you are planted“. We have become increasingly disconnected of the present moment and from the place in which we are – I very much include myself in this. We are constantly looking for the next ‘fix’ and this has become a cultural norm. Our desire for constant progress and change has resulted in symbolic vocabulary for discussing anything that does not conform to expectations of cultural mainstream norms. It is the world out there rather than the world right here we are obsessed with.

I return to my students discussions on our culture as a mixture of something we learn as well as something we are born with. Suddenly the notion that we are born with a culture becomes so important to me, it is something that is fighting to survive in a life where I am increasingly becoming indistinguishable from my colleagues and friends. Culture is something we learn and the more we are exposed to cultural variety the richer our own understanding of the world becomes. I am drawn to the work of the sociologist Friedrich Heckmann on multiculturalism, where I think we are in grave danger of allowing Heckmann’s fifth and seventh definitions to become the only way we understand cultural differences. His fifth focuses on the superficial level of culture such as folklore and food for example, while the seventh argues that a nation-state is striving for cultural unity and that multiculturalism is hence an illusory concept. Only by being completely comfortable with who we are/where we have come from, can we hope to truly engage with the ‘other’.

Photo taken by Amy Brathwaite in Tacloban, the Philippines

Back to my international students: my aim I resolve is simple, I want them to embrace their own culture that which they were ‘born with’ as they embark on their journey of learning about and living in a different world. I viciously want to avoid a situation where what draws them to each other is what they perceive as a global culture rather than the creation of a forum where they share and respect each others differences as well as similarities. It is back to that dialectical relationship between the global and local and the continual reshaping of both by the other.

I dedicate this blog entry to Doreen Massey who passed away very suddenly on Friday. Her monumental work in geographical research has shaped so many minds including my own.