An open letter to those struggling to find their place in America

This is an open letter to any who are struggling to find their place in America today.

Many people struggle with issues of race, culture, and identify, because they have this feeling like they don’t quite know where they fit in. I started thinking about race, culture, and identity in that last few years, with the coverage of African American men being shot by police, and the ensuing black lives matter movement. My motivations for grappling with this were actually twofold: first, I was startled (to put it mildly) by the vastly different reactions to these news events by my African American co-workers and my white co-workers. This disparity of viewpoints made me realize that I had a huge gap in my perceptions of life in America. Second, I’m a Christian author, and I’ve felt compelled to find a way of understanding the issues, and then writing about them, in the hopes of being a small part of the peacemaking process that is so clearly needed in our country right now.

I thought I’d share a few things that I uncovered in my research, because I believe that they will help you find a sense of comfort in your own identity.

The first thing I found, is that race, ethnicity, and culture are very different things and it helps to distinguish them. Race is the DNA that you were born with, culture is the set of social norms that make up the fabric of life, which include food, fashion, and music preferences, as well as communication styles, walking styles, and relational expectations. The concept of ethnicity isn’t consistently defined, but is generally understood to be a combination of race and culture as tied to a specific geographic region. In parts of the world where people have lived and stayed in the same villages for thousands of years, the ethnicity concept makes sense. For America, and much of the mobile western world, thinking about ethnicity hardly makes sense anymore.

This feeling of losing our ethnic identity is difficult for many. You can see it on the ads for; their whole business model is helping people understand who they are, and it sounds like they have become quite successful at it, even though who a person is has nothing to do with where their ancestors came from.

Since the dawn of man, we have depended on each other for survival: we needed our tribe, and they needed us. It only makes sense that our DNA would be wired for us to have this driving need to belong to our group. The problem is that the heuristic patterns in our brain that caused us to defend our own and distrust any other tribe, are still at work in us today. Understanding that these biases exist in everyone is the first step in bringing about peace, because they help us to understand ourselves, and they also help us to realize that when other people act in biased ways, it isn’t because they are evil, it is because they are following their wiring.

One of my African American co-workers, an older gentlemen who marched with Martin Luther King, told me that the prejudice he sees in America today isn’t racial, it’s cultural. He said that when he’s in his suit and tie, he can come to work, eat in a nice restaurant, stay in a hotel, and buy a car, without issue. But if he puts on a hoodie, then the walls of prejudice go up in a hurry. To me, this was a significant insight, because race is something that cannot be changed, but culture can be changed, so the question is: are we willing to change our personal culture, in order to “fit into the tribe”.

I’ve considered two aspects of this question. The first, is that although most people rebel against the notion of having to change their culture to fit in, we all do it all the time. We tend to think of our culture as a well-defined, inherent aspect of our identity, but most of us do more cultural shape-shifting then we realize. I’m quite different at work, than I am at home, and I’m different when I’m doing ministry with friends, than I am even in church.

Where I’ve seen cultural differences most clearly defined, is actually within family units. The environment in my in-laws house was quite different than it is in my own parent’s house. Many have a yearning to feel like they belong to the larger tribe, but in today’s world, this is a myth. With our wealth, mobility, education, and technology, we are no longer members of any one tribe, we are members of many. We are in our family tribes, our friend-circle tribes, our work tribes, our ministry tribes, and even our political tribes. How comfortable you feel in any of these environments is really more defined by the love you exchange with the other people in these environments, than anything else.

The second aspect of the “am I willing to change my culture to fit in” question that I considered, is the notion that every culture has inherent, and equal, value. Americans are so stuck on equality, that we sometimes lose site of the fact that not everything is equal. When we step back and honestly assess the individual attributes and aspects of different cultures, we’ll usually find some aspects that are good, and some aspects that we want nothing to do with. In fact, the reason that many people leave their homelands and come to America is to escape aspects of their culture that they found hard to live with. In parts of African, forced female circumcision is part of the culture. In parts of the middle-east, chopping off the hands of criminals is a cultural norm, in much of the world, educating girls is unacceptable, in parts of Asia, making a mistake is cause for suicide, and in India, the caste system still has roots.

In parts of the world that still operate under the tribe-model, conformance to the culture–all aspects of it–isn’t optional, it is mandated on pain of death or ostracization. In our country, we have this wild freedom to pick and choose the aspects of the cultures around us we wish to adopt, and ignore those that we don’t.  And if we find that we just aren’t feeling welcomed by the other people, or given the opportunities that we want, then we can just hang out with other people (in fact, how many of us ignore our physical neighbors and drive miles to visit a friend we actually want to be with). Although this brings me to one critical side-note on culture that I picked up from a Gary Collins book, Christian Counseling.

In the book, Gary talked about a notion of locus of control, which is a defining attribute of many cultures. People with in internal locus of control believe that they can shape their own individual destinies, and so they will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals: go to school, move neighborhoods, change jobs, whatever. People with an external locus of control, believe that they have no control over their personal destinies, therefore, they tend to protest to the government, or to whoever it is that they think is in control. I’d agree that there is justification for both outlooks, but in western society especially, the internal locus of control strategy works, and according to Christian Counseling, people who hold this view tend to be happier.

I mention this, in particular, because if you feel left out in America, it may be worth doing a self-examination to see if there is any hint of the external locus viewpoint. Because while there is always a strange attraction to feeling like an underdog, and an illusory feeling of comfort when bonding with others that feel the same way, the external locus of control viewpoint will more likely lead you to frustration, depression, or anger, than to the happiness that you seek. From a societal point of view, it is far more productive to use an internal locus of control attitude to secure your own success, and then use that success to influence society towards change, than it is to wait for society to change before making the reach for success, however it is that you define it.

The final point I’d like to share, is that members of a majority culture, aren’t aware of their own culture. In America, people from my demographic don’t think that we have any defining cultural attributes: how we are, is simply what is normal in the world. People in a minority culture, are usually keenly aware of the differences between their customs and those of the majority around them. I was talking to a relative of mine, recently, and they asked “Why do black people have to have their own music? Why do they have to have rap? Why don’t they just list to regular music?” This relative has a gentle, loving spirit, but it simply never occurred to her that the music she called regular, others might call white–she was clueless, and then repentant when I expanded her view on the topic.

I point this out to you, because if you have been here for any length of time then you are, in fact, a deeply entrenched member of our American tribe, and are so immersed in our American culture that you don’t see it. If you are reading the news, listening to others, sharing your frustrations and views, all while struggling to find a way to work and support yourself and your family, then it may be time to stop thinking that you’re not one of us. Many of us feel, at one time or another, that we are very different than those around us: that we don’t quite fit into the American mainstream. However, I suspect that if we went oversees–particularly to non-western countries, most people would spot us as an American fairly quickly, and we would suddenly feel very much like an American, with all the ignorance, guilt, shame, and pride that comes along with it.

One of the biggest challenges I face, when sharing Christianity, is helping people to grapple with the notion of freedom. Freedom is hard: it doesn’t have a clearly defined checklist and there are no rules. You have to figure it out. You need to learn how to love, and learn how to accept love. When your focus begins to shift from figuring out how you can feel like you belong, to figuring out how to make others feel like they belong, then suddenly, you will realize that you belong right where you are.

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