The Decolonial Parent

a continuous work in progress

two person standing near assorted color paper lanterns

Race and Culture, Race or Culture?

Recently, a couple of conversations have arisen in various circles I frequent that I feel kinda uniquely positioned to speak to.

I grew up mixed both racially and culturally, and the extent to which both have shaped me is informing the ways I plan to navigate these issues with my own children. This will be a series of connected posts, so consider this a lazy intro to concepts that will recur over the coming months.

First up I want to define my terms:

By my definition,

culture is a collection of norms, values, traditions, and customs that together form an identity of a people or place.

  • These may include things like language, faith/beliefs, festivals/celebrations, foods/garments/rituals/games/music. (One day maybe I’ll unpack why religion isn’t a standalone item on this list.)
  • They don’t need to be unique to that culture for them to belong to it, nor does a culture need to demonstrate any purity of norms in order to qualify as a culture.
    • What I mean by the former is, dumplings are eaten around the world in multiple forms, and are equally Chinese, Japanese, and Polish.
    • And for the latter, my mum’s Breton dancing troupe is no less Breton because they don’t wear traditional dress every time they dance, or because members of the group come from places outside of Bretagne.
  • They can be transported from place to place through migration, resulting in diaspora communities.
  • They can be transported through groups of people through cultural osmosis as a result of travel, integration, and curiosity (sometimes people like to label this “cultural appropriation”/”cultural appreciation”, and this is a subject of a future post).

So, onto race, a tried-and-true subject of controversy across the world.

This is probably gonna rile some people up all the way and ruffle plenty of other feathers, but I genuinely believe race is a shallow social construct that is given way more due than it deserves.

The academic definition of race is a collection of physical characteristics that correspond to categories which were defined by intellectually-and-spiritually-limited white men hundreds of years ago in order to demonstrate superiority of people who looked like them over other groups of people in the world. The way that racial inequalities manifest in our societies is far more correlated to notions of caste, class, and culture, and the fact that we continue to attribute them to something as fluid as race is part of the reason that solutions to these inequities continue to elude us. (For a truly great exploration of the conflation of race and caste in the US, check out Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.)

This wouldn’t be a decolonial blog without a half-hearted attempt to deconstruct colonial concepts from time to time, would it?

So if I was to make a single point in this post, let that be it.

Controversial, I know, because so many people’s identities are tied heavily to something short-handed as “race”, but let’s just take a second to unpack what we are really referring to when we use that term and we’ll see how what we’re defining is more likely to be culture (and in other cases, caste or class).

Today I want to illustrate a bit more of what I’m referring to when I distinguish between race and culture. I empathize with the emotional reaction that these ideas can cause, especially if your particular culture has placed a strong emphasis on the notion of race above all else (I’m looking at you, America – again, something I will unpack in a future blog post if people are interested). However, in order for us to move forward and have truly liberated conversations about the ways race shows up in our lives, we need to take some time to decouple our sense of identity and pride from what is, by definition, the most racist concept of all.

Some context here is that when I was growing up as a mixed kid, my appearance was a frequent topic of conversation. How Asian/White I presented was treated like a fair game subject, no matter how well I knew someone. At one point, a couple of aunties I’d never seen in my life were whispering in the corner of a shop I worked at – they approached the checkout to explicitly ask if I was “a half”, nodded and then walked away whispering.

Additionally, navigating the world as a girl already means running a gauntlet of appearance-oriented messages about how we present to other people, without the added layer of commentary that comes with being mixed-race, and all the value-judgments that come with those racial stereotypes. I was never prettier because I looked more European, or cuter because I looked more Asian, I was always-always just me in my flesh-suit full of blood and tissue and feelings and questions and doubts and assumptions and flaws and obsessions – like every single other Asian or European (or any other racially-grouped) kid.

This is why, when it comes to a child being mixed-race, I like to reframe the conversation onto being mixed-culture. It moves the focus away from the physical appearance of the child (along with associated eugenics-type value-judgments), and it refocuses us on how much power we really have to dismantle social norms and systems that rely on the old hierarchies.

Raising a mixed-culture child lets us focus on how our family celebrates successes and holidays, the foods we eat and how we eat them, the languages we speak, and the ways we adorn our home and our bodies, without being limited by external assumptions about how people like us act or show up. As a body-positive fitness professional, I want us all to internalize the belief that our bodies are the least interesting things about us, and to do this I need to decouple my identity from the way I look (getting dangerously close to a conversation about cultural appropriation, aren’t we?). That is to say, while the ways we look will always play a component part in the ways we move through the world under the limitations of our present imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy (tysm bell hooks), we need never forget that they are exactly that: relics of a broken, outdated system that never actually worked for anyone outside of a very narrow category of humans living in a very specific moment in time.


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