Culture Is Multifaceted

Culture Is Multifaceted

Closely related to the dynamic nature of culture is that cultural identifications are multiple, eclectic, mixed, and heterogeneous. This means, for one thing, that culture cannot be conflated with just ethnicity or race. As an example, Mexican or Mexican-American culture may be familiar to us because it concerns an identity based primarily on ethnicity, the best-known site of culture. But one also can speak, for instance, of a lesbian culture because, as a group, lesbians share a history and identity, along with particular social and political relationships. Thus, one can be culturally Mexican American and a lesbian at the same time. But having multiple cultural identities does not imply that each identity is claimed or manifested equally. A wealthy light-skinned Mexican-American lesbian and a working-class Mexican-American lesbian may have little in common other than their ethnic heritage and sexual orientation and the oppression that comes along with these identities. People create their identities in different ways: While one Mexican-American lesbian may identify herself first and foremost eth- nically, another may identify herself as a lesbian, a third as both, and a fourth primarily as a member of the working class.

Because culture is not simply ethnicity, even among specific cultural groups there are many and often conflicting cultural identities. Skin color, time of arrival in the United States, language use, level of edu- cation, family dynamics, place of residence, and many other differences within groups may influence how one interprets or “lives” a culture. Further, the intersection of ethnicity and social class, or what Milton Gordon (1964) termed ethclass,10 is a key factor in defining culture. For instance, as a young girl I was surprised to meet middle-class Puerto Ricans when I spent a summer in Puerto Rico. Given my experiences until that time as a member of an urban U.S. Puerto Rican family that could best be described as working poor, I had thought that only Whites could be middle-class. Although I spoke Spanish fairly well and thought of myself as Puerto Rican, I discovered that in some ways I had more in common with my African-American peers in my Brooklyn neighbor- hood and school than with the middle-class Puerto Ricans I met on the island. I began to see that my Puerto Rican culture was in fact quite

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different from Puerto Rican culture as defined on the island. Years later I understood that these differences had to do with location, experience, and social class.

Another important aspect of identity has to do with how interactions with people of other cultural groups may influence culture and identity. This is certainly the case in urban areas, where the identities of young people of many diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds defy easy catego- rization. Shirley Brice Heath has suggested that young urban dwellers in the United States are creating new cultural categories based on shared experiences because, according to her, these young people “think of themselves as a who and not a what.”11 They engage not only in border crossings, but also in what Heath called “crossings and criss- crossings.”12 Given the growing presence of people in the United States who claim a biracial, multiracial, or multiethnic identity, ethnicity alone is unable to fully define culture. The multiple identities of youths have important and far-reaching implications for the development and implementation of multicultural education: It is evident that simplistic and bounded conceptions that focus just on specific racial or ethnic groupings fail to capture the realities of many urban youths who live with complicated and heterogeneous realities.

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