We all have a cultural lens. It is formed deep within our brains during childhood. So deeply, in fact, that many of us don’t even realize it is there.
If asked to define your culture, a simple, one word answer such as “tradition or family” may stumble out. Yet, culture goes much deeper. It forms how we think, how we live, who we are, how we interact with others and how we see the world.
What is culture?
According to the dictionary, the definition of culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group.” Culture is what causes different lifestyles to emerge among differing social classes, countries, or regions.
In an organization or family, culture is apparent in the “shared attitudes, values, goals and practices,” of the team.
We all have and operate within a culture, maybe even more than one. Culture exists in the broader definitions– such as Latine Culture, Western Culture, Middle Eastern Culture, etc.
Yet, culture also exists in settings as intimate as your own home. Our ideas and definitions of culture, our sense of self, will shift throughout life, as experiences broaden and challenge our views. Your culture may also change depending on your setting- the way you act at work may differ from the way you act at home.
What is a cultural lens?
Culture lies in the traditions, foods, languages, and celebrations of our past and present. However, culture also goes much deeper than just what you see on the surface. Culture influences our actions and ideals. Many times, this is referred to as our cultural lens. We get so used to seeing the world through this lens that we often never even realize it is there.
Learning to Notice your Cultural Lens
In order to begin to notice your cultural lens, or cultural bias, you have to interact with people who see and view the world differently than you do. This will help you move away from “That’s just the way it is. This is how we do things.” To wondering why and analyzing your thoughts and actions.
Realizing that not everyone does things the way you do, or perceives the world in the same way, helps you begin to gain awareness of your own biases and engrained beliefs.
My Journey Toward Noticing my Cultural Lens
As a white female who grew up speaking English in the Midwest, I had many privileges and comforts that I never recognized until I left my safe, sheltered world. After living in a community where locking your doors was optional and racial diversity meant the two people of color I’d met in my life, my move to Philadelphia was a bit of a shock.
I will never forget the day my now husband lectured me about how to open my wallet while waiting in line at the store so that I wouldn’t reveal its contents to everyone. We both thought the other was crazy. Yet, both of us were acting out of our own cultural lenses- the way our past experiences had taught us to view and interact with life.
In my mind, no one cared what was in my wallet, they had their own. In his, everyone behind you is peering over your shoulder to see if you are worth mugging.
I also didn’t realize that white people are truly still treated better than people of color until I watched basic acts of respect be denied someone I love dearly (my Mexican husband). I noticed that the kids quickly got out of the street when I drove up but not when he was driving the car. I saw the people at the store smile at me but treat him like an inconvenience.
All of us were acting out of our own cultural biases- the way we’d been taught to see the world and others. Yet, sometimes what we have been taught, either explicitly or implicitly, isn’t exactly what it true. It is our job to find those false truths we’ve grown up with and challenge them.
Why Noticing your Cultural Lens Matters
Our decisions, thoughts, actions and reactions are all made through our cultural lens. In a nutshell, our cultural lens is our view of normal. All of our decisions, from the simplest to the most complex, are filtered through this lens. Unless we learn to recognize our cultural lens and remove that lens from time to time, we will automatically react the way we were taught to act and saw others react throughout childhood. Yet making knee jerk decisions based on our normal can sometimes do more harm than good.
How our Cultural Lens Can Lead to Racism
As I mentioned, I grew up in the Midwest. When we went to play outside, we played in the backyard on our own while mom or dad peeked out the window occasionally to check on us. The only rule was, don’t go toward the road.
Our road was a very busy country highway where people drove past at 50 miles an hour.
Now, even though I am living in a very different context, I still have the deeply ingrained idea that playing near the road is equivalent to the death penalty. To avoid it, I usually force my son to play alone in our postage stamp back yard while the rest of the neighbor kids (mainly African American) run and scream out front while their parents sit nearby and chat.
When my son began telling me black and brown people were bad and yucky, I immediately began blaming school, even though his school is very diverse. It wasn’t until recently that I was forced to reflect on how my own actions had possibly contributed to that idea.
“You can’t play with them…”
One day my husband and son got home to find our next door neighbors sitting out on their front porch. The adults struck up a conversation and our kids began to play together. When I got home an hour later, they were still there.
We learned that our neighbors share the same fears we do- not wanting our kids to get hurt. We also share the same desire- to be the best parents we possibly can for our children, to protect, defend and love them deeply. In our Mexican-American and their Puerto Rican-African American contexts, we meet these goals in different ways, but deep down we are working toward the same thing.
Yet, in the two years we had lived next to each other, we had never made this connection. I was trying to keep my child safe by keeping him away instead of viewing my neighbors as allies.
I began to reflect on the narrative I’d been telling my son. “You can’t go outside to play with them. It is too dangerous.”
So, as he looked out the window, longingly, at his African American neighbors riding their bikes gleefully up and down the sidewalk he heard, “I am not allowed to play with them. They are bad because playing by the street is bad.”
Implicitly, I was teaching my son that our neighbors were bad.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Although I will swear up and down to you that I value all people, regardless of skin color or cultural background, my cultural lens still dictates my steps. Actions speak louder than words, especially with kids. Without realizing it, I was contributing the the idea that we, a white mother and white presenting child, are better than people of color because we don’t play in the street.
Although I still stand firmly by my idea that playing in the street isn’t a good idea, playing on the sidewalk of a neighborhood street is not the same as playing near a highway. In fact, playing on the sidewalk while your parent watches you from a few feet away is not really that dangerous at all.
Maybe I just didn’t want to let him play outside because talking to my neighbors made me feel uncomfortable….
I realized that I needed to redefine my boundary lines because my boundaries were teaching my son more than safety measures. My boundaries were teaching my child how to interact and view a group of people. Thanks partially to my boundaries, my son was developing racist thoughts and ideas.
Sometimes the limits that served us as kids are no longer useful as adults. Our job is to find those invalid boundaries and rearrange them.
Culture and Racism
This is exactly how racism still runs rampant today. We are all acting out of our own cultural context and lens. We are passing down these ideals and without even realizing it. We all have our mental list of cardinal sins. Some may be valid while others may now be irrelevant.
Yet in our attempts to be good parents, we pass these ideals down to our kids without ever taking the time to analyze them and decide if our limits are useful in our current context.
Are any of these cardinal sins in your list?
- Don’t talk about or to people who look differently than you.
- Don’t mention or notice people who speak languages other than your own.
- Don’t make eye contact with people who look, act or dress differently than you do.
- Don’t mention skin color.
These are all in mine. They are ideas that I somehow learned in my childhood and am fighting to unlearn. Each time I hear or see my son “break” one of these rules, something inside me screams. Yet, I know that these limits no longer serve me and will not serve him. I have to let them go.
Do you have any of your own cardinal sins you’d add to the list?
How to define your culture
Now that we recognize that we all have our own useless cardinal sins and an ingrained cultural biases that inform all of our decisions, what do we do? How do we let go of those limits? How do we take off the lens?
We learn. We lean into what scares us and we walk away stronger because of it.
Three Steps to Noticing your Cultural Biases
- Expose yourself to other cultures/people groups.
- Reflect on your reactions toward them.
- Be willing to change your ideas and actions.
Let’s dive deep into each one so that you truly understand what each step requires.
Step 1: Expose yourself to other cultures/people groups.
This does not mean go to a Chinese restaurant and try to eat chopsticks. That is what I call a soft skill when it comes to embracing diversity. Defining and noticing your cultural biases is a hard skill- a very hard skill that takes intentional work and consistent practice.
In order to expose yourself to other cultures, the best case scenario is to actually immerse yourself into someone else’s world for a time.
This could mean traveling to another country, it could mean attending a cultural festival or asking someone from another culture to meet you for lunch. Or it could be as simple as sitting on your front porch and talking to your neighbor.
Why can’t I just read books to learn about other cultures?
Books are great for collecting facts and writing papers. However, it takes a really great book to challenge an entire mindset.
Unfortunately, books are biased. They are written by a person who has their own cultural lens. More often that not, books about culture are written by people who studied a culture, not someone who lived it.
If you want to push yourself to go deep and challenge your own views, you need to meet another person. Instead of just intellectualizing culture, you need to see it in flesh and bones.
What if you don’t know anyone from another country?
Culture isn’t limited to people from other countries. Every family has their own culture. Every city, neighborhood, church, school and community has their own culture.
You don’t have to cross seas to find someone who views life differently than you do. You can probably just cross the street.
Your goal is to begin a relationship with someone who views the world slightly differently than you do.
I know what you are thinking. There is a reason I avoid that person. He or she is weird, crazy, dangerous, mean, etc. That may be true. Or it may be your cultural lens talking.
Why do you have these views or ideas about this specific person? What actions or instances have informed these views? Or is it due to lack of knowledge and false messages from the media?
If you are avoiding a person because they interact with others in a way you would not, that is probably not an actual danger. That is lack of cultural understanding.
How to Stay Safe While Challenging your Cultural Views
- Meet in a public place.
- Look for natural opportunities for conversation.
- Listen before you speak.
- Hide judgement. Don’t dismiss your judgmental thoughts as wrong. Keep them for your reflection time so that you can learn from them.
What should we talk about?
If you find someone who was born in another country but isn’t currently living there, they miss it. Go ahead and ask them about it. They won’t mind. The opportunity to share the beauty of their homeland with others is a blessing. It is an excuse to take a trip down memory lane.
Granted, you will not hear all beautiful rose-colored stories. There is likely a reason they are no longer there. Be prepared to hear some beauty and some horror all mixed into one.
Don’t ask about:
- Immigration Status
- Upcoming trips back “home” (not everyone can go back home)
Think of this conversation as you would any conversation with a new friend. You are taking the time to get to know someone. Don’t make it formal or awkward. Just enter the conversation with an open mind and willingness to learn.
What to do during your conversation:
- Remove all distractions, just listen.
- Make a mental list of anything that surprises you, makes you angry, or annoys you.
- Set up a follow up time to meet, if possible.
Step 2: Reflect on your interactions
After your conversation
Jot down anything during your conversation that made you feel strong emotions. Physically write them down so that you can refer back to your list later.
2. Ask Why
For each item that stirred up emotions, ask why.
A sample reflection:
It annoyed me that he didn’t make eye contact.
Why did it annoy me?I felt so disrespected.
Why wouldn’t he make eye contact? Maybe he was nervous? Maybe it is a part of his culture?
3. Search for answers
If a lack of eye contact annoyed you, search “eye contact+ country name” in Google or at the library. You would find that eye contact does not equal respect in all countries.
4. Validate (or invalidate) your views
After your conversation and your research, is it valid for you to feel disrespected each time someone fails to look you in the eye?
Only you can answer that question. Don’t be afraid to push yourself. Remember, not all the ideas that served us as children are useful as adults.
Step 3: Be willing to change your ideas and actions
The next time you get annoyed because someone is not following your cultural rules, take the time to reflect before reacting. Don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that they don’t respect you. Calm yourself and be willing to lessen your grip on your views of normal.
Only you have access to your list of what is normal. We cannot expect the whole world to abide by a list of rules they have never seen.
A Few Warnings to Consider When Exploring Your Cultural Lens
This is a lifelong journey.
Defining and redefining your culture and cultural lens requires life-long reflection and learning. It is not a once and done process. You have to approach life with an open mind and allow each day to be your teacher.
This is an individual journey.
Often, when our eyes are opened to new insights or injustices in the world, we want to shout it from the rooftops and make sure everyone knows what we know. Yet, not everyone is ready for what you know.
I too wish everyone knew how to take off their cultural lens and view people as people but it takes time.
Everyone’s journey is different. Be patient. Approach others with love. Share nuggets of wisdom instead of the whole thesis paper.
In their time, others will join you in the quest for equality, For now, it is your job to wait for them with open arms.
One person does not define an entire country or people group.
You also can not define a country, or group of people, based on one person. You could speak with 50 people from Honduras and get 50 different stories. You would find common threads but just like you, each and every person has their own cultural background and lens.
We all have our own version of normal.
A Final Takeaway
In order to define your cultural lens to be able to remove it when necessary, you need to:
- explore other cultures
- broaden your perspective
You will need to go through this process not just once but continuously. This work is not easy but it is necessary. You will become a more well-rounded, accepting person and a parent able to truly raise multicultural kids.
If you’d like more information about recognizing bias and how it influences our lives, read:
How to Combat Implicit Bias.