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Feb 28, 2011

I'm White: I don't Have A Culture.

One of my classes this semester is Cultural Foundations of Counseling. Our first assignment was to write our cultural autobiography. My initial reaction to the assignment was confusion because of my limited definition of culture. In my mind, culture reflected race, and I personally did not see much culture in the white race. As my definition of culture expanded to include ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, education, age, and spirituality, I realized that I am indeed a cultural being, and my cultural identity affects my interactions with and perceptions of others. I want to share with you parts of my cultural autobiography, which, as my professor noted, is full of teachable moments. My hope is that as I share these moments you will reflect on your own cultural identity and your life’s teachable moments regarding what it means to be a cultural being. Part I: Southern Belle The Southern culture has shaped my identity. I never recognized its impact on my personal identity until my counselor mentioned it to me during one of our sessions a few months ago. During this particular session, I shared a fight that occurred between my husband and me the night before his parents arrived to visit. I told my counselor that the fight would not have happened if I had told my husband several weeks before when scheduling their visit that the planned weekend was not a good time for people to visit because of upcoming finals. My counselor knew that I prided myself on being a “strong, Southern woman”, so she stated that perhaps my idea of what it means to be a “strong, Southern woman” prevented me from sharing my wants and needs when discussing my in-laws’ upcoming visit. It seemed that somewhere in my subconscious being a “strong, Southern woman” meant believing the myth that I could suck it up and do it all – even if that meant neglecting and/or sacrificing my personal schedule. How many times growing up did I hear a Southern woman say, “Oh, it’s fine! I’ll take care of it.” or “Don’t worry about me. I’ll make it work.” I grew up in a culture in which women’s strength was defined by neglect of self to please others – particularly spouses and children. I am still in the process of debunking that myth, and thankfully, I am married to a man who wholeheartedly believes in that myth’s falsity. I am also still in the process of further exploring and recreating the aspects of my “strong, Southern woman” definition that do not coincide with who I really am. Part II: The Bible Belt I did not grow up with a religious affiliation because my parents never wanted to force a specific religion upon my older brother, Chris, and me. Part of me appreciates their decision, and part of me wishes we had attended church every Sunday. Sometimes I feel like I missed out on a huge component of growing up in the South. If we had, however, I do not believe my understanding of and appreciation for my faith would be what it is. Also, I would not approach each sermon that I hear with the same intense curiosity and desire for knowledge. Mom and Dad currently attend a Presbyterian church in Memphis, and their break away from their family of origin’s religious affiliations encouraged me to look beyond labels and beyond cultural expectations regarding partaking in a religious life. They encouraged me to pursue what would best feed my spiritual needs. As a result, I do not claim a particular religious affiliation except for being a Christian. I have attended Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, and I did not attend those churches because of their particular denominations or because that was what my culture expected. I attended those churches because I knew they would best help me grow in my faith. Part III: I am woman. Hear me roar. Regarding sexism, my parents raised us to believe that men and women are equals. However, I always received the obligatory warnings about not walking by myself at night, always being aware of my surroundings, and being wary of men’s motives. While I learned that men and women deserve equal rights, I also learned that I need to guard and protect myself solely because I am a woman. Apparently, the label of woman equals potential sexual assault or rape victim. I still do not like walking at night by myself, and I quickly build an emotional wall when a strange man talks to me. I also judge women who “put themselves in danger” by not acutely judging their surroundings, which is a potential source of countertransference whenever I work with a female sexual assault survivor. I will need to guard myself against blaming the victim by wondering, “Why were you walking/jogging/exercising/going to the grocery store by yourself at night?” Part IV: An American in Germany I visited my aunt and uncle in Germany for three weeks after graduating college. Before flying over there, my parents and my aunt emphasized dressing how a typical German would dress. In other words, do not look like an American. Therefore, I packed a lot of plain-colored turtlenecks, sweaters, and coats and did not pack any shirts with English printed on them. Without realizing it, I was assimilating to their culture, so that I would not be discriminated against for being American. I felt the same pressure to conform to a different culture that immigrants feel when entering a new country. While in a German bookstore one day, a store employee walked up to me and started speaking in German. I looked at him and responded, “I speak English.” He looked surprised but immediately asked me in English if I needed any help. I told him no thanks, bought a book for my dad, and left the store pondering that encounter. Apparently, I looked German to him. I would have never imagined that someone would mistake me for another ethnicity other than American, which is quite an ethnocentric thought. What is wrong with being mistaken for another ethnicity? Absolutely nothing. Part V: Cultural Identity Matters What I learned recently is that my race affects how others view me – especially if they are part of the minority culture. I conducted a mock interview last semester at the Career Center for an African American young woman. At one point in the interview I asked, “What do you enjoy doing outside of the classroom?” She responded, “I like to read.” To encourage her to provide more detail in her interview responses, I followed up with, “What are some of your favorite books?” She replied, “You probably wouldn’t know them.” I said, “Try me anyway.” She shared Roots, Native Son, and a few other pieces of African American literature – all of which I had read before and consider some of my favorites as well. I sensed that she thought I would not know those books because I am not African American, and I was extremely offended. How dare she assume that just because I am white that I would not know any pieces of African American literature? The more I processed my emotional reaction, the more I realized how many times that I have assumed something about someone solely based on how they look or speak. Stereotypes are extremely dangerous because they prevent us from intimately knowing an individual. If I have thought stereotypes about someone based on his or her race, then it is only fair and human that this young woman did the same with me. She taught me a great lesson by making me aware of how my cultural identity (and all the assumptions that go along with it) affects the relational dynamics with those I encounter. As a counselor, I will recognize that dynamic and use it as a starting point in working with clients who differ from me – whether that difference is gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, education, language, spirituality, etc. – because honest conversations with my clients about those differences will foster growth, trust, and understanding by tearing down our stereotype-built walls and clearing the way for a human-to-human connection.

Courtnay Veazey is a graduate student at Mississippi State University pursuing a Master of Science in clinical mental health counseling and working as a graduate assistant at MSU's Career Center

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