“Why do Black people dress like that?”
It was my turn to address a cultural issue with my own child. My then eight-year-old daughter had observed a young Black couple in the traditional African garb of a dashiki on the male and a gomesie on the female. The colors in the clothing were striking, which explained why they had caught my daughter’s eye. Being half-Black herself, she already understood the basic genetic concepts of race from what her mother and I had taught her. Now it was time to begin explaining the concept of culture so that she would be better prepared to face the multicultural world in which she lives.
Once children understand the basics of genetic race and how we get our various physical features, they are ready to comprehend the greater differences between the different cultures of the world. For example, all “Black people” do not universally dress as my daughter noted that day; rather such dress is common among the people living in many areas of the African continent. This is largely driven by their culture, and it has little to do with their race. Black people as a “race” have certain physical characteristics. Black people as a culture … well, there is no single Black culture since Black people are found all over the world engaged in almost every culture known to man.
For instance, there are generational families of Black people living in China who, dress, speak, talk, and act in all the ways culturally accepted and understood for the region of that country where they live. For these Blacks, their nationality is Chinese; they speak fluent Chinese, prefer traditional Chinese flavors and foods and dance to Chinese popular music. Their race is clearly of African origin, but they are unlikely to be seen sporting the gomesie or dashiki. Many have married native Chinese spouses and started families. What race are their children? What is their culture? Is there a difference?
Culture reflects the customs and environment around us. It affects the foods we are encouraged to enjoy, the way we dress and even the way we walk or speak. There are innumerable cultures around the globe. Cultural norms sometimes give rise to stereotypes, racial insensitivity and negative reactions toward people of another race. Many times it is culture alone that prompts bad thoughts and ideas about other people. For example, there were many conflicts between “Northerners” and “Southerners” in our nation’s history – slavery being the most divisive. Different opinions on how to make good barbecue or sweet tea, what is polite speech and even how to dress are examples of some differences that remain to this day. Many of those cultural traditions were passed down through generations – based on little more than geography and migration trends – and can still create division.
When confronting the issue of race or racism with your kids, ask probing questions that can help get to the root of misunderstandings about culture and how that may lead to racism. Here are some points for exploring these concepts with your children:
While culture is a large part of all our lives, it is different from race in that it can be changed. Young children learning the difference between race and culture can be taught to explore and appreciate their own cultural norms while respecting others:
- If possible, have them speak to a grandparent about the favorite cultural dishes they like to eat or that their parents like to eat. Teach them about your family’s country or region of origin. What do they know about the country? Have you visited as a family?
- Have your children develop a family tree, going back as far as they can to discover their genealogical roots. When they are finished, ask them if they recognize any traditions, favorite foods or clothing in your family that are cultural and originate in this family lineage.
- Take your children to different cultural venues. Invite them to notice the smells coming from a Mexican kitchen or a Chinese restaurant and explain to them how cultures cook differently based on the ingredients and spices available in their communities and regions. Research a spice like cinnamon or saffron and let your child see how historically these spices were only grown in a very limited region (Middle-East and Asia), so they are ingredients rarely seen in traditional foods from Mexico or South America.
- Use the Internet to look up different festivals or dances from various cultures and watch segments with your child. Invite your children to notice the different sounds, colors and attitudes of the individuals involved. Remind them these are learned customs handed down through the generations and available to any person, regardless of their race.
For teens learning about culture, it is important to emphasize respect for your own culture as well as cultural ideas and norms that may be different. I Samuel 16:7 reminds us that God looks on the heart of a person rather than their outward appearance, providing us a model to follow as we get to know people of different races and cultures. Encourage teens and older kids to pick a culture and investigate the origins of its cultural distinctions. Some suggestions include:
- The flag colors of many nations are based on that country’s history and culture. Have your teen select a country or culture, and research the flag to discover why those colors were chosen for the flag.
- To help pique a teen’s interest for the project, have them start with researching the flag of a nation of their ancestors, perhaps their grand or great grandparents.
- Research the seasonings and spices from various regions of the world outside of your own culture, and work with your teen to find and create a traditional dish from that region. Whether or not they initially like the food, you can explain that taste preferences are often developed from childhood and we tend to like what is familiar. Even your flavor preferences can be changed by culture and this is a learned response – it is not genetic. If your teen enjoys this project, consider making it an ongoing weekly or monthly event to research new flavors from a different culture and try various dishes for dinner.
- Encourage understanding by having your teen uncover why a certain culture tends to act or behave a particular way and to know the difference between a stereotype and a true cultural norm. Cultural norms are shared actions and attitudes that often have an historic or regional basis. Stereotypes, on the other hand, are usually negative assumptions ascribed to an entire race based on faulty assumptions or intent to insult. Encourage them to break down the differences between race, culture and stereotypes. For example:
- Racial: Peoples of Northern Europe tend to have smaller nostrils and lighter-colored hair.
- Cultural: The diet of Northern European countries tends to be heavy in meat and dairy products.
- Stereotype: People from Northern Europe all wear wooden shoes.
- Talk to your teen about the danger of stereotyping and how it’s unfair to form a judgment about someone based on his or her cultural norms or preferences. People respond defensively when they are stereotyped but consider it a compliment when their culture is respected by others.
The distinctions between the “races” are small, but the differences between cultures are as broad and varied as humanity’s tastes. Understanding the difference between immutable, unchangeable race as opposed to cultural preferences, norms and customs goes a long way in helping children – and adults – hold a biblical view of humanity and God’s love for all created in His image.