TREATISE ON CULTURE
By Sunday-Joseph Otengho, EdD., PhD.
Culture is a broad concept, which captures the different elements that influence the human experience, thereby contributing to the construction and development of one’s identity. The Committee On Culture will endeavor to provide information pertinent to the particular experience of Africans of the first generation as new immigrants to the U.S.A. The Committee will address issues such as the following:
(4) Value Systems
(5) Civic Responsibilities
(6) Family Orientation
(8) Social Interaction
(9) Work Ethic
(12) Dependency Syndrome
Some of the issues discussed under culture may also appear as part and parcel of other committees of the Think Tank Forum. Anyone with sound and well-researched information is welcome to submit articles on any of the above themes. The major aim of the committee is to provide information to Africans of the first generation community and the supporters or service providers of Africans of the first generation to better understand the ethos of the African immigrant and to understand and interpret their experience in this country.
The information in its generic form will make the interpretation of reality easier and in its formative form will enable the immigrant to make decisions based on true experience. In the absence of a migration blueprint, our people will find the information very helpful. We do not claim to have all the answers, but we are certain that we will stimulate enough minds to provide some practical dialogue on our experience in America. Given that most of us have come to chase the “American Dream,” the information will reduce the apparent propensity for the dream to turn into a nightmare.
Contributions are also welcome from an academic or firsthand experience level, which contributes to the cultural dialogue. You can send your article to the Chairman of the Culture Committee, Dr. Sunday-Joseph Otengho, or simply submit your article to the editor of AAA via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is culture?
Culture is a way of life of a people. It encompasses the wide experience of humans as they interact with the environment. For example, Eskimos interact differently with the environment than the Arabs or those who live in the grasslands of Africa. The environment almost dictates the kind of tools the humans who reside therein must invent in order to survive. In particular, topography contributes to the way humans interact with the environment and with each other. This interaction between humans and the environment creates two levels of culture: Material Culture and Immaterial Culture.
Material Culture refers to those elements that are visible: social institutions, artifacts, language, buildings, roads, dress, music, dancing styles, etc. These elements are created by humans to help them adapt to the environment and to order their existence. Social institutions are very important in this development since it is through them that a particular culture of a people is developed and formed. They are also the guardians of ideologies or philosophies, which define the cultural assumptions of a people.
The second layer of culture is the Immaterial Culture. Immaterial Culture represents hidden elements, which only residents of a particular cultural group understand. Included in this level are folklore, beliefs, values, ideologies, philosophies, customs, traditions, legends, idioms, riddles, time, etc. To truly be Americanized means that you share not just the Material Culture but that you understand the underlying nuances of the Immaterial Culture. Dressing like an American or dancing and speaking like one does not make you American. Until you begin to understand the Immaterial Culture, you are simply a cultural impostor. The dilemma of a literate immigrant is the pressure to abandon his layer of the original Immaterial Culture for the new one. The assimilation gap is greater at this level between the parents and their siblings. Whereas the parents or older immigrants are able to observe change in their children at the Material Culture level, they are not able to detect the hidden change taking place at the Immaterial Culture level within their children. Herein lies the problem.
Social institutions are conduits through which Immaterial Culture is propagated.
To understand cultural nuances in any society, you must begin by identifying the social institution and how those institutions operate. Social institutions are political, educational, religious, medical, economic, etc. The only way you can understand social institutions is through personal participation.
An Immigrant is a person who comes into a country or region of which he/she is not a native in order to make a permanent residence there. The United States of America is unique in its citizenry in that it is composed of immigrants, even though over the years, some form of “American culture” has emerged. The United States of America is a multicultural society, i.e., it is made up of many cultures represented by the different immigrant groups. Across the United States you will find evidence of elements of cultures belonging to particular immigrant groups from all over the globe.
Like every new immigrant group, Africans of first generation are facing issues common to their new status. These are the issues we will endeavor to analyze so that our people can develop some kind of a frame of reference as they interact with this new environment. Every immigrant responds or reacts to the new place of residence in the following ways: (a) Through assimilation, (b) through acculturation, and (c) through abandonment.
Assimilation is a process by which an immigrant acquires the social and psychological characters of a group. During this process, an immigrant totally loses his original social and psychological characteristics and identifies fully with the new culture. Many of the early immigrants to this country have fully assimilated into the “American culture,” thereby becoming Americanized. Assimilation is especially acute among (1) children who are born in America to immigrant parents and (2) the first generation immigrants who arrive in the US as children.
The tension of assimilation is especially noticeable in children of the new immigrant parents. This tension is called “assimilation gap.” Whereas the parents feel a sense of pride in their original culture, the siblings take on the culture of their peers in the desire for identity and sense of belonging. The child begins to live in two different worlds, the world of his/her parents at home and that of his/her peers at school or outside the home.
It is very important for the parents and the children to understand
- What is taking place in their own emigrational experience as they deal with resistance to the new value system present in the mainstream environmental culture;
- What is taking place in the lives of their siblings as they fulfill the need for social identity and belonging by taking on the new popular culture;
- That older immigrants come to a new society already socialized in their original value system;
- That people in their formative years adapt much faster to the social protocol.
A planned and structured cultural information counseling is necessary if the effects of the “assimilation gap” are to be minimized. It is also important to note that women seem to adapt faster to norms of a new culture than men. This is especially crucial to the African man who comes from a patriarchal society in which men’s and women’s roles are so clearly defined. The idea of women’s rights in this country is a philosophy of thought, which some African men do not accept easily. As Africans it is imperative that women understand the psychological nuances that this new status brings to their men. Let us remember that the American society has greater negative impact on men of African origin than it does on women. African men especially do not know how to deal with institutionalized racism and quite often do not even recognize the cues. Our education system taught us to treat and judge people on the basis of their scholarship and content of their character. In secondary level education, the Anglo-phone countries sat the same exit exams designed in Cambridge and graded there as well. It was the same exit exam that the children in England had to pass in order to go to college. Nothing was watered down just because we were Africans or because some of us were poorer than English kids. Our location and the color of our skin did not matter when it came to exit exams and the curriculum we had to learn in Africa. Employment was based on one’s worth and not one’s race. It took me almost three years to understand this phenomenon; and even after I understood, it did not make sense that I was some how supposed to be at the bottom of the social strata just because I happened to be African and male. It still does not make sense. I am not saying that African women do not suffer from the phenomena. All I am saying is that we must understand fully the variables that are being played in the lives of the grownups who resist change and the lives of the youth who must feel a sense of being a part of the new society.
The assimilation gap brings with it the following problems:
- The parents feel helpless as they see their children change before them.
- The children sometimes are embarrassed by the culture of their parents.
- The children being from Africa sometimes are belittled by even African Americans, which causes them great emotional and psychological pain to the point that they deny their very identity so that they can experience a sense of belonging.
- The parents feel the tension of a dual existence trying to make a sense of their new society, while wishing for their original homeland. (Nostalgia can be a crippling experience.)
Assimilation issues are very real, especially given the philosophy of culture that encourages or almost demands that immigrants identify fully with the U.S. mainstream cultural experience. The idea of “The Melting Pot” is still alive. The fact of the matter is that the young people have an accelerated assimilation rate. It is crucial that parents identify the kind of peers they want their children to associate with, for the company they keep always becomes their new identity. Parents must therefore expose their children to the people with whom they share the same values. It is easy for children to adapt the behaviors of the wrong cultural group or popular culture. Since they are going to assimilate anyway, make sure that they assimilate into a culture that will help them succeed in this new society. Even though there is a mainstream culture, there are also many other sub-cultures in this country, including, of course, the Africa of first generation culture which is forming in this country. Sub-cultures are good, but they do not lend themselves to achieving the “American Dream.” A heavy dose of American mainstream culture will help your children succeed in this country as you expose them to your original values.
There are certain neighborhoods you will have to avoid if you want your children to succeed. Remember that the neighborhood you live in determines the schools your children will attend. You might be very disciplined at home, but remember your children spend more time in school with their peers than they spend in your home. The school is the assimilation hub; make sure it is the kind you want your children to be exposed to.
As the parents are busy trying to figure out the system and are sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet, the children are left to themselves to be raised by “the TV culture.” We call them “ screen babies” – they live by the code of electronics. Their values come from Hollywood. There is also the computer culture as created by Bill Gates. Whereas the former is value bankrupt, the later can be equally dangerous if it is left unchecked. Please refer to my other article entitled “Distortions of An African Male” to shed more light on the dilemma of an African male.
Acculturation is the process by which an immigrant takes on the values, beliefs and behaviors of the new culture while at the same time maintaining his/her original culture. The individual decides how much they will borrow from the mainstream culture without fully assimilating. They find it perfectly acceptable to eat pizza on Monday and prepare Ugali or Matoke or Fufu or Egusi Soup on Tuesday. I have made it a point to wear a suit and tie to work Monday through Thursday and to wear African attire on Fridays.
The acculturation process also depends on the context of a social setting and is determined by social relationships, peers, roles and the higher good. While this is the best and healthiest way to adapt a new place of residence, it takes quite some time to reach the acculturation stage of immigrant experience. The pressure to assimilate is always greater coming from mainstream social institutions that encourage total identity with mainstream culture. The immigrant family must understand the value of holding onto values, norms, beliefs and traditions from their home of origin while at the same time taking on new values that will help them succeed in this country.
At the dawn of this country in the 1600s, there developed a culture called “White.” To be white, you had to be an Anglo-Saxon Protestant male. If you were not Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, you were not “White.” Even women did not become white until the late 1800s. It took almost 10 generations for Italians to become white or to be accepted into the mainstream culture so they could share in the American Dream. It took the Irish about 20 generations to be accepted in this country. Actually the Irish were so discriminated against just because they were Catholic. The Japanese and Chinese did not fare much differently even though now they are being accepted into mainstream “White” culture. Many ethnic groups have become “White” without losing their ethnicity. They do so to succeed. If you are going to be competitive in America, you must be conversant with the nuances of “Whitehood.” The first thing you must do is go to school and, for that matter, to the best schools according to the “White” culture. It is there that you will learn their system, the way they think, the way they operate, their values, and their perception of those who do not think the way they do. The Jews have done this and have never lost their identity. You as an African are able to do the same without losing your identity as a Yoruba, Kisi, Zulu, Kikuyu, Igbo and so on. Remember that as a person of the African origin, you have a lot of stripes against you simply by virtue of being African. There is something called “White privilege” and you are definitely not part of it. I know that we were not socialized to think this way, but one thing we know from colonial regimes was the importance they placed on education. And what did we learn in those schools? We learned “Whitehood.” We acted “White” Monday through Friday and on Sunday; yet we never lost being an Acholi, Samia, Luhya, Shona, Wolof, Ewe, Congo, Bali, Hausa, etc. The main idea was to earn a living according to the colonial system. Just as we did it at home in our “own” country, how much more must we play the same social games in a country that defines itself as “White and Black.” How I wish this country were neither” Black nor White!” However, we must face the deafening reality; if we could not keep Africa black in our own backyard, it is idiotic to even suggest that we can somehow make America black. There are many wars I would like to fight, but trying to make America black is one war you and I will definitely lose. But that we can succeed in this environment is a given if we keep doing the same things we did at home; worked hard without depending on someone or some government to do it for us.
Remember that “Whitehood” is a philosophy of thought. I do not think that a person of European origin looks in the mirror and wonders how White he/she is. Actually there are so many of them who do not even understand this idea of Whitehood. They are victims by association. You can think White and act African. We have done this all along due to our colonial experience, so what is new. The only difference is that whereas we were in the majority back home, we are a minority here. It becomes therefore important for us as a Community to support each other and progress together as we learn from the experiences of those of us who have learnt to live in this system without losing our cultural sanity. We must maintain some social institutions, which perpetuate some of our values, norms, traditions, and spirituality so that as we earn a living in the White world, we can still be Africans in our posture. Supporting our own organizations like AAA and others that advance the needs of Africa and Africans becomes a very important activity. We must unite and stop fighting because that is exactly what haters of advancement would like to see happen.
The last aspect of immigrant reaction to the new place is Abandonment. Abandonment is the process though which an immigrant fails to adapt to the new place of environment and either goes back to their country of origin, commits suicide or ends up in an institution. This phenomenon is most acute among older immigrants and among professionals. If you have been a leader in your country and, due to political circumstances, you are forced to relocate to this country, you are reduced to almost nothing. I know of quite many immigrants who have committed suicide just because they could not cope with the new social environment. The psychological trauma, which our people suffer from, is very crippling, especially when they are removed and isolated from their countrymen or those who might understand what they are going through. I remember how hard it was for me to adjust to having to wash bathrooms and mop floors to pay for my education. From a company executive to a toilet sweeper was the most humbling experience in my life. For almost a year I thought I had died. It was embarrassing to even tell my fellow friends what I did for a living. We learned to create words like “mop engineers” working in the department of “Mopology” just to appear important. The good thing was that we had a support system of fellow African students with whom we fellowshipped over the weekends and lamented over our misfortunes. We can now look back and laugh over those early years of being introduced to America. Our people back home could not even begin to understand that their sons and daughter were pushing a broom as educated people.
The reality of the matter is that the work ethic in America is very different and it takes getting used to. Some people cannot stomach it so they simply abandon even trying. But as we get together and share our common experiences I know that the weight that many of our people bear will be minimized.
Each year AAA hosts a convention as a forum for exchanging ideas and networking. You can plan to make these conferences your vacation and a place of cultural oasis. This website carries a page on the Annual Convention. Visit it and plan to attend.