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“Let’s get a gift for your family,” my partner Ebony suggested as we contemplated how to celebrate the holidays. I immediately felt tension in my stomach as I struggled to articulate my discomfort. My nuclear family tends to avoid exchanging gifts. There is no “cultural” reason as to why. I simply recall it no longer being a practice after I reached the age of 14 or 15. However, could it be a cultural practice?
My discomfort centered around how to gently reject Ebony’s sincere, yet gratuitous, gesture. “Who doesn’t like gifts?”, I thought to myself. Will she perceive this as me rejecting her as opposed to her offer? These thoughts ran through my mind despite efforts to block them out. I wondered whether I should politely decline (and tell the truth) or allow the gift-giving (which I knew would cause discomfort for my family). Mild awkwardness tends to ensue if they receive a gift and have nothing to reciprocate. Ebony and I went back and forth on the matter. I started to feel unheard, defensive, and agitated. This innocent encounter caused me to re-think how I view culture.
A few days later, I vented about my experience to a close friend named Phillip. When most people are asked to describe what culture means to them, they usually explicate it by pointing out a variety of markers and the intersections between them. Some of these markers include ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation (Sue, 2001). Specifically, as it pertains to Black people, people tend to incorrectly view culture and race synonymously (Smith, 2019, p. 54). While all these points have merit, another way to explain culture is “how we do things around here.” As Phillip mentioned this, I began to feel better. Our discussion reminded me of how fraternities, sororities, churches, colleagues at work, and other groups can be considered part of someone’s cultural identity.
Ebony and I are both Black but have different backgrounds. This makes us see the world from unique perspectives. Our families are also different. The way “we do things”—as in my family— is that we don’t exchange gifts. However, this is a major practice within Ebony’s family. Neither of us is right nor wrong. It is not helpful for us to impose our values on one another; it is more important for us to understand one another. I have often worried about how I might manage starting a family with someone with different cultural viewpoints. It is relieving to know that it does not have to be all or nothing; instead, we can come together and create our own culture. Culture is not always a fixed or rigid construct.
As a clinician, this is a constant reminder for me to work towards understanding my clients. How often might I be making assumptions about my clients—majority of whom are Black—because they happen to look like me? It is a reminder to delve deeper and gain clarification. Black people are not a monolith. Yes, we share a common experience of racism and systematic oppression in America. However, there is more to everyone’s specific story if you are willing to ask and understand.
I initially felt nervous about publishing this article. It exposes my vulnerabilities (i.e., a clinician getting annoyed with others over something seemingly minor, an inability to communicate effectively, not realizing in the moment how culture may have been informing my attitudes, etc.). Was I really making a big deal over a simple holiday practice? Would people read this and find any helpful takeaways?
I do think, however, that this message may hold some value. Consider the interactions you have with others where you may be quick to make assumptions about them in lieu of seeking to understand. Understanding someone’s culture, beyond a superficial level, is a great way of forming closer connections with them. I would encourage you to be aware of opportunities in your daily encounters where you can learn more about others who may be different.
If you are wondering, Ebony and I ended up not getting my family a gift. Instead, I felt like I received one of the greatest gifts from her of all time: her understanding.
Let me know how you define culture.
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