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This paper discusses all the facets and considerations inherent to cultural identity. Namely, the paper describes the importance of cultural identity, the definition of cultural identity, and examples of cultural identity—both theoretical and literal examples in the world today. This essay seeks to show how one’s cultural identity is so much more than just a melee of one’s race, environment and heritage. Cultural identity is made up of so many factors and influences, both positive and negative, and both direct and covert. This paper sheds light on how one’s cultural identity manifests and how the cultural identity of two people from the same family can be slightly or tremendously different, as a result of a difference of lived experiences and preferences. Finally, this paper investigates some of the more dominant theories of cultural identity.
One’s cultural identity is closely connected to one’s social identity. This is because social identity manifests often in relation to the culture and other external forces upon the individual.
This is what one might refer to as one’s true self. The sense of personal identity refers to who one is when not being examined professionally or superficially from the outside world. It can take a lifetime to discover one’s true self, whereas some people have a strong sense of it innately.
One’s professional identity can be related to cultural identity, often when one’s profession wields a strong and influential sub-culture. For example, doctors and nurses often have a strong professional identity, in part because of the intensive culture of the hospitals where they work.
This is another branch of cultural identity that is often most acutely felt when people leave their homeland and go abroad, being a foreigner in a strange land. It is frequently in situations like these that people feel a strong sense of being a citizen of their nation of origin, often as a result of the contrast between the new culture they are immersed in and their homeland.
Ancestral identity is connected to both familial and cultural identity, and often manifests with people who are aware of their ancestry or who have a notable ancestry. For instance, Americans who can trace their lineage to the descendants of the Mayflower sometimes take great pride and deep personal connection to that as it shapes a conception of who they are.
a. Cultural identity defined
b. Cultural identity examples
c. Cultural identity theories
i. co-cultural theory
ii. cultural contract theory
iii. identity negotiation theory
iv. cultural identity and trauma
Becoming acquainted with one’s identity is the life’s work of the individual. One’s identity is a delicate soup of childhood experiences, family life, geographical background, pop cultural influences, aspirations, talents, flaws, habits, and cultural influence. That last detail of one’s identity is perhaps the trickiest to pinpoint. The impact that one’s culture has had on one’s identity can seem nebulous. Likewise, the aspect of one’s self that is composed of one’s cultural identity can also be tricky to articulate. For example, the cultural identity of a second generation Cuban American living in Miami would likely be very distinct from a Cuban immigrant who just moved to Miami, even though they are of the same ethnic background. Thus, a variety of factors can influence and shape one’s cultural identity.
Many people wrongly assume that one’s cultural identity just has to do with one’s ethnic heritage and the customs attached to that heritage, but those aspects are just part of the equation. Instead, one’s cultural identity is a mixture of some or all of the following: geography, ethnic or racial group, religion, native country, ancestry, language or slang. What can make cultural identities more challenging to determine is the fact they do depend on the preferences of the individual. For instance, an Irish American living in Boston might have a very distinct cultural identity than an Irish American living in Omaha, Nebraska. This is largely because cultural identities are shaped based upon what people identify with and choose connect themselves to. The cultural identity of a person indicates some sort of connection with a group of ideas and actions that are representative of a larger group or heritage.
Two children from the same family that grew up together in the same town could have two separate and distinct cultural identities. This concept demonstrates the malleability and certain amounts of haziness contained in one’s cultural identity.
Cultural identity is as individualized as your fingerprints and represents a series of influences, factors and decisions that shape your connection to a larger group of people.
One’s cultural identity refers to the aspects of one’s culture that one connects with.
For some people, they will fully embrace and mimic the cultural identity of their parents and family without question. For other people, the process of building or shaping a culture is more organic and is the result of the combined influence of environmental factors and decisions made. Regardless of how one shapes or allows one’s cultural identity to be shaped, this form of identity is largely a statement or reaction to one’s relation to a larger group or collective.
For example, a Polish-Jewish American individual might identify more with their Jewishness than their Polishness. Or it could be the exact opposite: this person might identify more strongly with their Polish background than their religion. Alternatively, they might embrace both aspects of their heritage uniformly. It all depends on the person and their background. “Cultural identity is the resultant which is processed by cultural diffusion. It is accentuated by the rigorous flow of core beliefs and practices from one generation to succeeding ones over a period of time” (Historyplex, 2018). Hence, it’s important to recognize, that one’s cultural identity could be a result of a range of factors one is exposed to in conjunction with one’s belief system regarding culture.
For example, an African American male from a working class Christian family growing up outside of Boston might have his cultural identity influenced by a range of factors. He might embrace his family’s religion or reject it. He might cling to his social class as a means of separating himself from the influx of wealthy out-of-state college students in Boston or seek to liberate himself from it. Similarly, he might see Boston’s troubling history of imbalanced racial politics as a reason to embrace a divisive racial viewpoint or as a reason to embrace diversity. He might connect strongly with his maleness, his masculinity and the expectations of it or seek to develop more skills and perspectives that are traditionally considered feminine.
If one examines celebrity such as the Caucasian rapper, Post Malone, one can see both an embrace of certain cultural identity factors and a rejection of others. Post Malone is of an Italian American heritage, raised in Grapevine Texas, from a middle-class family—though few of these influences are elements that have merged onto his public cultural identity as a rapper. He’s been heavily influenced by a subversive tattoo and hip-hop culture as the dominant and shaping parts of his cultural persona.
Other times a person’s job will be the dominant force in their cultural identity, as sometimes that career or profession will dominate their life and choices, from how they dress, to who they socialize with, to how they socialize. For example, in Los Angeles famous Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the label “the young Turks” was given to a quartet of junior partners there in the mid-1990s (Masters, 2016). This was because they all worked long, intensive 80-hour-weeks there, dressed in similar designer suits all the time, and socialized with one another in the off-hours. All of these young agents, Richard Lovett, Joe Rosenberg, Bryan Lourd, David O’Connor, David Lonner and Kevin Huvane had their cultural identities largely shaped in part by the entertainment industry and the demands of this profession.
Cultural identity theories assist in shedding light regarding why people behave in particular ways that they do, as some people look to their cultural groups for acceptable modes of behavior. Sometimes this can be more complex than it sounds as certain individuals consider themselves to be members of several cultural groups at once in a manner that overlaps. Below are some of the more dominant theories of cultural identity.
This theory discusses how individuals within a co-cultural collective, such as marginalized groups communicate with those in the dominant group and the ways they attempt to remove stereotypes and gain acceptance as members of the dominant group (Orbe, 1998). There are a host of methods people use in such cases: some members of the marginalized group might avoid the dominant group, forge connections, or attempt to embrace the greater diversity of the world at large. It’s important to note that Orbe’s theory is not just about the actions people engage in, but about the communicative choices people use. Orbe also discusses at length two sub-theories inherent in this co-cultural theory: standpoint theory and muted group theory.
Standpoint theory posits that minorities and women have a different perspective of the world than those who make up the dominant cultural group (Orbe, 1998). Their perspective is fuller than those in the dominant cultural group because they have no choice but to seek understanding and learn the rules of the more dominant portion of society (Orbe, 1998). The dominant cultural group does not have to seek understanding of women or minority groups, because it’s not necessary and often not in their best interest (Orbe, 1998).
In a similar fashion, muted group theory is a subset of co-cultural theory that asserts that women and minorities are groups that are silenced. This is largely as a result of the power of the dominant group: the members of the dominant group are often the ones writing dictionaries, being lauded for their accomplishments, and controlling the media through film and television (Orbe, 1998). Members of the dominant culture (who are often men) often systematically devalue members of the muted group, and often deride their methods of communication, calling it weak or nagging (Orbe, 1998). Often when members of the minority culture or women attempt to participate in the dominant culture they are still rejected (Orbe, 1998).
Ronald L. Jackson II created this theory in 2002 as a means of highlighting the continuous dialogue about the negotiation of identity (Littlejohn & Foss, 2009). Jackson leans upon the metaphor of buying a home and how one’s preferences in that regard often manifest as extensions of one’s culture. Jackson posited that when one engages with strangers, there’s an expectation that one is supposed to behave in a specific way. It is in these types of interactions that one’s communication styles, habits, values and mental constructs manifest and are revealed (Littlejohn & Foss, 2009).
Identity Negotiation Theory (INT) suggests that all the various facets of a person’s identity (culture, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, profession, sexual orientation) are founded within a certain level of self-reflection and other social construction engagements (Ting-Toomey, 2015). “According to social identity theory, social (or socio-cultural) identities can include ethnic membership identity, social class identity, to family role issues, and personal identities can include any unique attributes that we associate with our individuated self in comparison to those of others. Thus, each individual’s composite identity has group membership, relational role, and individual self-reflexive implications” (Ting-Toomey, 2015).
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Certain theories of cultural identity give it extreme power and agency, suggesting that it even has the power to help people heal from the traumas of colonization, slavery and other nightmarish injustices. Scholars like Taylor and Usborn suggest that cultural identity is vital for psychological well-being and in the construction of one’s personal identity (2010). These scholars help to shed light on how a strong cultural identity can help in the healing and well-being of people who have had to endure collective trauma (Taylor & Usborn, 2010). That is a highly significant and very powerful aspect of cultural identity (Taylor & Usborn, 2010). These researchers mention the colonization of native peoples, the enslavement of African Americans as two incidences that fostered a substantial disruption and alteration to the collective cultural identities of these groups, along with unfathomable personal trauma and pain (2010). They even cite the tensions and static between the Israelis and Palestinians as responsible for causing an interruption of one another’s cultural identities, in lasting and dramatic ways, dependent on how the conflict manifests (Taylor & Usborn, 2010).
The environment cannot help but have a strong influence on culture and cultural identity, as the environment and the culture overlap, intermingle, and co-construct one another. Culture influences the environment, and the environment influences the culture. For example, the influence can be as broad as how people in urban areas of America often have more liberal political perspectives and use those viewpoints as a construct of their cultural identity. One can break this down as a manifestation of the environment impacting the culture: one lives in a diverse area where people of different ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations closely intermingle regularly. This close intermingling can illuminate the importance of protecting the rights and equality of all, thus promoting more liberal values within the individual. Similarly, someone from a more violent inner city neighborhood that is riddled with gang violence and comparable discord might find himself or herself turning to violence to solve conflicts with others, or seeking firearm ownership as a means of protection. These tendencies reflect an influence of one’s environment on the choices and beliefs of the individual—two factors which make up one’s cultural identity.
The construction of one’s cultural identity and the factors that shape it is a rich and fascinating subject. The cultural identity of the individual is an intermingling of ethnicity, race, gender, environment, social class, parental influence and even popular culture in some cases. Two people from the exact same family can have slightly different or wildly different cultural identities because there is an element of choice inherent in the creation of one’s cultural identity.
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Historyplex. (2018, March 19). The Doctrine of Cultural Identity Explained With Examples. Retrieved from https://historyplex.com/cultural-identity-explained-with-examples
Littlejohn, S. W., & Foss, K. A. (2011). Encyclopedia of communication theory. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Masters, K. (2016, August 25). Kim Masters: How I Came Up With CAA’s ‘Young Turks’ Label. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kim-masters-how-i-came-922265
Orbe, M. P. (1998). Constructing co-cultural theory: An explication of culture, power, and communication. Sage.
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Ting-Toomey, S. (2017). Identity Negotiation Theory and Mindfulness Practice. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.489
After reading this cultural identity essay, you hopefully have a better understanding of the factors that shape this type of identity. Individuals can exert a certain level of control over their cultural identity to some extents, but there are many aspects of their cultural identity that they can’t quite command or adjust (like their gender or their race). This essay has also attempted to demonstrate that there are ways one’s cultural identity has been molded through various external forces that one might be oblivious to. Regardless, if you find yourself stuck or unsure when crafting such an essay, don’t hesitate to reach out. Our writers have completed thousands of cultural identity essays and are well-acquainted with what teachers are looking for. We are always happy to offer feedback on what you’ve already written or guidance on the direction your writing is headed.