Culture is More Important Than Ever in a Shrinking World. How We Talk About it Matters.
“Where is home? Most of us are born with the answer. Others have to sift through the pieces.”
In 2015, Anthony Bourdain opened the Ethiopia episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown with these words. Led by Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson, Bourdain ate his way through the busy streets of Addis Ababa as well as the country’s rural villages. The two men tore through platters of injera bread and listened to lively Ethiopian jazz before ultimately tackling deeper questions of cultural identity.
As Bourdain discovered over their shared meals, Samuelsson epitomizes those who must sift through the pieces to discover the meaning of home. He was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden, and currently lives in Harlem. How does he identify? Does he represent one culture or many? Where is home for him? He has spent most of his life away from Ethiopia, but he still partially identifies with the country and its culture.
Samuelsson’s quandary is a familiar one: As people living in a period of rapid globalization, we ask these questions over and over again. But what if national cultural identity is just as fluid and dynamic as it is at the personal level? Someday soon, an entire nation might have to define “home.” Will its people embrace or reject their cultural differences? The implications of the answer could be massive. After all, culture reveals itself in unexpected ways — in politics, in conflict, and even in economics.
Culture as Politics
Politicians have long used culture — and fear of an incoming culture — to garner loyalty. In the 1960s, for example, Germany embraced the tremendous influx of Turkish and Eastern European workers who arrived to support the country’s rapidly growing post-war economy. This migration changed German culture, to the extent that Turkish kabobs are now just as common in the culinary landscape as sausage and pretzels. Modern Germany has been so characterized by its hospitality that the public largely celebrated as Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the country to new arrivals at the height of the recent wave of migration.
That is, until a couple of years ago in Cologne, when a crowd of men who appeared to be of Arab or North African descent allegedly assaulted about 1,200 women. Far-right groups blamed the atrocities of a few outliers on all asylum seekers and refugees. Although 12 percent of Germany’s population is foreign-born and fairly well integrated, these far-right groups began to question their legitimacy as part of the country. Suddenly, a population that was once accepted was characterized by violence — and Germany’s relatively open asylum policy was up for debate.
Germany’s experience begs a larger question about national identity: If we blame entire groups for the actions of a few, is our acceptance of people from other cultures more fragile than we are willing to admit?
Culture as Conflict
Culture has also historically been used as a weapon of conquest. The Islamic State has a pattern of attacking cultural heritage sites as it seeks to usurp the existing identity of the territory it takes and institute its own practices. Europeans also employed culture as a cudgel in the colonial period of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The French, for example pursued a mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) in their holdings in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. They viewed French culture and institutions as far superior to those they had conquered, and believed they should not only hold the territories and extract their resources but also instill French culture into their subjects. Through education and force, they indoctrinated native populations with “Frenchness” as a method of control.
Closer to home, the United States did the same thing with the Native American population by sending its children to boarding schools like the infamous Carlisle Indian School, which operated under the philosophy, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Western powers saw culture as something to be molded to fit theirs rather than something valuable from which they could learn.
We will never know all the treasures lost through this process. Is culture a zero-sum game in which one culture will be disposed of as another asserts itself, or is it possible for diverse cultures to exist peacefully together?
Culture as Economics
Economics can also be influenced by culture, an intersection highlighted in a recent Brookings Institution article on the concept of Islamic finance and financial inclusion. Historically, restrictions within Islamic Law surrounding finance led some in the Islamic world to withhold their money from financial institutions. While this is not the exclusive reason people remain unbanked, certain Muslim-majority countries are providing religiously compliant alternatives to Western financial models in order to bring more of their citizens into the formal financial system.
As cultures continue to come into closer contact through migration and globalization, will newcomers be forced to adopt that country’s financial customs or will their hosts be open to accommodating the newcomers’ preferences and traditions?
Culture reaches far beyond its Instagram-worthy manifestations of food, music, and dance. All aspects of our lives are drenched in cultural context — even the conversations Anthony Bourdain has over a delicious table of food. And we can all learn from those conversations. Throughout his show, Bourdain engages on a fundamental level with culture and what it means to be from a certain place. Was it better in the past? Will it be better or worse in twenty years? He goes well beyond food to address the deepest questions of cultural identity, always with an open mind.
As the world continues to shrink, Bourdain’s question, “Where is home?” will become harder to answer. We must begin deliberations now: Will we grow more hostile or welcoming during our time here? My hope is the latter.
Sean Mooney is a Program Associate for the Communities Connecting Heritage (CCH) program. In partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Programs Division in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, World Learning is administering the Communities Connecting Heritage Program. CCH is creating partnerships between US and international organizations around the theme of culture heritage preservation. Each partnership will recruit participants for virtual and in-person exchange as they collaborate on a cultural heritage project. Learn more about the CCH program here.