What is culture to you?—Essentially, Who are you?

I pose these questions in the wake of reading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a book about the psychological effects on black (and white) people imposed by culture and therefore by society.  This seemed a large point of Fanon’s argument, that culture makes us all; the black man cannot truly be himself—whatever that is—but because he has been colonized by whites who are now the dominant culture and society, the black man must try to become white if he wants to have a chance to be accepted, yet whites will always view him as black (as Fanon says a black man will truly now he is black once he goes to France, subject to the gaze of all the whites there) and he will be subjugated as such.  But Fanon turns this on the whites as well, who, he says, are themselves caught in a struggle by subjugating the blacks to their stereotypes.  Of course, the blacks are terribly forced into positions of inferiority by being treated a certain way (being talked to in pidgin, condescended to, etc.) but the whites are also destroying themselves, stopping themselves from being able to interface with blacks ‘normally’, with this imposition of stereotypes throughout their (popular) culture, the image of the grinning, as Fanon brings up, Y Bon Banania, or through comic books, where, says Fanon, black children learn the equate blacks with evil.  Thus again, culture rules us all and who makes culture?  Why, people!  Fanon saw this creation of a racist culture as destroying any means of his goal of blacks and whites ‘getting along’ and therefore he saw the need to say “It’s no longer a question of knowing the world, but of transforming it.”  Society and therefore culture must be changed for this goal to be met.  Which made me question myself a bit.

I’m Chinese-Canadian, parents from Hong Kong; I was born in Vancouver.  I consider myself more ‘Canadian’—whatever that means—than Chinese—and really, what does that mean too?  That I have Chinese ancestry and I’m Canadian because I was born in Canada; is that all that means?  Or do people attach more value to that, really vague characteristics as presented by such things as Canada’s televised ‘Heritage Moments’ or through stereotypes; Canadians are nice and always say ‘eh’; Chinese people are super smart and strict or whatever.  I don’t see myself being attached to any particular ‘culture’ though as Fanon points out, how culture affects us in how we act (like how Butler said culture affects how we treat the different genders), I’m may be just working on some cultural mode, and I’m guessing it’s close to ‘western culture’, whatever that encompasses.  I guess this was why we talked about Lacan’s three divisions of the world.  Fanon may be trying to throw out all cultural/social (my relation to ‘the others’) and legal statuses (also what ‘defines’ one in society) and therefore go to Lacan’s ‘real’, this seemingly transcendental state where we may go beyond these conventional identities, go beyond putting on mask after mask after mask.  So I guess I’m asking, is culture important, why/why not?  Is it important to you?  Does it need to be important?  Is it important to be part of something?  Can we exist outside of it?  Can our identity ever be set, or is it always shifting because we constantly interface with others?  In the end I do think it is also a question of human existence and personal identity than just purely racial and cultural.  There are probably more questions on similar lines, so I’ll leave it up to you to make more, in essence what I’m doing here.

Please, Question yourself, that great existential activity.

3 thoughts on “What is culture to you?—Essentially, Who are you?

  1. Another great reflection, Brandon. I do see that by the end of the text Fanon is really arguing for something like the ability to define oneself (e.g., p. 204), that one’s self is radically open to the future (205, 206). So he does seem to be trying to say that we can get beyond our cultural influences in a radical way. But I agree that we may need to question this; even this very idea of being completely free to create ourselves as we choose may be something that makes sense to us based on a particular culture.

    I don’t want to say we’re entirely trapped in our cultural or economic or political history, because I think that’s pessimistic and probably not true. But I also am not sure we can just jump out of that completely and entirely.

    Your question about whether we can ever exist outside of any cultural or other group identity is also an intriguing one. Can we be fully unique, by ourselves, apart from others? Would we want to? I’m not sure I’d want to be completely alone like that. Somehow I would like to find a balance between being affected by my culture and history and being able to go beyond these to some extent.

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