Feeling connected to your cultural identity can be an important part of life satisfaction for many people, and it can be a large part of one’s identity as a whole. In my work as a therapist and online life coach, I have the opportunity to sit with people who are on this journey. Knowing one’s cultural identity and embracing it is not a requirement for feeling satisfied and it does not have to be a necessary part of happiness or contentment, but the key piece here is whether that is an intentional choice for you.
For many people living in the United States, and across the world, knowing and embracing your cultural, racial, or ethnic identity can be a complex task. For the purposes of this article, I will use ‘cultural identity’ as a broad term to include race and ethnicity (although culture and cultural identity are not limited to these 2 areas), but it is important to note these terms are different and distinct from one another. Cultural identity can also include language and location among other things and is largely socially constructed.
Embracing Your Cultural Identity
Why might embracing your cultural identity be important anyway? There are many answers to this question, but from a therapist and personal growth coach’s perspective, a big factor is the emotional impacts that can arise when we don’t.
Feelings of shame, guilt, isolation, disconnection, and emptiness may arise when we feel confused or cut off from our cultural identity, and this can be especially complex in the face of white supremacy. It would be a disservice and unrealistic not to address the role white supremacy plays on how our cultural identity forms, how culture is communicated to us, and what it can mean to us.
Embracing your cultural identity can help you feel more satisfied, more connected to yourself, your relationship, and your loved ones, and give you more confidence in who you are.
White Supremacy and You
Connecting with your cultural identity while fighting the current of white supremacy is no easy task, and has been something our ancestors have been doing for many years whether they are conscious of this or not. As America is generally recognized as a nation of immigrants, the issue of striving to feel connected and validated in our culture while being a part of “American culture” can feel like a balancing act.
This is particularly salient for first and second-generation immigrants, and immigrant families as a whole regardless of how many generations have come forth since immigrating. Walking the tightrope of trying to assimilate into a new country and culture while holding on to your own racial and ethnic culture is no small feat, and can lead you to feel criticized or invalidated at every turn when you aren’t “American enough” or “white enough” and you also aren’t “____ enough” for your cultural group.
Understanding this for ourselves can be challenging enough, much less in the face of colorism and microaggressions that can permeate everyday life. Colorism is a way in which white supremacy can show up within racial and ethnic groups, where proximity to whiteness is met with either giving or taking away power and privilege based on the tone of one’s skin.
Families may have learned or had the experience that embracing their cultural identity, and not hiding it in the face of white supremacy, is dangerous. For many people across the globe, embracing and embodying your cultural identity is not always safe. This is an unfortunate reality, and being able to discern when you can embrace your cultural identity and when you can’t is a critical skill.
However, what I see as a beacon of light in these situations is that you can cultivate and embrace your cultural identity in the privacy and sanctity of your own home or living space, as well as in your mind. Now that we have been able to acknowledge the role of white supremacy, let’s talk about ways to embrace and cultivate your cultural identity even in the face of challenge so that healing can begin.
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Cultivating and Connecting with Your Cultural Identity
In order to begin cultivating and connecting with your cultural identity, you first have to identify the parts that make you, you. There are many routes you can use to discover your racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup, depending on how deep you’d like to go.
Trace Your Family Journey
If you are able to speak with family members, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins they may be a great place to start tracing the journey your family has made across different states, countries, or cities. Depending on your relationship with them, this could be an opportunity to connect and share stories about family members and the history of your family.
Research Your Family Tree
Another great option is to complete genealogical DNA testing or to complete some genealogical research on your own via a family tree. You could complete this yourself, or outsource to hire someone else to do this research for you. As mentioned before, culture can be broad and comprise the various parts of your identity, which may include your geographic location, the way you speak, and your personality. Regardless of how you define your cultural identity, it starts with identifying the major pieces of you that may or may not be visible.
Explore Your Identities
Once you have started to recognize your identities, it is time to explore them and be curious about what they mean to you. This may be a little more challenging than it seems on the surface, as you will have to sort through the messages you may have received about a particular identity compared to what you actually feel or believe about it.
This process is not always linear, clear-cut, or easy, and it may be a continual process until you feel firmly rooted in what you think and feel about your identities. I also use identity in the plural sense, as we are all intersectional in that we are made up of many identities including but not limited to: gender, ability, age, race, ethnicity, and sexual identity.
Connect with Others On a Similar Path
As you are exploring and integrating these various pieces of you, it may be helpful to engage with others who are similar to you to either share in the struggles of this work or find that you are not alone in how you feel. Many times we may feel isolated or misunderstood in who we are, but from my experience as a therapist and coach, all of us can relate to one another more than we may think.
As you are doing this work, your emotions may range from joy, surprise, and excitement to confusion, frustration, or disbelief. At the end of the day, I encourage you to give yourself patience and permission to stand in your truth and not try to force yourself into neat and tiny boxes. People may share different opinions than you, but no one can define you or tell you who you are, only you can do that.
Embracing Your Cultural Identity While Combating White Supremacy
Embracing your cultural identity can be freeing and satisfying, but does not come without its own challenges, as white supremacy can be insidious in its various forms. As you are going through your own journey, doubts and inner criticism may arise as you’re exploring your emotions and beliefs about your identities.
Paying attention to these emotions as they come up and exploring what may be beneath them can also help you better understand yourself, your fears, and anxieties about showing up in this new way. The tools you will need in your toolbox as you are embracing and understanding your cultural identity will be:
You will be using each of these tools often, so be prepared to keep them accessible to you.
You will need to give yourself compassion as you feel conflicting emotions, patience as you feel confusion or stuck-ness, and kindness towards yourself all along the way. Curiosity will be important to combat feelings of judgment and to explore every thought, belief, or emotion.
Curiosity may look like, “Where did I learn this?” or “What is the origin story to this reaction or belief?” and, “Do I really believe/think/feel this, or did this come from someone else?” Feelings of shame or pain can be difficult to process, and here is where giving ourselves compassion and kindness is crucial.
Going along with society or those in power is a survival strategy, and yourself and your family did what you had to do to get to this point and there is no shame in that. However, at any time we all have the choice to pivot and make the choices that best serve us now, which may include opening ourselves up to integrating all of who we are.
I may make this sound easy, but please give yourself patience in understanding this, like everything else, it is a process that takes time. There is just as much value in the journey as there is arriving at the destination, and you may need to remind yourself of this often.
When confronted with white supremacy or microaggressions, you have the power to remind yourself of your truth and who you are. You are able to reassure yourself of your identities and what they mean to you and about you, and no one can ever take that away from you.
Embracing your cultural identity may look like not censoring yourself or contorting yourself to fit the majority, but it is important to recognize you may not always have the privilege and safety to do so. In those cases, reminding yourself of your values and identity in those moments will be important to insulate you from the effects of that. Giving yourself compassion in those moments and recognizing the strength and skill it takes to adapt and protect yourself is a huge aspect of this work, and will cultivate resilience within you.
Embracing your cultural identity is not the path of least resistance, but is a trek worth embarking on. You can utilize these tools along with the support of friends, family, and people in your community you feel safe sharing with along the way, as social support is invaluable throughout this process as well. Please know, people across the world and all around you are working to embrace their cultural identity right along with you.
Meet Josephine: a warm, kind, and affirming therapist and couples counselor who specializes in communication, compassion, and connection. Her effective blend of emotionally focused therapy and positive coaching techniques can help you heal and grow, and create positive change in yourself and your relationships.