Our multiple and changing cultural identities
Whatever community we belong to, it is full of diversity – differences in gender, age, culture, ethnicity, abilities, religion, languages and attitudes. From birth, our family and community envelop us in language, understandings, values and beliefs so that we will think and behave in acceptable ways. As we grow up and interact with our community, we become members of different groups and expand our understandings, values and behaviours.
Globalisation, social media, migration and urbanisation are all leading to increased connections between people of diverse cultural identities, and intercultural understandings are becoming more important for respectful interactions.
Engaging with people of varied backgrounds expands our world view, develops greater understanding of our own identity and helps us to appreciate alternative points of view, but it can also be challenging. If we focus on the differences between people, separating groups into 'them' and 'us', there is potential for conflict and for people to be discriminated against and treated unjustly.
Our culture is the way we think and behave. It encompasses lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.
Culture includes observable features such as language, food, clothes, celebrations, art and literature as well as the less observable features of attitudes, beliefs, values, status and use of time and space, which form the basis of the visible.
Culture is dynamic, changing through interaction with other cultures and adapting to different environments. Attitudes change over time – for example, attitudes towards slavery, the rights of women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Cultures are not always connected to nationality. For example, wealthy young people in different countries connecting through social media may have more in common with each other than they do with poor or older people in their own country.
Generally, we are so comfortable with our own culture and so consider what we do as 'normal' that we may not be aware of our biases, prejudices and inconsistencies.
Culture can unite people with similar values, attitudes and beliefs, but it can also divide and disconnect people. Discrimination or abuse on the basis of ethnicity, religion, nationality, socio-economic status or gender makes people feel worthless, fearful or threatened. This may lead to violence and conflict. Lack of consideration of cultural diversity can mean people are excluded from groups and from education and health services, which lessens their contribution to the community and ability to earn a living. This is an abuse of their human rights.
Minority groups in society may be in danger of losing their language and unique characteristics as they are expected to assimilate to function fully within the culture of the dominant group. This can lead to the loss of individual identity and cultural knowledge, which has been refined over centuries and which may hold the keys to building a sustainable future.
As communities become more diverse they need to find ways to live peacefully together. Some people expect minority groups to assimilate or blend in completely, like a 'melting pot', with the dominant culture. Some people show appreciation of other cultures through sharing of visible aspects, such as food and festivals, known as multiculturalism. Other people view cultures as parts of a mosaic, acknowledging their differences, but valuing a deepening understanding of others and negotiating interaction that acknowledges shared values and intercultural understanding.
Building intercultural understanding
Everyone has their own way of expressing their culture and responding to other cultures. Encountering other cultures can result in 'culture shock', but along with a commitment to human rights and the determination to ensure a sustainable and peaceful future there is the need to develop intercultural understanding and the values and skills that will promote this. These include values of respect, empathy and tolerance, and appropriate and effective communication skills. Resolution of conflicting points of view relies on a willingness to listen, avoidance of stereotypes and the ability to negotiate differences and adapt behaviours. As cultures evolve and people struggle to balance conflicting ideas, this is an ongoing learning journey.