By the time this article is published, I will (hopefully) be the first one in my immediate family to receive a Bachelor’s degree. Even more strangely, I will be the first to go on to pursue graduate education. My academic journey has brought me face-to-face with an issue prevalent in larger American society, specifically in recent debates about race: acculturation.
I come from a comfortable, but largely blue-collar background with an emphasis on hard work, frugality, and community. When you come from such a “culture,” it is implied that you have habits looked down upon by the more bourgeois elements of our society: a love for contact sports, a disdain for formal occasions, and a willingness to gift lottery tickets for any holiday. In short, a sort of rugged egalitarianism characterizes my background. Like most influences it has its positives and its negatives.
As I grow up, however, and join the academy, I am faced with the delicate act of balancing different worlds. My “customs” are my own and might not fit in with the largely richer, better-educated (in terms of family status) other students at my college. Even the way I choose to dress might signal me out as “other.” At the same time, going home means changing how I talk and what I talk about. My accent gets thicker and I have to stop blathering on about Demosthenes, medieval literature, and Jacobin. Any attempt to broach those topics would confuse and possibly alienate my family.
If I might be forgiven for broaching this topic again, I think that these reflections have some real bearing on debates about race in contemporary America. When Jason Riley spoke at Holy Cross a few weeks ago, he told a story about his niece thinking he “talked white.” The audience seemed scandalized that anyone who is black would want to “talk white” or otherwise express themselves through cultural tropes that are not their own. When Mr. Riley criticized certain aspects of mainstream black culture (I pause here to say that I wish he had been clearer that some of these stereotypes are constructed by the media), he was met with derision, and every comment short of being called a race traitor. One girl even asked what he “identified as,” implying he wasn’t “black enough.”
The lesson here is that authentic culture is rather hard to pin down. As we move forward in our lives, we are forced to acclimate into new social strata as best we can. I remain thoroughly “New Jersey,” despite having lived at a college in New England for four years, but I’d be lying if I said I am the exact same person I was before moving. My social, economic, and even ethnic “cultures” have been changed by my experiences, but I’m no less “Chase,” no less “blue collar,” no less “white.” I am different, and, perhaps, to those back home, I am less “authentic,” but I still feel very much myself, very much beholden to and proud of my home and background.
The same could be said of our very non-porous racial-cultural boundaries. “Authentic” black and white culture are not so different that the lines do not blur; true acculturation does not mean fully leaving behind who you are. In fact, each of us has a unique journey formed by the cultures in which we participate. We would do well to start there.