Post image for Unpacking Culture

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

Culture: Systems and Specificities Collide

When I was in college, there were many moments that changed my thinking on a variety of subjects. My thoughts on race and ethnicity evolved significantly in terms of how to “read” race and ethnicity. Race and ethnicity didn’t solely become about place of origin, skin color, or vocal inflections and language. Instead, it was a whole new idea of how people make choices as to how to identity and how to align themselves. In tandem with these ideas also followed looking at how systems of culture functioned within race and ethnicity. But culture is such a vast word. It’s like telling an actor “be angrier.” What does that even mean? How do we unpack culture? What defines a culture and what challenges a culture? What elements weave together to formulate a culture?

One of the ways in which I became curious about culture actually stems from outside of my own culture in a class I took on Latina/o Theater. On the first day of class my professor polled the class and asked what cultures were represented in the classroom. There were Columbians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, white, and African American (which was me). I was the only person in class who was African American and I was interested in learning about the various cultures that were in the class. What was unique about this experience was that we looked at particular playwrights from various cultures and before we read those plays we read the history and cultural context that surrounded the play and playwright. For instance, when we read the incredible Cherrie Moraga we studied a lot about Chicana/o culture. You couldn’t read her plays without knowing about the United Farm Workers Movement. If you didn’t know about the surrounding cultural context of Chicanas/os in the US, you would’ve had an appreciation of the play certainly. But by understanding the cultural context and cultural system of that play, your world opened up. The play takes on new meaning with history, tradition, and people. You get what I call “shortcuts” to particular references in the play when you both read and hear about the cultural system that operates in the world of that play.


Studying and learning about the specific cultural background of each playwright and play was important. It helped me to not only read the plays in a different way, but also allowed me to see how Black culture cross pollinated into Chicana/o culture as well as how our experiences varied as well. This made me realize that it’s not culture that operates and effects people, but instead it is how culture operates as a system of beliefs and rituals, mutual history, and experience that effects and impacts people. Cultural systems combine history, language, music, literature, ritual, religion, food, triumph, disaster, and so much more. I think the uniqueness of the systems of culture that people of color create is that we have specific and clear experiences that we tend to recognize and can identify for what they mean in a moment. If for example you put the phrase “You gon’ eat this cake, Anna Mae” into a play, people who operate in the Black cultural system would read this line in a completely different way that surrounds events, history, and music that all involve Tina Turner and the abuse of women. People who understand the Black cultural system would recognize this line instantly and place a cultural value on the moment in which that line is spoken. There is a new understanding when cultural systems are examined. I use the term cultural system rather than just culture, because I believe that systems are complicated. They constantly change with time and they collide and congeal with others.  Systems can operate in both positive and negative ways.  Systems allow us some kind of access point. It doesn’t tell others to “keep out” like I think culture does. To say something is Black culture can be limiting. Instead, I recognize that there is a system of values and mutual understanding in which Black beliefs, traditions, literature, music, and values operate and it is a system that I have lived in all of my life. However, there are others who can come to understand it and sympathize with this cultural system. They are called allies.


In terms of American theater at large, culture can be looked at as a series of systems that function and operate in a variety of ways. There is a Black culture and there is a Southern Black culture and there is an Atlanta Black culture. There is Chicano/a culture and there is an Ohio Chicano/a culture. All these cultures have different systems and sometimes those systems operate within each other and at times against each other. They mesh and flow as much as the cultural system of American theater does. When looking at diversity and inclusion we should attempt to understand the multifarious systems that may operate right next to us within a person. Language, phrasing, writing, actions, polices are all looked at through someone’s cultural system. If we begin to ask questions of someone’s culture system they should be honest inquiries. These inquiries can lead to discoveries, which can lead to more inquiry, which can lead to conversation, which leads to the ultimate goal of diversity and inclusion: meaningful action.

 -Written by Alfred Heartley