Culture and Identity


Photo of Dara McLaughlinblank spaceDara McLaughlin is a writer and visual artist. Her award winning poetry and stories have been published in literary magazines and anthologies. Her autobiographical poetry collection, A Map of This World, was released in 1999. Dara teaches poetry, coordinates writing workshops, and is an advocacy speaker for disability issues and education. Raised in New York, Dara moved to New Mexico six years ago,and works from her studio on a mesa overlooking The Rio Grande.

 A teen-ager in New York. A thirty-year-old male electrician/musician. A paralyzed woman journalist. What do they all have in common? They all have or belong to a culture and they all have an identity. There's no getting around it - it's part of being human. The important thing to know is that human diversity is based in these two factors. And there is no way of getting around our diversity. With a few exceptions, who would want to?

Diversity distinguishes us from one another and enriches our world. We'd be a pathetically boring group if we all shared the same identity or fell into one big cultural pot. In fact, we probably wouldn't have made it this far into our evolution without diverse cultures and identities.

But exactly what are culture and identity? Defining them can be tricky. Aside from dictionary definitions, defining the two becomes very personal. Where one ends and the other begins varies with each individual person's perceptions of themselves and the way they view the world.

Michael Fabrizi, a fifteen-year old student at St. Joseph's High School in Buffalo, New York, sees culture as "lifestyle and stuff people do like social activities and jobs." Whereas, to Mike, identity is "how a person feels about himself." I asked him to pretend aliens from another planet landed in Buffalo, discovered him, and allowed him only three words to describe who he is. He quickly answered, "Teen-ager, American, and student." Mike says he relates to "teen-ager stuff before anything else" and is very concerned about how the world views teen-agers no matter what nationality they are and for that reason feels a connection to teens all over the world. For Mike, being a teen-ager is his culture. Being an American is his identity, though he does admit he never thought much about it before September 11 (2001). "Now I feel an actual connection with my country."

At thirty, Shawn Richards, an electrician by trade, musician, husband and father of two small sons, believes culture and identity come hand in hand. Shawn was raised as a Protestant by his Scotch-Irish mother and did not have a lot of contact with his Cherokee father. When his Indian grandparents died, Shawn realized a gap he wanted to know more about. Until ten years ago, he had only a basic overview of Indian tribes. He did notice that the art he made and the art his Anglo cousin made were very different. "My cousin does art that reminds me of European art. I tried but couldn't draw like him. My art was always rounder, simpler, informal." He attributes his artistic inclinations to his American Indian blood. Richards recently contracted a job near the Seneca Indian Reservation in Gowanda, New York. Now he spends time at the Gowanda Library learning more about that part of his heritage. Not just for his own knowledge and sense of culture and identity but to pass it on to his sons.

What would Barbara McKee, journalist, poet, singer, and disability advocate say to someone who claims there is no such thing as Disability Culture? "I'd say they were well-practiced in denial. Only people who are disabled live the way we do and are treated the way we're treated." Barbara is a wheelchair user of twenty-two years and bars no holds when speaking up about her cultural journey of those twenty-two years. "Disability Culture is indiscriminate and based upon a twist of fate as to when you join. It's the only culture that works that way." Notice the word 'when' not 'if.' Barbara's vast knowledge of the culture of disability gleaned from experience as well as research, has created for her an identification with some other cultures. For example, Barbara states: "The Black Culture is immersed in oppression, discrimination, fights for civil rights, housing, jobs, and fair representation in all media. So are the disabled." Common threads not to be overlooked but rather to be taken into careful consideration.

Different cultures, different identities. Some spillover, some changes. Mike Fabrizi knows that at some point he will not be a teen-ager but will identify himself as an adult. Shawn Richards expects his identity to become stronger in his quest for information on the cultures of his ancestors. Barbara McKee felt her identity as a writer and poet long before she ever had a word published.

Culture and Identity are not mere classifications. They are historically grounded and emotionally charged. They are the fabric of humanity in all its twists and turns. To attempt to separate them is to separate skin from bones and say this is still a body.

Who are you? What is your culture? How many of each do you have? How have they changed? Will change? These are tough questions but well worth the trial. I believe that when we accept and define our cultures we have a chance at personal pride. And when we feel strongly about our own cultures and strive to protect and honor them, we are better able to respect people of other cultures. I, too, am a disabled woman. It's my personal dream and that of many other disabled people, to take part in upholding Disability Culture and working to create better lives for disabled people the world over.

 by Dara McLaughlin, December 2001 (

Other Columns