Reprinted from "Culture" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (4), p. 8
Culture provides a larger sense of who we are, where we come from and where we belong. Culture can provide us with a lens through which we frame, relate to or understand events. A culture doesn’t have to be defined by racial or ethnic background. It can be identified by where the person’s heart sits, or where they feel the most understood or the greatest sense of belonging. We can participate in and belong to many cultures, though we usually identify mainly with one. When we look at culture this way, it becomes a very fluid entity, applicable to all people.
Canadian people of Caucasian descent have often said to me they don’t have a culture they identify with. When questioned further, they say they identify with “Canadian culture.” If we begin to talk about what exactly they identify with in Canadian culture, the conversation often comes to a halt—unless we break it down to the person’s life experiences.
We can look at the person’s value system, spiritual beliefs, artistic enjoyment or practice, and everyday activities, as well as their racial heritage as it pertains to living in today’s Canadian culture. One woman I spoke with knew she was of Irish descent, but was unsure what this meant. After learning about, and engaging in, some Celtic cultural practices, she confidently identifies as a member of Irish Canadian culture. Another person named his ethnic heritage, but said he feels much more connected to the sizeable community and culture associated with electronic music.
Connecting people with others from their own cultural background and belief system is essential to promoting and maintaining resiliency (i.e., the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties). It’s a way for people to share their strengths and acknowledge their challenges—to have a cultural relationship.
Sometimes, having a cultural relationship means you can sit with someone and feel a sense of peace because you know, without having to explain or express in words, they understand where you’ve been and what you’ve experienced.
The importance of cultural connectedness and belonging
In my work as a counsellor and advocate, I’ve seen the impact of traumatic events on many people. These events have been associated with war; political, sexual, gender, religious and racial oppression; stigma and prejudice of mental health and addictions; physical ability; and socio-economic status. Experiencing trauma often results in mental health concerns such as isolation, loss of self-esteem, substance abuse or dependence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
I’ve frequently seen that, once an individual has connected with others who share the same cultural identification, they are more easily able to speak to, and heal from, their trauma. Connection to the larger cultural perspective helps individuals become a part of something they hold dear and encourages a “for the people by the people” perspective.
In trauma situations, we often see a glaring power differential. The person may have been forced by the person or group that perpetrated the trauma to participate in, or witness, acts against their will. Examples include discrimination, mental/physical/spiritual abuses, political oppression and children witnessing violence. A “for the people by the people” perspective decreases the effect of power inequities.
The feeling of belonging and being understood helps heal the impacts of trauma, oftentimes reinforcing resilience. I see this in my work with refugees. When refugees who’ve already had traumatic encounters arrive in Canada, they experience culture shock. They may lose the hope they had for a sense of peace and a better future. Cultural isolation—a result of language barriers, limited job opportunities, lack of financial resources and not being connected with other people from their country or culture of origin—hinders a sense of belonging.
Reducing cultural isolation is essential to increasing the sense of belonging. Connecting refugees with appropriate resources reduces isolation. Resources include cultural groups they can relate to, community agencies that offer services in their language and that understand their experiences prior to coming to Canada, English-language training and assistance finding employment opportunities.
I’ve noticed that when the experience of trauma is shared in common with other individuals, this commonality often guides the person to their sense of cultural belonging. For instance, politically oppressed women and men from different countries each have their own traumatic experiences. But individuals often connect more meaningfully with others of a similar oppressive history, rather than others from the same country of origin.
Trauma has impacted Aboriginal people to a devastating degree. Yet, due to the wide-ranging impacts of the trauma among Aboriginal people, there is a common understanding of belonging and identification. The people are readily able to identify and speak to their traumas as a personal and cultural experience—they can sit peacefully with a non-judgmental common understanding. This ability to feel a sense of belonging assists greatly in healing from these traumas.
For many people, cultural practice becomes their way to overcome traumas and increase their resiliency. Every culture has norms, belief systems and values that define its cultural practices. Cultural practice can be related to traditional ceremonies, child-rearing practices and cultural activities such engaging in traditional arts. For many cultures, food is the “tie that binds.” Music—with specific instruments and songs—is also incredibly cultural relevant. Aboriginal people in Canada, for example, are reclaiming language and participating in ceremonies such as potlatches, sweat lodges, pow wows and smudging.
Cultural safety in health care
Ideally, we would all be able to sit with a sense of peace with someone from our culture when accessing professional care. This is not realistic for all people all of the time. However, it can definitely be helpful to find a health care provider who has knowledge of the impact of culture in healing. It’s even more helpful when professionals provide a sense of cultural safety—that is, create space for culture within dialogue and treatment. It’s also beneficial to have culturally relevant resources to refer individuals to in their communities.
Nurturing culturally relevant connection is a powerful way to reduce the impacts of trauma and nourish resilience.
About the author
Kimberley is a counsellor and advocate in Vancouver. She has worked in the justice and health care fields for and with individuals who have experienced trauma. In her personal life and professional practice, Kimberley has experienced and witnessed the role culture plays in increasing wellness for individuals, family, communities and Indigenous nations (also known as Aboriginal peoples)