Illustration by Ben Beechener
‘no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive’ – Mahatma Gandhi
Culture is a funny word. It’s elusive, slippery, tricky to pin down to a single definition which just feels right. When I was applying for the editor position of ‘Culture’, I found myself continually asking a question which I thought was relatively simple: ‘what is Culture?’. While the question was simple, the answers were delightful in their diversity. For some, Culture is about the books you read, the films you like; for others it is about the country you were born in, or perhaps a struggle to find your ‘true’ Culture after moving halfway across the world. My list could really go on and on, because Culture is complicated and messy and, at times, really quite chaotic; of course it is, because we humans aren’t exactly uncomplicated creatures are we?
So where does the word come from? Well, the Latin word ‘cultura’, culture’s etymological ancestor, literally referred to the act of preparing the earth for crops. But naturally, as with most words in the English Language, the word soon took on a metaphorical meaning. The Middle English ‘culture’ was a verb which could mean anything from ‘honour’, ‘worship’, ‘cultivate’, ‘celebrate’. What we can learn then from etymology is that celebration and pride should be at the heart of our understanding of Culture. Which was why I took such an issue with the section name being so singular. Within the name ‘Culture’ was the implication that there is a single correct way of living which should be celebrated, that our cultural identity has a right and has a wrong.
Now, I toiled for hours about how I would go about changing the section so that it celebrated diversity and intersectionality, so that we did away with rights and wrongs and just honoured all the things which make us us. When the answer finally came to me, I realised it was so simple that it was quite ridiculous that I had spent hours trying to dream it up. All I needed to do was add the letter ‘s’.
So, Culture became Cultures.
(and I hope you share my (somewhat biased I know) view that this renaming just feels so right!)
Because we don’t like to do things by halves at The Oxford Blue, the Cultures Team have introduced a new section to complement our name change: ‘Cultural Identity’. Want to know what to expect? Well, as a starting point, I thought I would ask all our terrifically talented Junior Editors the (supposedly) simple question: ‘What is Cultural Identity to you?’:
‘To me, culture is a fusion of the international and the national. Born in England to a Tanzanian mum and a Jamaican dad, with family dotted across the globe, my home and upbringing has been a fusion of cultures. This would often mean our dining table was full of perfectly roasted potatoes, jerk chicken, rice and peas, chapatis, ackee and, salt fish. But such cultural fusion was within a house overlooking the English countryside and the animals grazing on the fields. To me, culture is Friday night trips to Blockbuster for a weekend of watching films, it’s being transported to different worlds within the pages of a well-read novel, it’s being sat in the space between my mum’s knees as she braids my hair into cornrows. Culture, to me, is long distance flights to see family every few years and sitting beneath mango trees often raided by monkeys, or splashing out on a hardback book and keeping the Barnes and Noble receipt. Culture is constant disbelief in British weather, cups of tea and cinema trips. Ultimately, culture is unique but also unifying.’ – Hetta, Literature
‘I am a country girl through and through. Although I don’t technically live on a farm, I have been surrounded by animals my entire life and have never been more than a two-minute walk away from the forest. This means that I have grown up (in my opinion) in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Every day I can look out of the window, pick out thousands of different shades of green, and smile at the horses scratching their heads against our door. As a result, I just don’t thrive in the city environment. I feel claustrophobic when surrounded by buildings and utterly heartbroken when light pollution prevents me from seeing the stars. Whenever I’m in Oxford, I end up re-reading Jane Austen’s descriptions of the pastoral Hampshire county where I grew up just to remind myself that the piece of the countryside is still waiting for me.’ – Emily, The Blueprint
‘Growing up in a leafy suburb in Buckinghamshire where only 0.4% of the population is Black Caribbean, being surrounded by a sea of faces that did not look like mine, my cultural identity is something I had and still have difficulty navigating, As an interracial couple that met at the height of the Apartheid, my parents always instilled the importance of unapologetically expressing all aspects of my culture, no matter how it manifests. My guiding philosophy for understanding this came to me after visiting an exhibition on Masculinites at the Barbican. There, the phrase ‘Disrupt the Archetype’ was used, and I think it is widely applicable and distils my attitude when approaching all things culture, challenging narratives and celebrating all things that shape my cultural identity, big or small. In a broader sense, coming to Oxford, I see culture as not having to conform to the ‘highbrow’ expectations, not worrying about how ‘well read’ I am or if I’ve ever been to the theatre, and instead embracing all forms of art and expression.’ – Nic, Cultural Identity
‘My college in North London was the first time I had friends who were really out as gay. Instead of having a ‘token gay,’ we had a few token straight people. We were a couple dozen queer teenagers, bonding over the TV we liked and the classes we shared. They were friends who knew the words to every song in Rent, who would belt out La Vie Bohème as quickly as they’d bust out Apple Bottom Jeans. We bonded on long bus rides that should have been ten minutes – but ended up being forty minutes because of traffic- talking casually and easily about who we were. Walks down North Finchley High Street turned into deep talks about gender. Half of our friend group have dated (or had crushes on each other). We formed sub-sections, smaller groups of close friends, but came together for parties; and for lunch, a mass of people piling on top of each other on crappy purple sofas. Our friendships were messy and complicated, and a lot of us don’t speak anymore, but I’m still grateful that from ages 16 to 18, I had so many friends who understood me.’ – Lily, The Blueprint
‘My culture is unique. It’s my values, beliefs, and way of life. But most importantly — it’s my identity. Born in Worcestershire (the ‘middle-of-nowhere’) to my Mancunian mother and Jamaican father, I was given a mixed bag of tools growing up which I used to craft my own culture in order to understand my being. I believe the UK-countryside-born mixed-race heritage is a distinct one that fosters very personal cultures. From a young age, I’ve valued personality and individualism higher than allowing expectations or stereotypes to dictate my outlook on life. Growing up, my culture was built upon and revolved around music. Arguably, music shaped and reflected not only my father’s culture, but his homeland’s national identity and economic revival. It has always a big part of my life, whether it’s just vibing to my parent’s favourites, blasting Mozart through my earphones on the train, becoming the 4th member of TLC at karaoke night, or listening to the set list whilst driving to the gig. Allowing my identity to unfold through music has always been at the forefront of my culture — it’s what resonates with me as an individual.’ – Ben, Music
‘I have had the traditional English upbringing. My early years were filled with Sunday Roasts, after-school clubs, and a reading list that didn’t expand far beyond Biff and Chip and the ‘Famous Five’. However, alongside this, my family also has Dutch and German heritage, which has considerably broadened my horizons beyond quintessential Britishness. While I cannot claim to speak either language, I stand by some of their traditions such as opening presents on Christmas Eve, I will always choose Chocomel over Frijj (honestly, I don’t know how they can be compared), and can invariably find an excuse to have a stroopwafel. I think culture is all about what makes us us, and it so interesting to look at the ways in which cultures intersect, conflict or reflect one another within a global context to create something unique and new.’ – Katharine, Film&TV
‘To me, culture has always felt like a negotiation, with one cultural identity necessarily superseding the other to slip into place with the people around me. My parents told me that I had a third culture, a blend of the two places tangled up inside of me. Cultural identity is still very much a tangled concept for me, only now it seems like a much looser weave of multicoloured threads, each of these an inherited story or a magpied tradition from the places and people in which I’ve found home. Our eclectic Christmas tree decorations attest to this, as each year Danish paper stars hang beneath an angel tree topper with a miniature Maasai beaded collar. Similarly, I see culture as a network of stories that connect people, beginning at home in the form of secret family recipes or holiday traditions, and extending outwards to shared languages and histories. There’s no way to pull one thread out of the tangle, just as there’s no real way to singularly define ‘culture’. The word inspires a different definition in all of us, but between each of these ideas, there’ll be some kind of overlap. It’s in these relational spaces that I think culture is found and shared.’ – Grace, Visual Arts
‘Culture. Big word. When I think about culture, I first think of place, of heritage and of belonging. However, I have never felt rooted to one place as have moved around a lot in my 20 years of existence. But this is not something I view as a hindrance as I think I grab bits of ‘culture’ from every place I go. I was born in England, but I don’t think my culture stops there; if I was to move abroad at some point in my life, I would expect to pick up culture from whatever and wherever I may be. I also don’t think of it simply as something I can read, visit, view; I think we do culture all the time. I think the decisions I make on the daily make up my culture.’ – Loveday, Theatre
So, what can we learn from these paragraphs? Well, firstly, that we have an amazingly diverse and interesting bunch of people over at Cultures, and this can only bode well for the future. But secondly, and more seriously, we are no closer to finding a single definition of Culture, Cultures or Cultural Identity. But, then again, isn’t that the point?
This term the Cultures section is not going to be working to define Cultures, as I feel I have argued extensively against that course of action. Instead, in line with the word’s original definition:
Cultures is celebration…
Now, what better way to end than to give you an indication of what will be coming up in Cultures? Come on, I know I must have piqued your interest!
Our section editors are going to be collaborating with the new Cultural Identity section to create some fabby new series to honour and celebrate the vast array of Cultures that we see in Oxford (and beyond). Here are a few to whet your appetite:
Commend or Condemn? – Film&TV
Which film or tv show have you loved for its portrayal of a culture? Equally is there an example that is particularly problematic in its presentation? What makes a good appreciation work, and what makes one fail? Which issues do you think consistently need to be retackled?
Independence Day – Music
The majority of countries around the world celebrate a national Independence Day, one of the most important milestones in the history of a territory or country. Most independent countries then celebrate their Independence Day annually as a commemoration of their independence. This series will spotlight a culture’s history, highlighting their cultural and musical celebrations
The Books That Made Me – Literature
In this new series, ‘Books That Made Me’, we’ll be asking writers to explore the books that left unforgettable marks on them. Whether it be, a childhood favourite, a book that marked a pivotal point your life or a book you could write a thesis on. This series is all about the books that made us and why. Was it the escapism, the joy, the catharsis? Was it the representation of an identity or culture that resonated with you? Let us know what books became unforgettable to you and perhaps they’ll find their way into the hearts of other readers.
The Blueprint’s first edition will also be entitled ‘Cultures’, and will begin to explore through creativity and celebration, all the ideas we have seen in this article (and more!).
For the writers: As always do get in touch with our editors if you want to contribute to these series’, or have ideas of your own for how to bring Cultures and Cultural Identity into writing. Make sure you follow our Facebook Writers groups so you can get up to date information and commissions.
For the readers: sit back, relax (maybe even grab an ice-cream in this (probably short-lived) British heatwave), and wait with bated breath and eager anticipation for all the brilliant things coming up in Cultures.