Living in a Bubble: A Conversation on Culture

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“You don’t know who Prince is?” Jonathan asked.

Tania tilted her head before replying. “I’ve heard of him. I don’t know any of his songs.”

I chimed in and would lead the conversation the rest of the way. “How old are you again?”

“24″

“You never heard Purple Rain?”

“Nope.”

Jonathan and I laughed.

She paused, typed a few words at her computer, then turned to us. Something was on her mind.

“I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the United States like you guys. You’re so narrow-minded.”

Even though she didn’t look upset, her frustration was evident in her tone. My curiosity was piqued, so I made a little inquiry.

“What do you mean?”

Tania’s normally pretty quiet, but I knew she was about to say more than a few words. And she did.

“You guys expect everybody to know what you know, like what you like and think how you think. There’s more going on than what’s happening here. There’s more to life than what’s happening here and the things you think you know. There’s music you’ve never heard, people you don’t know and traditions you’ll never be able to appreciate. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I bet you never think about those things because you think that what’s relevant to American culture is all that matters.”

I parsed for the right words, but my efforts were futile. I just blinked. Twice.

She continued.

“I feel like I have a better appreciation for a wider range of things because I grew up elsewhere. I also don’t expect everybody to love what I love or experience what I’ve experienced. I feel like that’s a gift. You know? I don’t feel like I ever have to tease or question people about what they don’t know.”

Empathize and diffuse.

“As you should be. We’re just joking with you though. No offense intended.”

“I know you mean no harm, but I go through this all the time. There’s nothing weird about not knowing everything that born and raised Americans know.”

“You’re right. There’s a lot I don’t know myself.”

What was interesting about her response was that she spoke to me as an American — not an African American. Her comments weren’t directed to what she perceived to be the narrow-mindedness of Black culture. She was talking about something larger, something greater. Something that pertains to the majority of us regardless of how and where we grew up. Maybe I couldn’t connect with her about Purple Rain, but I understood where she was coming from. I understood the frustration.

Though a little different than our conversation, I thought about my encounters with people that love to flex their knowledge and demonstrate how “cultured” they are:

“Dog, you don’t know that?”

“You never heard that?”

“You never seen that movie?”

“Are you really black?” (Are you really American?)

I remember a couple years ago (well, it seems like a couple years) when I made an attempt to learn R&B from its roots. I was tired of people talking about songs and artists I didn’t know. I was tired of having to explain how or why I didn’t know the words. That catch-up exercise lasted a couple months. Then I was back to listening mainly to hip hop — a field I also don’t claim to have any expertise.

I had to accept that I wouldn’t know everything about music. I wouldn’t be able to connect with some people on that level. That was fine. I’d just have to look for other common points.

I also found myself thinking about the way I view black culture and our shared experiences when talking to someone white. Someone that claims to “get it.” Or in some cases, someone that frustrates me because they don’t. Once again, I know that’s a little different than the dialogue I had with Tania. But I’ve had my moments where I found myself thinking “There’s more to us than what you see on tv. We have a culture that runs deep and weaves through generations. Our history is rich. We know a lot more about a wider range of things than you think. But you can’t appreciate that because of the little bubble you grew up in.”

Looking for a common thread between us, I asked Tania about Michael Jackson. She knew his music well. She recalled growing up and hearing her mom play his songs and sing along even though she barely spoke English. He was a part of Tania’s childhood like so many of ours. So at that moment in our discussion, we found a common experience. Something that unified us in a greater culture.

Or maybe it’s just a greater bubble.

Let me out of here,

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  • amaris79

    This may very well be the best thing I have ever read on here. I only wish I had the courage of your friend to check people every time they did that.

  • GoldenG

    I REALLY like this post. I don't know about of a lot of things when it come to being culturized but I do make an attempt to know the basis, I just found out who the rapper future was like a month ago I thought him and 2chainz was the same person lol. Culture changes by the day; and I find it hard to keep up sometimes, but I do ok. I think it is ok to live in a bubble to an extent, I think as long as you you don't let it limit you to the point where you don't want to learn about any other cultures then its cool everybody can't be super well-rounded and Know everything about every culture.

  • http://inanimatethoughts.blogspot.com Animate

    Well written post. I've been on both sides like most people (I Just saw Love Jones 2 years ago, it was meh). I try to not initiate these types of conversations unless the person knows I'm joking with them and wouldn't take it seriously.
    My recent post Murci, Murci Me

  • cynicaloptmst81

    Really good post, lol.

    In my bubble, I'm moreso beginning to notice a distinct age gap between myself and those under 25. The TV shows and music they don't know is baffling to me…not in a "you're so lame" sense but in a "Man, am I that old?!" sense, lol. The music I don't know (or care to know) is baffling to them. Weird, lol.

  • Teyana

    "I feel like I have a better appreciation for a wider range of things because I grew up elsewhere"

    My friend and I, will be visiting a couple of places in the USA over the December and apart from being excited about the shopping, another thing we are looking forward to the cultural experience! One of the reasons i read this blog is to find out the challenges, etc of young black professionals in a first world country and to dispell the stereotypes that surround black americans. I am from Africa- South Africa specifically and from what ive seen on blog(s), tv, etc- and i agree with what Tania said. Its a whole other world out here and you only really appreciate it when you have experiences to compare!
    We are hoping to get a holistic experience (as much as you can cram in a week) while we are there- our first stop is NY and we would really love suggestions on where to go, eat, party, church, the whole 9 yards! So please assist :) :) :) :) :)

    • http://www.iamrichjones.com Slim Jackson

      You need a NY Experience Consultant. You have to visit one hood chinese food spot and eat 1.5 slices of extremely greasy pizza. Make sure those things are on the list if nothing else. On partying? Yeah, I'm clueless there.lol. Me no club.
      My recent post 4 Easy Wins: How to Write a Professional Summary That Gets Results

      • Teyana

        Noted! We want to ride on the subway, visit Brooklyn, Harlem, see a show on Broadway, do a black church, NBA game-Knicks and Rockets play that week, apparently the Statue of Liberty is being renovated :(. Sleep is not a priority that week!!! Anything else you can recommend?

        • LiveloveSing

          in Harlem – eat at Corner Social or 5 & Diamond and walk around after. Also definitely stop by the Apollo they almost always have some kind of event at very affordable priced. I also recommend the South Street Seaport to see a different part of NYC. It’s really nice in the evenings.

        • Teyana

          All noted!!!! thanks :)

  • Teyana

    *December period

  • Jenifer

    Love this post! When I moved to the United States I was disappointed with most African Americans and their lack of knowledge about Africa. Yet, I made effort to educate myself on African American history. I don't fault anybody though, American history/culture is global as opposed to others.
    (New to SBM comments but I have been a long time lurker, love it)

    • 2cool4school

      I love your comment there seems to be this sense of entitlement no matter what culture someone is from. However, when I have yt friends that know more about Africa (like Africa is not a country, and no I do not speak African) than AAs I feel sad like "we are distant cousins why do you abhor the African part of African American so much" however after studying AA history in depth I have developed alot more empathy. Reciprocity is key.

    • http://www.iamrichjones.com Slim Jackson
  • http://biggerthomas.wordpress.com/ madscientist7

    great post. i say often that america and americans can be very arrogant in thinking that the world rises and sets on our borders and our borders alone. speaking of black culture we chastise one another if we don't go with status quo. for instance i'm hard pressed to tell people that i'm not really a fan of michael jackson or prince. sure my parents listened to michael a lot but it never caught on with me. *shrug*

    • http://www.iamrichjones.com Slim Jackson

      That status quo is a good one. Even with stuff like blindly supporting a candidate just because of his party affiliation or what he looks like. (I support Barry though. Just an example)
      My recent post 4 Easy Wins: How to Write a Professional Summary That Gets Results

    • Bree

      I agree with the other commentors that this was an excellent post Slim. I have many many friends from various countries, and ethnicities. I’ve learned more about World History straight from folks from those countries than in any classroom ever in my life. I learned to understand the words to reggae songs from dating a Jamaican and going to college with them and just knowing Jamaican people. I agree with madscientist that we Americans can be arrogant and have this high and mighty attitude that we are better and more evolved than other countries……which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
      Slim I also agree 100% with everything Tania stated. Many of us are very narrow-minded culturally and we could stand to get out more and get to know people from other countries.
      There is an exercise that I’ve heard a few elementary schools have done and I think it’s a great one.
      They have the students introduce themselves to someone from another ethnicity and become their buddy. They must learn about that persons country and culture from that person. I think this is a great learning experience for children, especially at the elementary school age.

  • JessiJ

    Long time lurker 1st time commenting
    Great post! I know exactly what this chick is talking about. I’m an African American who spent most of my childhood in Europe (military brat.) I was so excited to go to an HBCU to finally learn about my culture only to realize I didn’t relate. Not only that people thought I was crazy because I hadn’t seen Love Jones, Boyz in the Hood, ect. It was a difficult thing to realize that I related more with white America. The main reason I read this site is to get some insight on black culture. I still feel like im on the outside looking in when im with African Americans. There is a huge world out there but Americans seem to be so consumed with American culture.

  • Mis Moy

    Thank you for posting this. I am a West Indian (multi-cultural), married to an African American. When we first met, we had serious conversations about the our varied experiences and we've both expanded our horizons incredibly. However, most of what I have found African Americans don't acknowledge, like my husband didn't, is how much of the imperial perspective has rubbed off on Black people. Claiming cultural superiority is just one of the many ways this is often expressed.
    I have lived in several countries including England, and I can honestly say that Americans, in general, have a manner of thinking of the rest of the world's experiences that only from the context of the American world view. It isn't just provincial, it's arrogant.

  • Lioness Rising

    I can really connect with what she said. I grew up in the US but I still get that sometimes. I remember when I said I had no idea who Too Short was and people went in on me. I love cultures and I love to travel and listen to music that no one (i.e Americans) has heard of. I feel like Americans can be narrow minded because America media and culture is no massive, that it allows little inclusion for anything else. We have American everything on TV, meanwhile when I visit family in other countries, they get entertainment from several sources (especially the US).

    My family is not American so sometimes there are things I didn't grow up with. It was only in college I really got exposed to soul food and people looked at me like I was crazy. How exactly was I supposed to just know about soul food.

    • http://www.iamrichjones.com Slim Jackson

      Sorta random, never understood why some people preferred BBC for their news as opposed to CNN. Now it makes sense.
      My recent post 7 Resume Adds That Can Subtract Value

      • TexasMade

        BBC is usually from the outside looking in. Sometimes they can be bias but usually straight arrowed. CNN can be straight at times but is usually crazy liberal and of course the MSNBC and Fox News. I can't stand the news especially during the election. Our Media is slanted on what they want you to believe.

        AC is my boy though haha.

  • Matt

    *opens can of worms*
    But slim…what is black culture?

  • CHeeKZ

    just to be fair.. its not like other cultures are open and non judgemental. Society is naturally ethnocentric, though I try to do better. The fact still remains this western culture has certain accomplishments that are grand and global: I don't want to understand the cultural significance of the Beatles (UK), Muhammad Ali, MJ or Obama. But yes black people take Love Jones and Jay-z way too seriously.

  • Pingback: Reversing a Culture of Ignorance: Forgetting Past Representations « From Ashy to Classy()

  • Kopa

    Hmm. I'm not American nor do I think I'm ignorant, but I guess I often assume that everyone knows what I know. Partly because I don't think I'm THAT civilized or smart. But yes, it gets very annoying very fast, though most of the Americans I've met realize they don't know anything about my culture. Plus I tend to speak grammatically better English than some in the south :D.

  • Magg

    Such a good post!!!
    From the outside (im french) American people do look narrow minded, and it's because it seems like they only know about themselves.. I did my college in America and i was always shocked by how come they don't know this or that… And we french are SO arrogant about our education, in France you have to know a lil bit about everything, but most of us don't know the national anthem by heart… Good luck finding an american who doesn't know "The Star-spangled banner"…
    Let's just not value what we know… You know this, i know that, let's share our knowledge!!!

  • BlueSteele

    Great post! My first time facing my own arrogance bubble was day one at a huge "diverse" (primarily white with sprinklings of others) university. It made me abhor the bubbles that some of my non-black (and non-broke) peers dwelled in and the tandem of unfortunate views of the "outside". Facing that made me realize that I was in my own glass house, throwing stones at anyone who couldn't relate to my experience as well.

  • w/e

    First of all, the relevance of this post to my life is just weird. lol I really appreciate it and it's definitely one of my favorites as well.

    At a young age, I decided that knowing the name/etc about every rich person wasn't a priority. 1.) They didn't know mine. 2.) They didn't pay my bills/feed me.

    With that being said, I enjoy being put on to all kinds of music. My musical pallet ranges from alternative, electropop, reggae, r&b, classic, gospel, etc…depends on my mood. Matta fact, I was formally introduced to Prince during my ungrad when I watched Purple Rain and like Tania, I was also introduced to MJ by my foreign mama who sung all the lyrics in a deep accent.

    Great post(s)!

  • http://twitter.com/CandaceyD @CandaceyD

    this is a great post. I really struggled wit this growing up. I may have been born and raised in Queens, but my family was all about Guyanese culture. And we had no tv. I had no clue how to do the dances other kids knew or who a lot of famous people were. The only thing i did no was music from the 80's and back since my father was and still is the musical guru. More people need to realize that US culture is not the full experience, there's a lot more to the world!

  • http://sarahjohansson.wordpress.com sarahjohansson

    Great, great post, and I can definitely identify with what Tania was saying about the ethnocentric values that pop up very often in conversation when talking to Americans. I've traveled a lot, and most cultures have a level of ethnocentrism, but I have been baffled more than once by the comments I have gotten since I moved here. Most of the times I just let it slide, but every once it gets tiring to the point where I actually have to speak up. I remember snapping back at someone this spring because of the comments I got due to not being familiar with the cat in the hat. I grew up to stories about Pippi Longstocking, Brothers Lionheart, combined with watching My little pony and Donald duck on tv.
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