In the fall of 2012, I made a mistake. I took what I thought was a required university course only to find out that, in the end, it wasn’t necessary. Interestingly enough, the effects of that course still linger in my life to this day. Four years later, it is a Pandora’s box that has stayed open without any hope of closing.
The culprit was cultural anthropology, the class that completely transformed how I see myself and how I see others. In one of the most memorable lectures I had during my undergraduate career, I was taught about cultural scripts — the collection of values, languages, and customs that a country’s citizens are expected to adhere to and thus perform. These scripts differ depending on where we live and where we are from. Every single one of us becomes inculcated with these scripts when we are born in and/or interact in-depth with a culture.
You can pick up cues on what the local cultural script requires if you pay attention to the way that people speak. In the United States, for example, Americans often ask children what grade they are in. In fact, when talking about children in casual conversations, Americans will call children by their grade level (i.e. 4th grader), subtly demonstrating the value American culture places on education. These narratives tell us how we are supposed to live our lives and are dictated by the dominant culture. The more closely you live by the cultural script, the more you will feel at home in that culture.
As the professor was lecturing about this concept, I noticed that it was through a monocultural lens; one script per person to adhere to in order to feel more at home or deviate from in order to feel alien. But in my hand were three scripts: one from Nigeria, my birthplace; one from Canada, the height of my childhood; one from the United States, the country that has held most of my life. The Canadian and American scripts are very similar on the surface, but can be surprisingly disparate. For example In Canada, I am usually primarily seen as a Nigerian immigrant; my blackness is visible but it is rooted in the Canadian history of immigration. In America, I am primarily perceived to be black before I am an immigrant ( if people see I am an immigrant at all). With the history of transatlantic slavery in the United States and other periods of oppression against people of color, racial identity is a much larger part of the US cultural script. And when they are both compared to the Nigerian script, the chasm widens. In Nigeria, I am the majority because of my nationality. But I am also a minority because of my American-sounding accent and Westernized values.
After thinking about this clash of cultures, I raised my hand and asked my professor, “What if someone is juggling multiple cultural scripts? Is it at all possible for them to feel at home in different countries and cultures?”