So what is cultural difference?

Australian African network has just released preliminary results for their online survey of people in mixed relationships in Australia. The data’s a bit skewed, cos mostly white women filled in the survey – but it’s also the first survey of its kind that we know of in Australia. It’s also a bit skewed because it’s focussing on challenges – where’s the question that asks about the positive things in mixed relationships? Well I have to take part of the blame for that oversight, (being on the AAN committee), but our observations have been that there are more challenges in mixed relationships, which is why we asked it. And the survey did provide evidence for this in that around one third of respondents were no longer in mixed relationships – but were still parenting their mixed children from those relationships.

So what did people think were the challenges? Most people named lack of connection to African culture, cultural isues and racism/prejudice from the society.

Well if most of your respondents are white, I guess it’s no surprise that connection to African culture is a problem – but really, it shouldn’t be that way, should it? Women talked about losing contact with African communities after separation and were concerned for their children. This is a complex issue – I’m not going to blame African communities for not being more inclusive – tho perhaps they could be. I think it comes down to the next big ticket item on the challenges list: cultural difference. If it’s a challenge in your relationship, then it’s going to be a challenge when you are in your (ex)partner’s African community. (I don’t mean mixed African events here, I mean just Ghanaian, or just Kenyan).

I know I’m not the only white woman who’s gone to an African community event – say a wedding – and felt awkward and isolated. Just as an African at an all Aussie event can feel out on a limb (although they may also be getting targeted with racism). It can be an experience of culture shock, unless you already have good friends in the community, or speak the language fluently, or are boundlessly confident and extroverted.  It takes time to connect and feel included, and if all your connections are via your partner, you can lose that with separation and it’s hard to rebuild.

But what exactly did those survey respondents mean, when they said “cultural difference” or “cultural issues”? It’s a very broad term and not really that helpful if you’re trying to pin down what resources & support to provide to a comunity. The term can cover a huge range of things, from the jovial celebration of food, music and style that’s promoted by our multicultural policies; to acute and profound disagreement about how to raise your children, or how many people you should be having sex with; to the feeling that the rug’s just been pulled out from under your feet and there’s no floor underneath. You plummet downwards, wondering how you could have got it soooo wrong. Your culturally different partner watches, perplexed. Or perhaps they’re falling down a different crevasse.

Is that why people didn’t go into more detail on the survey? Because they couldn’t put into words that feeling of desolation when you suddenly realise that you each have totally different interpretations/ understandings / judgements about something and are not even in the same book, let alone on the same page? Or was it because to voice the specifics might feel politically incorrect, or because they didn’t want to air their dirty linen in public?

Or was it less fraught than all that? Perhaps people just didn’t think it worth detailing the pettty conflicts over how to wash the dishes (sink or running water? Anglo Aussies can get a bit tense about this: compromise with a rinsing basin), or having to cook separately because you don’t like each other’s food, or which bits of your body you think it’s appropriate to shave.

Whatever. All we can do is speculate about exactly what people mean by cultural difference, but at least the fact that people mentioned it points to it being a challenge – just as AAN suspected. However the survey did bring up other interesting data, like the fact that kids in single parent non-African households have less access to African language, and that mixed families have less extended family support, and that settlement issues like unemployment and financial problems have an impact on mixed families too.

The survey is, as I said at the beginning, skewed. I think of it as imperfect but important. There’s valuable info but mostly from one set of perspectives. If you’re in a position to redress the balance, please fill out the survey.  It’s online unti late December. Just don’t forget to spell out what you mean by cultural difference!

And if you’re really feeling enthusiastic about expressing your point of view, you may also want to be interviewed for a small research project on mixed relationships. Email for more details.

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