Whatever, I look cute in green

15 03 2012

This upcoming weekend, we have a beautiful unicorn of an event to look forward to. St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Saturday. The possibilities for drunkenness are endless 48 hours long!

I’m Irish American. The saying is true, there’s nothing more Irish than an Irish American. We’re a proud bunch. I was raised in a family particularly big on Irish music, which I’ve finally developed an appreciation for, and Irish politics, which I would appreciate more if they were a little more pro-choice. In college, I spent a pretty amazing semester in Galway, where I spent many a happy month working on my love of Guinness and indulging my existing fondness for potatoes.

The answer to the question you’re all asking: fifteen pounds.

Paddy’s Day was always a holiday in my family. Sometimes my dad let me skip school so we could go to the parade. Some years my aunt had us all over for dinner. Corned beef and cabbage, that disgusting creation that no actual Irish person has ever eaten. When I got older, it
was a day to skip class, drink Bailey’s in coffee, get ticketed for public consumption (only once), wear silly headgear, and party like an idiot.

It’s calmed down considerably, in my old age. But I still like it. It’s just fun. It’s a ridiculous day and an excuse for merriment. Yes, I could do without the aggressive rowdy guys who throw up on Second Avenue. But with my friends, at my local bar, it’s a nice time.

I’ve heard several debates, from rather righteous Irish Americans, though, about how this is not a culturally sensitive celebration. Um, no, it’s really not. What do green pinwheels have to do with Ireland? Who cares? Was no one listening when I said it was fun? When I was in Ireland, it was a delightful day. Irish people and foreigners all just enjoyed it. And that’s saying something, because Irish people enjoy typical days a lot as it is.

The Irish, and the Irish Americans, have a reputation for being a fun people. There’s a great history of storytelling, and knowing how to throw a damn fine party. As a result, I’ve also heard some stunning defenses of alcoholism.

“It’s not that he drinks too much, it’s just how we do things! Alcohol is how we celebrate in our ethnic group/family/neighborhood/city/country!”

Yes, look at that parade marcher, proudly vomiting into a tuba. Nothing wrong with that. He’s a member of a jovial people.

Just because it’s cultural doesn’t mean it’s good.

A teacher I know in another state told me a story of having to call in a case, because an eight year old was being locked in a garage as punishment. She was informed that the family was from India, this was a cultural practice, and therefore, it was not abuse.

Obviously we all know that’s ridiculous. I’ve never been to India, or been Indian. Maybe they have a long history of locking kids in garages, or whatever the equivalent would have been many years ago. I’m sure their traditional disciplinary practices differ from current American practices greatly. But that doesn’t mean it’s ok. The same goes for whatever sadistic mind came up with kneeling on rice. Intent and cultural differences certainly matter in cases of excessive corporal punishment. They can be worked with differently, as people do need to acclimate to the rules and expectations of a different society, and it’s never easy. It’s never easy to learn new ways of dealing with your kids. Still, we can’t be afraid to say that those ways are not acceptable.

We don’t want to be so sensitive that we lose our ability to be critical. People are people. They can be good, bad, or most often, in between.

This can also be a really convenient excuse. It reminds me of many extremely cultured world travelers I’ve known. They speak multiple languages, have a passport full of stamps, and are real citizens of the world. Until it comes time to tip the server. “Oh really? We don’t do that in my country.” (15% is the minimum, guys. Minimum. Come on.)

One of the things we’re routinely told in our work is that we need to be more culturally competent. (It’s important. I read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.) It comes up so often that I put it on my self evaluation last year as an area to improve. My supervisor looked at me strangely and asked what I thought I was doing wrong. I didn’t really know. I just knew that we were always going on about this, I was trying to focus on it, and I felt like I kept missing the mark. She told me I was doing just fine and not to worry, before crossing it off my list.

That’s when it hit me. Ah yes, cultural competency. A noble goal. Also, vague enough to mean everything and nothing, all at once.

Culture is important. It’s everything. Culture informs a lot of what we do. How we celebrate, interact with family members, eat, drink, plan for the future, all these minor details. We need to understand what that huge concept means to an individual, and to a family.

Getting a basic understanding of what goes on in a country or group we’re unfamiliar with is a good idea. When I worked with a family from Ghana for the first (and at this point, only) time, I did a little googling and talked to two people I knew that had visited the country. To figure out what the political situation was, if there were any standout differences I should know about. I wanted to have a little background, so the differences I saw in this family compared to others I worked with had a context. But I certainly learned the most by getting to know this family.

Someone knowing my culture–Irish American Catholic from Brooklyn–would be able to make some accurate assumptions about me. I have been to Confirmation parties at the Knights of Columbus, )which were instantly put to shame at a variety of Bar Mitzvahs) I answer with my parish when asked where I grew up, and I played CYO basketball. But they still would not know me.

I lived in a house with a bunch of random people the year after college. (Long story.) One of the boys was from Vietnam. I disliked him intensely. This had nothing to do with his culture, and everything to do with his horrible personality. One of the girls in the house, a future social worker, had lived a very sheltered life, and rarely interacted with people who weren’t white and Catholic.

One day, we were gassing up the car, and the Vietnamese housemate went in to pay. He walked past the register, all the way back to the drink cooler, before realizing that he had been lost in his own world. I laughed, and Sheltered Girl informed me, “Um, they’re called cultural differences!” I couldn’t stop myself from responding, “Because in Vietnam you pay the beverages and drink the cashier?”

There are differences, absolutely. It’s normal for kids to be in pubs in Ireland. Drinking is viewed in a different, and, I often think, better, manner. But for some people, “pub culture,” or the Irish American “love of boozing it up,” masks addiction. “This is how we did things in the old country” can mask child abuse. Thinking critically, and not accepting this at face value, does not mean that we’re being disrespectful.

In the meantime, I will cling to my right to get drunk on the 17th.



8 responses

15 03 2012

But nothings going to make me drink green beer! 🙂

15 03 2012

And nothing should!

15 03 2012
Peaceful Social Worker

I loved this. I’m a Canadian kid who had some Irish roots….but they were protestant…..should we be talking????? 😉

I have a love/hate relationship with the term “cultural competency”. My first exposure to that term was in Toronto, when I had a workshop given by two black Americans (sorry, African Americans) who talked about black and white issues. If you have been to Toronto, you will know that does not cover it. I did get quite a bit out of ghe workshop, like considering the impact of slavery on people living today. Other than that, it wasn’t the best. I have made the point of doing what you suggest….getting to know the person, and something about their history. Otherwise, I’d be doing what you suggest, getting to know the culture and not the person.

Good job!

15 03 2012

Thank you so much! We can totes still be friends. I have some protestant roots as well. I think we’re all so well mixed and blended that no one can really assert “100% Irish/Italian/Greek” or whatever else. (Though the more obnoxious among us will try!”

A friend of mine in high school really disliked being called African American. Her family was Jamaican, and she preferred to be referred to either as that, or black. Just illustrated for me the importance of finding out what it means to that person.

15 03 2012

I think of culture as a lens through which we see the world. The only real time I try to be consciously “culturally competent” is when I am getting to know my families and how they view me and my practice, especially when it comes to families who are dealing with the CPSE system and getting (or not getting) their children special education services. I approach different people differently by the way they act, and I know that culture and personal histories often affect people’s abilities to interact and cope with stress. So I am in total agreement with you, but I think also cultural competence is a tool for the toolbox. 😀

16 03 2012

It’s definitely an important concept, it’s just also become a buzz word(s), at least for us. It’s kind of the perfect thing to pick on if an auditor is looking for something, because it’s vague enough that it can mean a million things.

The cultural piece of how families view engaging in services and accepting help, admitting there’s a problem, and the like is massively important, I agree.

17 03 2012

And SocialJerk, as always, hits it out of the park. Cultural competency=good, but that doesn’t mean one should act like a drip (unless you come from a culture of liquid, I guess).

18 03 2012

I often feel like in the social work profession, it’s easy to get caught up in the expectation that being ‘culturally competent’ means being over-sensitive and obsessively careful to avoid offending any group of people, when the most important thing is to understand your clients’ unique stories. Also, just because St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t have a whole lot of culturally educational qualities, it doesn’t mean it isn’t still a good excuse to get together with friends and family and have a good time in whatever way you like to celebrate. Especially for those in social service professions where burnout can be a very real issue. The world is giving me an excuse to have some tasty brews and cook out with my friends? I’m certainly not about to say no!

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