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A Complexity of Identities  
Ricky Manalo, csp  

What is the difference between race, culture, and ethnicity? It strikes me how often we interchange their meanings. An understanding of the distinctions in meaning may help us better understand the dynamics of a multicultural setting.

Usually when we refer to race, we are referring to the physical characteristics and/or genetic makeup. Thus, it is easy to see why these are sensitive waters. For example, from a race categorization perspective, what does it actually mean to be black? Who is white, red, yellow, or brown? The 2000 census listed these categories: White; Black or African American; Hispanic or Latino: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Other Hispanic, or Latino; American Indian and Alaska Native; Asian: Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, Other Asian; and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Island: Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan, Other Pacific Islander.

Culture denotes how a group of people gives meaning and expression to their way of life. It shapes and is a product of a particular worldview, allowing the members to share and express, among themselves and to others, their identity. It is through culture that common values, rituals, customs, relationships, and behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next. Culture is something that is taught, but even this definition can be limiting. With the risk of oversimplification, I would offer that culture is everything that makes us who we are.

One short answer approach for defining ethnicity would be to combine our definitions of race and culture. Ethnicity usually includes elements from both of these categories. The ethnicity of one group helps mark that particular group as a social group who may share a common nationality, religious faith, set of rituals, language, or physical features.

"Cultures" and Inculturation
Within these definitions, culture remains a common component. While a system of cultural characteristics may be in a race and/or ethnic group, cultural characteristics are not necessarily race or ethnic related. For example, one can make distinctions between generational cultures: members of "Generation X," who share particular values and worldviews among themselves, can be distinguished from those of "Baby Boomers." This list of types of cultures may include economic, gender, or geographic distinctions. For this reason, culture also goes beyond language. We tend to label and narrow our understanding of "the other" when we group together many cultures under the roof of one language.

When speaking of the dynamics involved in inculturation, then, we must not narrow our vision down to just race, ethnicity, or language, that is, the initial contact of a Latino community with a Caucasian community and the dynamics of intercultural exchange that ensues. The dynamics of inculturation is much broader and attempts to consider the relationship between the Church and all cultures (including youth, people of different economic backgrounds, social status, and ethnicity). Thus, what we may learn in the interaction between the various cultures of one community may help us perceive similar or different dynamics in another set: one community may be multiethnic while another community may be dealing with multigenerational issues. Or, as is common in some parishes today, many sets of cultural interaction are operative.

In all of these various cultural and subcultural sets, common needs emerge: we are to invite, to listen, to acknowledge, and to affirm the presence of each member of the body of Christ. We are also called to be countercultural, because not all aspects or elements of any given culture may be desirable within the liturgical context. Within these dynamics, we come to an understanding and appreciation of the many cultures before and among us. We are also reminded that while the task of inculturation may seem daunting at times, there is always the opportunity for shared values, growth, and enrichment.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
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Ricky Manalo, csp,
is a Paulist priest and pastoral associate in San Francisco. He is a liturgical composer, author, and doctoral candidate in Asian Catholic ritual at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California.
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