Tradition has a way of exalting pride, rituals, and historical precedent, but when taken out of its semantic context, it can be quite alienating and oppressive.
I have always been fascinated with language and its intersection with our thoughts and emotions. And a perfect example of this is the word “tradition.”
The tradition and ongoing controversy of mascot Chief Illiniwek at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC) and debate over the Washington Redskins identity contain pervasive arguments defending cultural appropriation in the name of tradition, heritage, and “get over it.”
Many straight females I know have told me they prefer, or are “OK” with, traditional gender roles in their romantic relationships. And many men and women surrender to the “boys will be boys” mantra.
Conservative ideologies continue to condemn same-sex unions in the name of tradition, God, and/or what is “natural,” another one of those euphemistic terms.
All of these traditions made me wonder about the true meaning behind the word. The origin of the word, according to Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, is Latin and indicates “(i) delivery, (ii) handing down knowledge, (iii) passing on a doctrine, (iv) surrender or betrayal.” He explains how tradition entails ceremony, duty, and respect, oftentimes passed down from father to son, and now, in modern times, is used more dismissively. The entry ends, “Indeed traditionalism seems to be becoming specialized to a description of habits or beliefs inconvenient to virtually any innovation, and traditionalist is almost always dismissive.”
I started to view this term, based on my informal observations and its etymology, as another way of saying: white patriarchal heteronormativity.
What would happen if we replaced the word “tradition” with this terminology? Chief Illiniwek should be UIUC’s sanctioned mascot because white patriarchal heteronormativity. Same-sex couples cannot be together because white patriarchal heteronormativity. Men should propose marriage to women because white patriarchal heteronormativity. (And yes, many non-whites believe in these traditions or roles and one can be LGBTQIA of any race, however, the umbrella we live under ultimately beckons whiteness.)
Would doing this allow for more progress or dialogue about said issues? Inserting words in oral and written language such as “tradition” and “heritage” provoke silence and sometimes reaction. Silence or being dismissive, as Williams states, for not being on board with traditions prevents progress and innovation, ignores intellectual and practical arguments, and censures humanity in the name of “this is how it has always been done.”
While reaction in the forms of expressing anger and protest has proven to be effective and empowering, they are also emotionally draining and affect mental health. Additionally, oftentimes the subversive constituency is viewed as being too emotional, as if these issues do not affect personal lives. This is especially true when the voices are people of color, LGBTQIA, and/or disabled.
Aside from global events, tradition has reared its head in my own life. White patriarchal heteronormativity urges me to not get my already dark skin any darker during the summer, to accent my high cheekbones, to dress feminine, and to remove my facial and body hair—all of which I like to do. I can recognize why these desires are engrained in me. I don’t feel bad about them, but I do challenge their origin.
Structure, which dictates that these rules are to be followed in order to be accepted, must be questioned. Shaming those who do not have these preferences, especially in the name of tradition, undermines the possible evolution of these ideas. Analyzing and critiquing traditions, however, can open up these dialogues for all people.
As a Hindu, growing up as a first-generation Indian-American in the suburbs of Chicago, I remember many enjoyable traditions like Holi celebrations at the temple, throwing colored powder on my family and strangers. I remember doing pujas (religious ceremonies) with my parents, my father leading as my mother followed. Two and a half years ago, while vacationing in India, my father unexpectedly fell ill and passed away. My brother was the one who spread his ashes into the Arabian Sea because he was the son. I stood behind as he executed this tradition. I stared while he diligently poured his ashes into the sea, with the Mumbai sun glaring, my feet submerged in the same water as my brother and my mother, who was standing next to me grieving the loss of her spouse of 41 years. It was a picture-perfect goodbye married with true patriarchy.
Tradition has a way of exalting pride, rituals, and historical precedent, but when taken out of its semantic context, it can be quite alienating and oppressive. Every year, I tie a Rakhi on my brother’s right wrist, a Hindu tradition meant to ask for his protection, and I receive a monetary gift in exchange. While I will make every effort to see my brother for this holiday to maintain the tradition, I participate because I love my brother and my culture. But ultimately, we are esteeming its patriarchal tradition through our actions.
Living between two cultures can be as confusing as it is special and rewarding. While my parents didn’t have a “traditional” gender role dynamic as many of my other South Asian friends’ parents, with the husband being more dominant than the wife, the roles still played a part. My father managed the money, led religious rituals, and was the breadwinner of the household. When he passed away, we were left to figure out how to navigate these traditional roles without his presence. Was my brother the “man of the house”? He didn’t live locally, so it wasn’t really practical. And what if I didn’t have a brother? The thought of my mom leading certain traditional ceremonies was apparently out of the question, which was utterly frustrating.
In this case, my cultural traditions are not associated with being white, but they are patriarchal and heteronormative, and again, exclusive to those not fitting this mold. However, my diasporic existence leads me to cling to these traditions in order to differentiate myself from the whiteness around me. I don’t want to be “whitewashed” or an “Oreo,” so I struggle to maintain my cultural heritage and traditions while fighting them.
This oxymoronic conflict mimics walking up an escalator that is heading down. Is my awareness of this clash enough to thwart these structures? I don’t think there is an easy answer, as is the challenge with all constructs of white patriarchal heteronormativity.
I would love to end this with a motivational quote to just be yourself and not live by the traditions dictated to us. Yes, I hope we all can and we all do. But before plowing through opposition, let us examine why this opposition even exists and creatively imagine how it can be dismantled.
Nisha Mody is a writer living in Chicago. Her writing has been featured in Chicago Literati. She also works as a speech-language pathologist in a public school. When she isn’t writing or running after children, she is scrambling eggs, eating avocados, looking at bunny pictures, and reading. You can follow her on Twitter @cuttingthecheez and read more of her writing at http://cuttingthecheez.