I’ve got a Bone to Pick with Cultural Identity Leeches

Life is tough when your most redeeming quality is that you “suck”.  I’m not passing judgment, just thinking of the unfortunate little annelids that we collectively refer to as leeches.  Leeches were the go-to treatment for medieval physicians (although after hundreds of years of use, Dark Age medical insurance companies were no doubt still referring to them as an “experimental” medicine).  Given, the efficacy of leech treatments was pretty questionable, but then again, what medieval medical procedure wasn’t viewed with a little skepticism.  After all, these were the same people that thought bathing was extremely unhygienic . Although, have you seen the recent data (Fox et al., 2013) that shows that Alzheimer’s rates are higher in cleaner environments? Something to think about for sure; especially as I have been working from home a week straight just working away furiously on a grant and thus bathing has become quite optional and appropriately so. Or so it would appear.  Back to the leeches.  Leeches have seen a resurgence in popularity as a legitimate medical solution, particularly for osteoarthritis and smoothing the way for the reattachment of limbs, but perhaps the resurgence in the respectability of the leech for delicate procedures like restoring amputated limbs has led to a less desirable, unintended consequence.  I am speaking of course about a rarely discussed phenomena, that is, the cultural leech.  Yes, that’s right, there are two kinds of leeches. The traditional kind, and the human variety – one is low, down dirty parasite that sucks vitality from those around them, and the other is a blood-eating freshwater worm.

Now, the standard garden variety leech is a battle-hardened, nearly indestructible little creature with two suckers on either end of its body, which it uses to latch on to warm-blooded mammals, refusing to let go until its gotten its fill of tasty blood (this can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours).  If you do something imprudent like pour vinegar on an attached leech, it will certainly let go, but unhappily vomit up the contents of its stomach into the wound it’s created, which is apparently a pretty nasty vector for disease.  I mean, you wouldn’t want anybody dumping acidic stuff on you during dinner either, so this behavior, although unpleasant and poorly mannered, is understandable and even somewhat forgivable.  I have no qualms with the actual leech (well, apart from the grossness factor).  It’s just following its evolutionary path, getting in touch with its inner zen leech.  The cultural leech, on the other hand, rarely lets go, although I’ve never tried the vinegar trick on them, so I can neither confirm nor deny its efficacy. 

In our gloriously multi-cultural world, which is certainly a thing to be celebrated, the breaking down of borders and identities, mingling of cultures and ethnicities, and recognition that we are not all the same, and valuation of this diversity for the depth and richness that it brings to us all, the cultural leech is a strange and relatively new phenomena that capitalizes on multiculturalism, not necessarily as a means to promote peace and harmony, but as (1) a marketing tool, (2) to establish credentials as an expert, and (3) to emphasize their projected worldliness.  In short, a cultural leech tries to “out-culture” you in your own culture.

Culture is an amorphous thing.  African American blues become Rock ‘n Roll.  Yoga transitions from a religious discipline into an exercise routine.  A toddler in Oklahoma goes to karate class.  David Hasselhoff is a B Actor in America, but a superstar in Germany.  This is not what I’m talking about, for ideas, traditions, superstitions and all the products of culture have always moved, crossed borders, and found new homes in new places.  This is a beautiful thing.  If there is one thing us greedy little humans are good at, it is recognizing value.  This is not what the cultural leech represents.  Cultural leeches latch on to other people’s identities–namely, racial and ethnic identity, to advance their own careers or improve their self-image.  Let me back up a second. See, I have a five year old son. He is part Jewish (his dad’s side) and part Puerto Rican (my side). Just because my son is Jewish does not mean I am Jewish (although some  jokingly would argue that I’ve started to manifest a number of ‘Jewish Mother” qualities). Furthermore, it does not mean I am going to pretend to speak Hebrew or pepper every other sentence with Yiddish colloquialisms.  I’m perfectly happy to light Hanukah candles and have a Menorah next to the Christmas tree, but I am not going to pretend I am something I am not. I am not going to leech onto another community’s identity and pretend it’s my own. I believe in sympathizing, empathizing, and valuing the richness of other cultures, but posing as a community member–I think not.  One can appreciate without adopting.  One can participate without believing.  Respect for the cultural identity of other’s entails precisely that — respect — which is exactly what the cultural leech is lacking, not an assumption that familiarity equals either understanding or membership (in the sense of shared experience).  Methodologically, anthropologists use participant-observation to enmesh themselves in an unfamiliar society and deepen their understanding of cultural nuances, but the good ones never make the mistake that they have become “part of the tribe”.  A few years in the field makes you more knowledgeable than the average bear, but it doesn’t make you one with the people you study.

Several decades back, a campy “B” movie called Attack of the Giant Leeches was released. These leeches would swallow people whole or drag them to a cave to digest them.   The power of leeches is not relegated to just campy movies. In 2007, a new species of leech, called Tyrannobdella rex, was discovered in Peru. It was found inside a girl’s body. It was a monstrous parasite, eating the girl up from the inside. When I read this story, I immediately thought of those human identity leeches I’ve encountered and how they latch on.  You want specifics?

I have encountered academics, for instance, that seem to believe that because they study a particular ethnic group that they are ostensibly an extended part of that group. Unfortunately, for Latinos this happens a lot as there is a great need for more research with Latinos and there are not so many Latino researchers out there. If you visit the National Institutes of Health (NIH–the holy grail for public health academics) and review their currently funded list of research projects and corresponding researchers, you will get my meaning. That said, I do not begrudge anyone a research career and in the end I thank those working hard to advance science.  I certainly appreciate the difficulty of getting research funded.

The ones I take issue with are those that get invited as Latino experts to high level government meetings and go on to pontificate on the essence of what it is to be Latino. They hem and haw how familismo, machismo, or various other labels coined by academic social scientists are a huge component of Latino life. Just because you invent a catch-all phrase that explains a pattern you see in your data does not mean you have achieved some deep understanding of what it means to be Latino. 

You may be asking why I am so riled up. Usually, I am bit more sarcastic and funny.  Listen to this.  Recently, as well as in the past, I was in a work setting where an individual turns to me and literally says “I‘m more Puerto Rican than you are“, with no sense of irony and no tongue in cheek aspect to it.  Really? How about you go to Rome or Vienna looking like me and get back to me on how Puerto Rican you really are.  Part of the issue I encounter when dealing with so-called experts in Puerto Rican identity is that I do not laud my “Latinaness” as an all-encompassing identity.  I like to think identity is more complex than that.  I am a Puerto Rican, a mother, a psychologist, and a New Yorker.  I am a Nuyorican which itself serves as a special coffee blend.  Identity is complex, a mix of cultural and life experiences, and over-emphasizing any single aspect leads to a certain lack of depth in the other facets of one’s identity.  Unfortunately, some people take that as an opening to engage in some sort of bizarre and one-sided competition to be more Latina than me for which (1) I don’t feel the need to compete, and (2) when all they are doing is serving as a leech in a misguided attempt to show how “worldly” or “culturally aware” they are; there is no competition, period.

I am certainly not casting aspersions at anyone who wants to study and understand another culture, scientifically or otherwise.  I taught cultural psychology and believe it is essential in moving the world forward. It is a noble goal and we should applaud those who undertake such studies as their life’s work.  I, for one, love traveling to different cultures and learning as much as I can from them.  For me, the biggest indicator of openness is willingness to travel to different countries and to eat different (foreign) foods.  I think it is a noble goal to encourage food and cultural curiosity; as well as humility. However,  I do not care for phoniness and lack of humility.

A word of advice to ethnicity leeches. Don’t call me hermana (“sister”). It is offensive. I can be a “sister in arms”. I can be a sister in friendship. But I only have one Hermana who actually lives in Puerto Rico.   Another word of advice, don’t get up on a panel or podium and speak on my behalf.  I would never dare to get in front of a roomful of social scientists, continuously speaking in a Southern accent, peppering every sentence with Southern idioms, and pretending that my social scientific catch phrases and facile language usage somehow apply to everyone that lives in the state of Georgia.  If you lived in Georgia, you would find it offensive, particularly if I had the gall to then speak on your behalf.

Do you recall the iconic leech scene from the film Stand By Me?  The boys go through a swamp as a short cut to their destination and it ends up being leech-infested. One of the main characters, Gordie, faints upon seeing the leeches feeding off of him. Gordie gets back up and rallies the boys to keep going.  That is exactly what you have to do with a cultural leech. Deflect, woman up, and move forward with a vengeance.   And don’t let someone speak for you when you have perfectly legitimate and articulable ideas based on a lifetime of experience living within a culture.

I recognize that this post may generate some heat for me professionally from those that know me in the field, but I would be hard pressed to not speak up as a Latina, as this phenomena seems to be occurring more and more frequently. I am sure those most offended by this would be the very subjects that made me feel compelled to write this. And you know what I have to say to that? Leeches, in whatever form, still suck.  J There. I am happy again.

5 replies »

  1. All the detailed info on leeches vomiting, etc was kinda funny… The rest just needs to be said.
    Funny I was at a cross cultural workshop this weekend and realized I always have doubts about even being a student of another culture – like is this really an appropriate exchange of information?
    To pretend to be an expert when youre an outsider? …well that’s just embarrassing…


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