I get asked a lot about how to address culture—a group’s shared values and beliefs—through ethical storytelling. Nonprofit staff who are not members of the communities they serve sometimes struggle with authentically describing the role culture plays in their organizations’ work. This apprehension makes sense; there are a lot of good questions around this topic.

What is and isn’t culture? Even in anthropology, the definition of “culture” is hotly debated. How do we, especially those of us who are outsiders to a culture, accurately write about both the positive aspects of a culture and the negative –  and even oppressive – ones?

In this article, I give four tips on how to talk about culture without reinforcing stereotypes, making sweeping generalizations, or inadvertently marginalizing people.

First, let’s ground ourselves by considering some extreme examples on both ends of the spectrum.

There are ways that stories place blame entirely on culture. Think of statements like:
“This backward society doesn’t value women.”

The problem with placing blame on a culture is that it:

  • Removes the agency of those participating in the culture and gives the impression that things will never change.
  • Invalidates the contribution of people (often those historically excluded and marginalized) who are working to change beliefs and behaviors within the society.
  • Ignores the fact that culture is fluid and created; it is not some static thing that exists beyond and outside of humans.
  • Gives the “group” too much power, leaving no room for individuals who make their own choices, who face unique struggles, who have agency that extends beyond their “culture.”
  • This type of storytelling also makes donors feel hopeless, that nothing can change without some radical external pressure.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are stories that ignore the role of culture entirely. The problem with ignoring a culture is that it:

  • Implies that people have personal problems or character deficits that are wholly to blame for any challenges they encounter.
  • Ignores the very real barriers and obstacles that affect a person’s condition.
  • Gives the individual too much power—it ignores the context they are living in.
  • This storytelling also keeps donors ill-informed about systemic, and ongoing, issues.

Addressing culture properly in a story requires the writer to strike a balance that neither blames the culture entirely nor ignores it thoughtlessly. Here are some tips for how to find that useful place:

Instead of focusing on culture, look for codes

Culture gets codified. If a society really doesn’t value women, where does that show up in law? For example, does the state criminalize abortion and prosecute women who have miscarriages? Are women barred from serving in certain professions? By talking about the laws, you’ll get your point across.

Instead of focusing on culture, look for patterns

For something to be part of a culture, it must happen repeatedly. So, look to statistics. If you want to express that there are differences in a society that negatively impact women, look for data like “only 50% of girls finish 5th grade, but 80% of boys do,” “6% of government leaders are female,” or “97% of domestic violence survivors are women.” Write the evidence, and you won’t be writing your opinion.

Instead of focusing on culture, look for lived experience

Culture manifests through beliefs and behaviors, so first-person testimony is tremendously revealing. Use direct quotes to show what’s happening in this society. For instance, you may include a quote from someone saying, “As a woman, I feel like I am not taken seriously in this country.” Doing so helps peel back the curtain on what happens in this society from a first-person perspective. However, that quote does not equal “women are not taken seriously in this country.” Be careful not to project the experience of one person onto the entire society – you need to do more work to support a broader statement (remember looking for laws and patterns).

Instead of focusing on culture, look for contradictions

No society has a single story—we are all living in a complex reality, and we owe it to our donors to be authentic about that. Who are the people who beat the odds? How do their lives and experiences seem to push against the dominant culture? Include those stories too.

One of our biggest challenges when writing about the culture of a group we do not belong to is avoiding stereotypes. In my next article I provide 3 tips for how to avoid stereotypes in storytelling.

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