Grandma’s salmon croquettes, mama's potato salad, the laughter of children playing flag football in the front yard, the Soul Train line that spontaneously forms at every family function — I live for it!
I love my people, my heritage and so many of the cultural components that define us. These traditions, passed down from one generation to the next, mold our identities and cement us into a larger clan. The uniformity of shared values provides a sense of safety, simplicity and even freedom. Tradition is the backbone of families, religions, social groups and society at large.
As much as I value them, I recognize that traditions aren't always positive. In fact, sometimes they are dysfunctional. Whether it's addiction, abuse or some other harmful pathology, every family, community and culture has negative traits that can be traced back through its lineage. When this is the case, blind adherence to tradition can be harmful, and even problematic.
Here's why it's sometimes necessary to respectfully challenge our traditions and what we've been taught to believe.
No matter your race, gender identity or background, the world has a certain perception of you. While gains have been made to challenge and eliminate some stereotypes, they are still very prevalent. As a black person and a woman from a small southern town, society has a specific plan for me. I could very easily follow the margins of that plan down a socially acceptable path, specifically assigned to someone of my demographic, socio economic class and status. While the path itself is neither bad or good, it was formed with no regard for my unique personality, talents or aptitude. If the traditional roles assigned to your demographic works for you, GREAT! But if not, defining yourself beyond their confines is step one in overcoming marginalization.
2. Imposter Syndrome
When the pressure to fit in outweighs one's own inherent persona, it can lead to inner turmoil, pretentiousness and fraudulent contradictions. If the approval of your community requires you to suppress or deny the very essence of who you are and what you want out of life, you may want to re-evaluate your membership.
For some families, the owning of slaves was customary for hundreds of years. For others, the act of being enslaved was a family tradition. While these examples might seem extreme, the derivatives of such dysfunctional practices live on today. Racism, chauvinism, homophobia, crab mentality and colorism are still being passed down from one generation to the next. This ignorance will persist until we really start to challenge the validity of our traditions and beliefs.
4. Self-Imposed Struggle
Given the nature of our existence in the U.S., from slavery through Jim Crow to modern-day institutionalized racism, it's absolutely justifiable that so much of the African-American narrative is centered in struggle. Our ancestors had no choice but to endure adversity, their survival depended on it. There is zero shame in taking pride in the legacy of a people who have defied insurmountable odds and prevailed in the face of crippling adversity. But glorifying the struggle and choosing it when better options are available is an insult to their sacrifice and a perversion of our legacy.
5. Generational Dysfunction
Every family has its own dynamics that govern how members relate with one another. Not only do our familial relationships set the tone for how we interact with the world, but they can also have a strong impact on our development and life trajectory. When dysfunction is left unchecked in families with a pathology of abuse, the damage can live on for generations. These kinds of traditions need to be broken.
If you have been a member of a group for any extended period of time, you know the personalities of the group members, what triggers whom, what to say and when to say it. Groupthink is what happens when, in order to accommodate the group, we turn off our rational thinking and suppress our opinions. While keeping the peace isn’t necessarily a bad thing, history has shown us that this kind of tribal thinking can have treacherous consequences. This is why it’s so important that we make the conscious effort to seek information, form our own opinions and think for ourselves.
7. Lack of Creativity
If the measure of what you can do is based solely on what's already been done, then innovation suffers. In this way, tradition can stifle creativity. Groupthink can show up as tension and reluctance to engage in any form of creative expression that goes contrary to the crowd. Thank goodness for those creative geniuses who bucked tradition and charted their own unprecedented course — the Ava Duvernays, Barack Obamas and even the Jordan Peeles of the world, who didn’t limit their dreams to what had already been preapproved by society. Oprah Winfrey has slayed traditional roles on multiple fronts without awaiting the co-sign from her community. When it comes to delivering your unique gifts to the world, you can't allow any judgment or limiting belief to infiltrate your attitude.
What leverage should tradition have when it comes to how we shape our lives? I wouldn’t be who I am if not for the endurance, customs and rituals of those that came before me. Tradition is a beautiful thing to be honored and revered, but the key to honoring tradition without becoming its slave, is the realization that adapting, evolving and sometimes defying it, for the sake of progress, is the grandest tradition of them all.