On tiny acts of dissent and defining your personal culture

Teju Adeyinka
4 min readJan 16, 2024

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Itan Test Kitchen’s take on Adalu — Beans and corn.

In 2018, I came across a thread that sparked a lot of debate. Newly-wed Twitter user, Eniola Hu shared that she had excluded from her ceremony, the segment of a Yoruba wedding where the bride kneels in submission before her husband. Nigerian Twitter was aghast: “How could she spit in the face of culture?”, “If she knew she didn’t want Yoruba traditions, why did she have a Yoruba wedding?!”. Her answer was clear, “I hold on dearly to my Yoruba culture, …but submission is not a part of my personal culture.”

Of course, I found the outrage hypocritical. We all pick and choose aspects of our ethnic culture and intersect them with other aspects of our identities: religion, economic philosophy, scientific perspective, etc. Over the past few decades, for instance, Yoruba weddings have evolved to include a Bible or Quran-picking segment and exclude an archaic virginity ritual — evidently, we were and are capable of change. Eniola’s critics likely recognized that culture is not static, but were still alarmed at another person’s choice to engage with culture on their own terms. In this case, egalitarianism in marriage. Her tweet and the ensuing chaos were impactful to me because it was a simple act that impressed her identity on such a symbolic part of the culture. She wasn’t pushing for all Yoruba people or even her entire village to change something, she was simply rejecting it for herself. It felt attainable, yet powerful. So, it urged me to think more critically about things that I had taken for granted as part of culture.

As I’ve gotten older, I have had to face quirky parts of my culture head-on. For context, I am also Yoruba, and my people uphold the patriarchy, honorifics, and ageism. Respect for elders and those considered superior to us is one of the most important virtues of an Omoluabi (a well-trained, cultured person). Our greetings feature younger people kneeling, bowing, or prostrating before elders, our language uses different sets of pronouns, verb forms, and gestures to refer to older people, and our proverbs extol reverence for the elderly. I appreciate many parts of my culture: the language and Orikis (praise chants for individuals) for instance, but as I experience the world and calibrate my values, I have found myself at odds with some parts of it and am learning to resolve the dissonance.

With most parts of culture and tradition, even when it is not our preference, compromise is accessible. Our aunties settle for being greeted with a deep bow as long as we continue to kunle with both knees before our grandmothers; we refer to our elder siblings as “Sister X” and “Brother Y” to extended family, but revert to using their first names with mutual friends; we all converge towards an understanding.

In other cases, however, concession is difficult — even unattainable, and we must deny one for the other. Unfortunately, doing this can feel deeply uncomfortable, like an act of self-betrayal in either direction. As someone who is typically on the ‘inferior’ — younger, female — end of the gavel of culture, there is no easy way to decide what to do when this is the case. Our cultures usually include a feedback loop of discomfort designed to keep us in line. I keep the loop at bay by reminding myself that the discomfort is just a feeling — this isn’t to say that it is unimportant and should be discarded, but rather to remind myself that discomfort is not proof that I am doing something wrong — I can sit with discomfort and do right by myself regardless. For instance, in a recent interaction, I chose to be perceived as rude and potentially sour certain relationships because while the situation required demureness within the Yoruba culture, it called for assertiveness within my personal culture.

I generally believe in exercising caution in letting go of our identities, and find it valuable to hold on to as much of my culture as I can. For most people, being rooted in their culture gives them meaning, a support system, and the tools for navigating the world. As such, it is often impractical to discard our entire culture. So, we selectively adhere to the parts of our cultures that align with who we are. We end up with a gestalt, a sum, distinct from a combination of its parts or an awkward blend of both.

I’ve seen people qualify the often resulting inconsistency as a problem. For instance, religious and non-religious people alike criticize feminists who choose to practice a variation of religion that is more compatible with their beliefs about gender equality. The critics do this without acknowledging that we all edit our cultures to become more palatable even while participating in them. We have done it throughout history and will continue to do it. Creating personal syncretism is a nuanced song and dance that cannot be executed perfectly, so we should try to extend grace as often as we can — to others, but most importantly to ourselves. This marriage between where we are from and who we are, and are becoming is what becomes our personal culture.

As I develop a sense of what that is for myself, I make an honest effort to accommodate the contradictions. I permit things that are not detrimental to my personal culture and battle the guilt when I act in ways that are unbecoming of an Omoluabi. Doing this also means picking my battles (and I am learning to pick more of them), preserving the relationships that I can, and living to fight another day.

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