What is cultural capital?
Cultural capital is a sociological term coined by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in 1977. They used it to explain the difference in performance and academic achievement in children based on their experiences. It is the social and cultural advantage that some have, and the access to opportunities that that advantage then gives.
The issue is, typically when we speak about cultural capital, it’s usually very specific cultures and experiences that are being heralded. Going to the theatre, opera or ballet; visiting museums and galleries; reading certain literature or listening to certain genres of music (usually classical). The capital is being built on a certain type of culture.
It is important to note that class also has a big part to play in conversations around cultural capital. However, even within the conversations around class, Black people are still often at a bigger disadvantage than their white counterparts. For example, despite being middle-class, Black people can often be excluded and othered in the spaces mentioned above. Ballet is a typically middle-class, white arena and so even if a Black family has the means to send their child to a top ballet school, that child can still face racism (covert or overt), be overlooked for opportunities and eventually want to remove themselves from that experience.
In a school setting, children who have access to certain experiences and opportunities are then perceived as more intelligent, thus being positively labelled by teachers. Although schools are supposed to be safe spaces for all children to have equal opportunities, that is often not the case. Expensive school trips abroad, extracurricular language clubs that only offer certain languages, music lessons (typically violin) – can exclude children from certain backgrounds.
Let’s take ‘fine’ dining for example. The above is a picture of how a table should be set. If you don’t know which fork should be used at which point during a 5-course meal, then you’re likely to be deemed as ‘common’ or unintelligent. However, this is a necessity in certain cultures’ cuisines. There are plenty of cuisines around the world that believe that eating with your hands is the epitome of fine dining. However, in the Western world, that would be heavily looked down upon.
Racialised cultural capital
It is important that we celebrate and acknowledge activities that are specific to the Black experience, things that we do that can serve to promote our cultural capital.
Music is a big part of life for many communities in Africa, the Caribbean and throughout the diaspora. Whilst some cultures highly regard the violin or the trumpet, we can choose today to celebrate the steel pan. Originating in Trinidad (& Antigua), the steel pan has become synonymous with Caribbean music and culture. Pannists are highly skilled musicians, taking time to learn and perfect their craft
We could give a thousand examples of the arts but we’re going to focus on Trinidad’s Moko Jumbie, also known as Stilt Walkers. The history of Moko Jumbie is rich and beautiful.
It is an art form that can take years for a person to master, and there will be many falls throughout those years!
Gele is a head tie worn primarily by women in Nigeria and West Africa. It emanated from the Yoruba culture and is usually worn for special occasions such as weddings and big birthdays.
It’s not everyone that can tie Gele well. It is a serious skill and so women will usually hire someone to come and tie Gele for everyone attending the celebration.
We’ve given 3 examples of things that can contribute to a Black person’s cultural capital. It is important that children are exposed to experiences that they can relate to. As great as classical music and traditional theatre can be, they are not always welcoming spaces for Black people. Rather than trying to conform to what the mainstream says is high culture, why not redefine that?