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Cultural Identity

Everyone has a cultural identity. Knowing where you come from can give you a sense of belonging and a sense of self.

Culture is all the things that make up a certain way of life or living. That includes all the beliefs and values, language, customs, style of dress, food, song, and stories that belong to a group of people. A person's cultural identity comes from the way they take certain aspects of each of the cultures they belong to and use them to shape and define who they are.

Some young people might find it hard to make sense of their cultural identity. They might have a mixed background or be living in a society where the main culture is different to their own. They might feel for a while like they don’t fit in anywhere and might resent or reject certain parts of their cultures in an effort to feel more accepted by others.

For some people, culture is more about the families you create rather than your birth heritage. This could mean a local club, community group or sports team.

If a young person doesn’t really know where they fit in, see if you can help them find a space where they belong. Support them to feel comfortable in their own skin and proud of their heritage and cultural identity.

Keeping an eye out

Young people are often looking for their place in the world and might feel a little bit lost at times. They might feel like an outsider or feel pressure to prove the stereotypes about their cultural group wrong. Keep an eye out for them: 

  • Asking a lot of questions about their family or wanting to get to know more about the culture of where they’re from
  • Rejecting their culture – not wanting to get involved, go to church with their family or identify with their background
  • Being bullied, ignored or ridiculed at school for being different
  • Feeling frustrated, depressed or anxious 
  • Having low self-esteem - feeling worthless or like they don't belong

Healthy conversations

In New Zealand, most people have a range of different cultures in their backgrounds and it’s common for young people to identify with more than one. 

  • Talk to them about their whakapapa - let them know about their background, who their ancestors are and the places where they came from
  • If they are connected with more than one culture, talk about all of them. You could discuss the different aspects of each culture, challenge stereotypes and help them understand what those cultures mean to them and their family
  • Talk about how to answer questions such as “where are you from?” or “what ethnicity are you?” Help them define an identity they can be proud to share
  • Talk to them about any racism, bullying or discrimination they are experiencing. Let them know it's not okay, and show your support. You can go to being bullied for tips about how to support someone through it
  • Talk about respect and how important it is to appreciate and respect people from different cultures

Taking action

  • Help them identify if they know anyone else who has been through a similar journey around making sense of their identity, who they could seek guidance and support from
  • Show them you value their cultural background. Teach them about the different cultures they belong to and their traditions, and get them involved in community activities that celebrate those cultures
  • If the family speaks another language, help to keep the language alive. Speak it at home, go to marae or community centres where you can practise speaking it and teach your young person the language as best you can
  • If you have family in a different country or city, maintain that connection. Keep in touch with them and see if you can go visit them. If they are connected with a marae, take them to visit
  • Be a role model by respecting and learning from people from different cultural backgrounds, valuing differences and rejecting stereotypes


The Lowdown

This factsheet is about how to learn more about your cultural identity, especially if you're feeling like you don't belong.

Kōrero Māori

The Kōrero Māori website has been developed by Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori – the Māori Language Commission – in order to raise awareness about the Māori language by increasing opportunities for people to learn and use it.

Aunty Dee

Tips for young Pasifika people in New Zealand to nurture and celebrate their cultural identity.

Kids Helpline - Cross Cultural Differences and Respecting Others

Australian website Kidshelp provides information and support for Australian kids, teens, and parents. This factsheet talks about “Cross Cultural Differences and Respecting Others”.

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