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Monday, July 11, 2005

Race vs. Culture

The shit was flung over at electroman's blog a couple of weeks ago, but it seemed like an interesting question had arisen amidst the fecal-tossing: is there a meaningful distinction that can and should be made between race and culture in today's America? Obviously, the two are interrelated, but they're not two words for the same thing. My racial identity has to do with the colour of my skin, my facial features, and possibly some mishmash of genetics thrown in if someone like Henry Harpending (registration required) gets his way. As a community, races are brought together almost by external factors -- the way you are treated as one race or another has a large part to do with what race you have membership in. Meanwhile, culture is entirely learned behaviour; no one is born with certain cultural practices embedded deep into their chromosomes although I firmly believe that your racial background entitles you to the right of membership in certain cultures. For example, some cultures are based upon similar race and racial treatment: the African American culture, though entirely learned, has its roots on being thrown together as a racial and ethnic community in America, and a black child raised in a white culture is still racially black and so is entitled to some understanding of cultural blackness and their cultural history. But what happens when race and culture intermingle to such a point that one cannot make a discernible criticism of one without stepping into the realm of the other? Bill Cosby famously made some comments about lower-class African American cultural behaviour and (while not defending or denying his words) was criticized partly as making racially charged remarks. I find such instinctive defensiveness to be unacademic and poorly thought-out. There must be some allowance in an academic dialogue to make remarks about culture that may come across as negative while realizing that even if one is criticizing a race-connected culture, the comments are not intended to be racst. If culture is a set of learned practices, those practices should be able to be described without race coming into play; if I were to describe Asian culture as insular, politically apathetic, and in many ways xenophobic (characterizations which all could be defended), I think there must be an understanding that in no way is there a tie between that and saying that Asians, by virtue of their race are insular, politically apathetic, and xenophobic. That is not to say that a cultural observation cannot have racial undertones. Certainly, there are times when racist statements are couched in cultural observation in order to attempt to justify the un-PCness of it all, but those must be dealt with as racial offenses, not cultural ones. Retorts based on cultural implications are, I think, only valid if the observation is flat out wrong. For example, if someone were to make jokes about Asians eating cats and dogs, I would object to the racial implications of the comments, because of its characterization of Asians as barbaric and feral. However, it's true that in some parts of the world, cats and dogs are sometimes served as a dish -- it's important for me to recognize the cultural truth while at the same time pointing out the racial fucked-up-edness. Yet, it seems to me that people rarely make that distinction. Perhaps this is my own cultural generalization, but I feel this is particularly true about Caucasians, who, as a community have a difficult enough time recognizing themselves as a viable race at all, let alone being able to distinguish between what is White culture and what is "normal" culture. Going pubbing or bar-hopping, for example, is a predominantly Caucasian cultural phenomenon that has seen some transition into other minority groups but has its roots in the White mainstream -- racial minority communities in America simply don't have the kind of history of pubbing that White culture does. This so-called "mead hall culture" is rarely recognized however, especially by the White mainstream who simply see it as "normal" while all the time never realizing that in most of the bars they're going to, they are surrounded by other Whites. There's something about the relationship between White culture and alcohol that doesn't exist, as far as I can tell, with other cultural groups, and while I'm not saying that other cultures don't drink alcohol, in my opinion, alcohol plays a different role in a night's festivities. In no way am I saying that there's anything on the "White" gene that demands quenching with boatloads of Bud Light, but frat parties do exist as a subsect of this umbrella-term known as White culture. But then again, so does knitting, football and a variety of other things that make-up this monolithic (and "diasporic"?) cultural group. What's important here, I think, is that I'm making a cultural observation, not a racial one and it's important for members of all minority and majority groups to understand and recognize that difference. Just because you're part of the mainstream majority doesn't mean that you have no culture and should envy my membership in mine, but that also means that you've got to suffer the same cons that come with having a culture that is sometimes subject to justifable attack. As with all things, I think there needs to be a general mindset shift all round to understanding that the White culture exists, no better or worse than any other, but with definite characteristics and boundaries that must be recognized. Only then, when White culture is taken out of the box of "norm" and placed in a position of "one-of-many" will we start to see greater cultural understanding of other groups.

8 Comments:

Blogger shannon said...

The thing about Cos is that we blacks are fairly savvy and we know how Cos' comments were going to play. We know that whites aren't going to think "a few black people but not the majority have skewed priorities' they are going to take that as a rubber stamp for their own predetrimined racial attitudes, even though most of the things Cos was critizing such as materialism and anti intellectualism are much more prominent in white culture.

The fact that white culture remains invisible and so gets no criticism is not lost on many of us, although many of the more conservative voices don't understand by constantly critizing ourselves and by not interrogating the failures of whiteness we are setting up a situation in which whiteness reigns surpreme as it is seen as flawless by default.

7/11/2005 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

shannon said:
The thing about Cos is that we blacks are fairly savvy and we know how Cos' comments were going to play. We know that whites aren't going to think "a few black people but not the majority have skewed priorities' they are going to take that as a rubber stamp for their own predetrimined racial attitudes, even though most of the things Cos was critizing such as materialism and anti intellectualism are much more prominent in white culture.

I agree, and I felt those criticism of Cosby's remarks were valid. But there were other people, arguing that he had actually made racist remarks, or even the conservatives who did jump on the bandwagon and make a racial connection when Cosby didn't were only perpetuating this race/culture fusion...

7/12/2005 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger media girl said...

As a white girl, I see a distinct difference. What does "white" mean except "not something else"? "Caucasian" does not describe me. I have no ancestry from the Caucasus, as far as I know, and my lineage is vastly different from that of, say, Italians or Russians or Jews. "White" means nothing racially.

I think it's culture that people react to, though. I'm sure some people reading my comment here saw "white girl" and immediately made all sorts of assumptions. And I'd say those are based on white culture, not any racial traits.

I knew a guy from Texas who drawled like Slim Pickens. He had Asian ancestry, but culturally is was very Texan. Probably an outsider to an extent because of his race, but again I'd say that's because of prejudice about perceived ethnicity. (What does "Asian" mean when it includes Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Indian, Mongolian...?"

By the way, I don't go to bars. That's as much a stereotype as anything else. What is "white culture" anyway? I look at so-called "red state" voters, and there is no way they are a part of my culture.

7/13/2005 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger nykol said...

I think the issue of race and ethnicity get confused more than people even think. "White culture?" What exactly is "white culture?" someone asked? It's just more stereotypes. White is a catchall phrase just as "Black," "Asian," "Hispanic," and so forth are as well. They are umbrella terms that fail to recognize the separate histories, experiences, and ultimately difference within the groups.

White bias or privilege is one thing. In the States, this is what I think to which people refer when they talk about admitting the "existence of white culture," since the standard and the ideology which "white culture" represents is actually what we take issue. Anglo dominance (on a global scale) is another ball of wax.

7/13/2005 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

"And this is for...

Any white boy who thinks he knows my struggle
Cause he listens to Pac and his adrenaline doubles
Now I ain't got problems with you being yourself
But when you front and use the N word, it just don't help
I might not trip, and your friends'll laugh at you
But I know some real niggaz that'll straight up slap you
Now you could be down, but let's act growed up
Cause we ain't the same color when police show up"

- MURS, "And This Is For...", from the album 3:16 - The 9th Edition Emphasis added.

I like this quote because I'm utterly sick of the idea that American Whites have no racial identity. Aside from being logically untenable (so "White" is 'normal' and everything else isn't?!?) it tends to lead my generation's White Americans to appropriate cultural traits and elements from other groups they neither understand nor care for.

In the States, there in no useful racial difference between the Italian American and the Polish American. They are considered for all sociopolitical purposes White. It's not a positive in American life.

But to believe that somehow "White" as a racial category has no meaning is not realistic. Not only does that category hold all sorts of importance in realms of criminal justice, health care, education, political power, employment opportunity, pay, etc...., the racial category White allows a nonchalance toward general racial categorization that is impossible for racial minorities.

So yes, White, as a racial category, has meaning in American society.

7/14/2005 01:07:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

media girl said: "White" means nothing racially.

I disagree -- I hardly think "white" means "non-racial" -- to say that "white" is the absence of race means, to me, that you have to group all the "coloureds" into a group of having race. That's too much of throwing a bunch of vastly different people into a single pot for me. Besides, in that scenario, where do the multiracial people fit? If you're half-White, half-Asian, are you only half-raced? Just because the White race enjoys White privilege doesn't mean they lack a race -- people still walk in and treat them a certain way based upon their membership within that White fraternity.

media girl said: By the way, I don't go to bars. That's as much a stereotype as anything else. What is "white culture" anyway? I look at so-called "red state" voters, and there is no way they are a part of my culture.

... and I don't wear chi pao or kimonos, eat kimchee, or listen to HKpop. I don't do spoken word, drink bubble tea, call myself "Azn" or drive a Honda Civic. That doesn't mean there isn't an Asian or an Asian American culture and that I am not a part of it.

chesire said:White bias or privilege is one thing. In the States, this is what I think to which people refer when they talk about admitting the "existence of white culture," since the standard and the ideology which "white culture" represents is actually what we take issue. Anglo dominance (on a global scale) is another ball of wax.

That's an interesting point -- I would agree that part of white culture emerges with the way the White community responds in accordance to its own position as the majority and its privilege. However, I don't think white culture is only the summation of white bias and privilege -- I think there's a genuine set of cultural practices and lifestyles that should be recognized. Even if only because, if we consider culture within the "coloured" community to be important and worthwhile, then we should do the same for the "non-coloureds". Otherwise, we're basically saying that "White" is the absence of culture -- that there's no set of traditions or learned behaviours distinguishing the "White" community when we say that there is such a thing in every other racial or minority community. We're basically saying that culture is a symptom of oppression -- which is, imo, inaccurate and untrue (after all, we will agree that there is culture within the homosexual community).

And just because we say "white cuture" or "asian culture" doesn't mean that everyone within that culture does the same thing. Part of culture is simply the ability to choose or not choose to adhere to certain traditions and cultural practices. Not every white person is part of the mead hall culture just like not every white person is part of the white liberal culture.

7/14/2005 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger nykol said...

@jenn: I totally agree with what you say regarding "that there is a set of cultural practices that exist within white culture." What I am saying is specifically related to the standard and ideology that white culture represents. White culture has been normalized over time AND sets the standard for essentially everything else - which is an advantage/privilege. To what standards and cultures do Black, Asian, Hispanics, and all other ethnic folks are held? Usually, ethnicity/identity issues are tools of the disempowered, tools to call attention, to establish power as such. Whites rarely draw attention to their ethnicity because they already have power.

What you wrote earlier points to this fact - "admitting the existence of white culture" amounts to a certain advantage that they have. Of course they have a culture, of course they have an ethnicity. Race/ethnicity is a set of relational positions and perceived differences.That fact that their ethnicity and culture has been rendered invisible, a thing they don't have to think or worry about because it is the norm, is a sort of privilege, I think.

Great topic, BTW!

7/14/2005 11:11:00 PM  
Blogger media girl said...

Perhaps because I'm not oppressed racially I don't see a singular "white culture." Congress is dominated by white men, but they do not speak for me, or come from backgrounds anything like mine. Same race? There were riots in New York over Irish immigration in the 1800s. White wasn't seen as one race then. Mario Cuomo could never win approval to the Supreme Court because he's Italian. White, but not the right white, or the right kind of Italian. JFK almost didn't get elected because he was Catholic. White, but not the right white. So what does white mean, really?

My Scandanavian (mostly) background has implications for me genetically (pale skin, tendency towards skin cancer and depression, for example) and perhaps culturally (don't express emotions much), but I don't think of myself as being racially White just because I'm not some other designated race. White means nothing racially, for it encompasses dozens of distinct cultures with different languages, different genetic backgrounds, different traditions. What privileges that come with it come from white skin, not DNA. There are dark-skinned "whites" who don't enjoy much white privilege, and fair-skinned "non-whites" who do.

to say that "white" is the absence of race means, to me, that you have to group all the "coloureds" into a group of having race.

I never said that. I'm saying that all talk of a "white race" is misleading. The differences within "white" culture are just too great to try to blob together.

and I don't wear chi pao or kimonos, eat kimchee, or listen to HKpop. I don't do spoken word, drink bubble tea, call myself "Azn" or drive a Honda Civic. That doesn't mean there isn't an Asian or an Asian American culture and that I am not a part of it.

Again, I never said that. In fact, I was trying to say that the culture is what defines us more than anything else.

There are also divisions based on class. Class divides this country so profoundly. It's the ticket to education, to business, to politics, to health. It's an obscenity, how without money it's near impossible to pull your life together into something of a success. Sure there are exceptions, but precious few. And the attitude today is that if you're poor, there must be some reason you deserve it. That's a cultural bias that affects us all. To those in the ruling classes, we're all gutter trash, "peasants."

And then there's the matter of the patriarchy. How that plays out in different cultures may vary, but it's there and it ain't going away any time soon. With women on the verge of being made breeding property of the state, I'm not that sanguine about the future. But of course, we're supposed to shut up about these things, aren't we, while more important matters are addressed first.

Anyway, an interesting discussion. I just wanted to try to correct some false impressions of what I was trying to say. Thanks.

7/18/2005 05:45:00 PM  

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