Genealogy Adventures

The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 2: Culture

In my previous post, The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 1: Race I touched on three things:

  1. How the concepts of Race and Culture have come to mean the same thing;
  2. How scientific studies of human DNA raises an interesting discussion point about Race; and
  3. Why I don’t believe that Race, as a modern concept, actually exists. As a man-made concept, the notion of Race didn’t exist before the 17th Century. There were socioeconomic foundation behind its conception and implementation.

So If I don’t think Race exists, what exists in its place?

An illustrative example of how the concept of Ethnicity has become related to 'Race'
An illustrative example of how the concept of Ethnicity has become related to ‘Race’

For the time being I am going to dodge the concept of Ethnicity; the concept that has come to be the kissing cousin of Race. Ethnicity is also a man-made concept, subject to human foibles to rationalize, justify and otherwise excuse any manner of atrocities and prejudices. Like Race, it suggest an ‘otherness’ within humanity which simply doesn’t exist. Again, I refer to genetic admixtures we all carry within us. A better understanding of human genetics, and admixtures in particular, will influence our concept of Ethnicity as well as Race.

Examples of masks from different Cultures from around the world
Examples of masks from different Cultures from around the world

What I do believe in is Culture. Culture is tricky because, as a concept, it too has become corrupted through misuse and something what I call ‘language laziness’ (where we think ‘oh that word will do’ when that word isn’t really applicable).  Everything has a culture today. Businesses apparently have a culture. They don’t, not really, they have an environment. Some will say this is semantics. So be it. We have so called gun cultures, gang cultures, mob cultures, academic cultures, liberal cultures, conservative cultures, etc. These are not cultures. These are environments.

What we do have is Culture…and culture. When I use the word culture, with a small ‘c’, I mean all of the arts and other expressions and manifestations of human intellectual achievement as a collective body (i.e. books, films, paintings, photographs, sculptures, ballet and other forms of dancing, music, etc).

When I use the word Culture, with a capital ‘C’, I refer to its anthropological and behavioral scientific origins. In this context Culture is the full range of learned human behavioral patterns.  English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor was the first person to use this term in this way in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871.  Tylor defines Culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [humans] as a member of [a] society.”

I emphasize the words ‘custom’ and ‘society’ to underline a basic point I’ll be making – added to the phrase ‘behavioral patterns’, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.

As an American-specific example, one could argue that there is a “White” Culture. Many have. My apologies for using a “Race” term that I don’t believe in. The concept of “Race is so embedded in our psyches and language that there is no other means of discussing this topic without referring to it. I’m using it as a kind of short-hand. OK, so back to the “White” Culture in America. Which “White” Culture would this be referring to? There are too many “White” sub-Cultures for a view as reductionist as this.

We can look at it this way:

Example of the “American “White” Culture”:

  • Sub-Culture Level 1: The New England “White” Culture and Southern “White” Culture are two very different things. I’d say it’s fair to argue that there are more differences between these two sub-Cultures than commonalities.
  • Sub-Culture Level 2: The “White” Culture of Virginia and the “White” Culture of Georgia or North Carolina, South Carolina or any other state in America’s South-east. Each state has its own history, set of shared experiences, traditions and ties that bind its citizens which separates it from its neighboring states.
  • Sub-Culture Level 3: The “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia and the “White” Culture of Newport News, Virginia.
  • Sub-Culture Level 4: The white collar “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia and the blue collar “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia.

I’m sure I could drill this down another level or two but that would be overkill.  This example doesn’t even touch on educational attainment, religious affiliations or political beliefs, which add their own layers of complexity.

There is nothing to unite “White” Americans at that primary level except for lack of permanent melanin in the skin (it’s worth noting here that skin tones vary widely even within the Culture). In this example, there can’t be a singular “White” American Culture simply because there is no set of commonly shared experiences, history, customs or behavioural patterns to unite it. Instead, we have a lot of sub-Cultures. Some of whom compete against each other.

All peoples have their own Culture and those Cultures are just as diverse and as complex as the example I’ve given above. When Americans refer to “African-American Culture”, which African-American Culture are they referring to? With a history and experiences as diverse as the American “White” Culture, the ‘African-American’ Culture is one that shouldn’t be spoken of using reductionist language. Asian-American, Native American, Latin-American: the same applies to all of the diverse Cultures that live side-by-side, part of the diverse communities where we live.

I was raised within a rural, New England, middle class African-American sub-Culture. I would have never guessed that as a child. As an adult, I see and understand it. Historically speaking, one group of my ancestors were people of an African-American Culture who were southern, Virginian and enslaved. Some were free –most were not. The next few generations were people of the African-American, southern, Virginian, farming sub-Culture – before the great exodus from the south changed the various sub-Cultures they lived within.

Another group of my ancestors were part of the White, European, immigrant, southern, Virginian, land-owning, upwardly-mobile sub-Culture – many of their descendants entering into the White, southern, wealthy, Virginian, slave-owning sub-Culture. For many, many decades I was a member of the North-west London, executive, white collar, creative industries Culture – unlike any other Culture in Britain. This sub-Culture is unique as a ’racial’ qualifier can’t be added. It is a generally inclusive and diverse Culture.

Culture, it would seem, is not a fixed thing. One can move within a Culture’s various sub-Cultures. It’s one of the reasons why I say no Culture can be viewed, thought about or spoken of in absolute or reductionist terms. To do so doesn’t reflect reality. To do so doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Culture, like culture, gives humankind a bounty of riches in the form of diversity. Understanding this concept in this manner hopefully will give rise to a better understanding between peoples of different Cultures and sub-Cultures, that group of people’s history and their collective experiences. The collection of sub-Cultures within a Culture are shaped by the experience and the history singular to the people who form that particular sub-Culture. Understanding this enables an understanding of a Culture, and its sub-Culture’s forms of expressions – its culture, as it were. Hopefully, we stop seeing someone from another Culture as ‘wholly other’ or ‘alien’ to us – just someone from a different Culture than our own. No better and no worse than us. We can celebrate Cultural and sub-Cultural difference instead of reviling them.

No one overall Culture is better than any other.

Eradicating our concept of Race (and Ethnicity) levels the playing field for every human being on the planet. Eliminating the language of Race more or less forces all of us to accept that we’re a species sharing common DNA. The only difference being which combination of admixtures we carry within our individual genetics and how our genes choose to manifest themselves. No combination is better than another. They are what they are.

Refining our understanding and appreciating the concept of Culture will, hopefully one day, enable human beings to appreciate the diversity of the human experience in all of its positive manifestations and work towards eradicating the negative. Only fear and hidden agendas prevent this.

I believe it’s only when humankind understands and appreciates this that the difficult, painful, and (hopefully) ultimately cathartic – conversations  around the legacy of Empire, slavery, genocide and tyranny in all its forms can happen in an open, honest and frank way. That’s when respectful coexistence can start to happen. That’s when we move forward collectively as a species.

I know that’s the world and the legacy I’d like to leave behind for the generations that follow mine.

3 thoughts on “The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 2: Culture

  1. I am with you. It is interesting that, like you, I am a deep thinker. I ‘discovered’ the race vs culture concept all by myself then decided to Google around to see if anyone else embraced this concept and here I am. Your analysis is awesome and touches the very points I have thought about. Will reconnect with you shortly. – Darien Francis

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