Are Cultures Nations?

Last week I read Jill Barcum’s commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I noticed she used the word nation for cultures that exist in the United States. Why is this remarkable?  In this talk of nations in the United States, where are the actual nations? Examples include the Dakota, Ojibwe and Cherokee to name a few. This is my response to the commentary and a portion of it was published on February 17, 2013:

It was with great anticipation that I read Jill Burcum’s article, The United States- A Nation of Nations. Instead I became saddened that her commentary focused only on one group of people in the United States- the descendants of the European immigrants and settlers. Ms. Burcum’s commentary is based on a larger text called American Nations which I have not read.

With all due respect to the writer and intent, I believe the article contributes to a false and one-sided narrative of our country. It is also an example of how we are all miseducated about the truth of who we are. Case in point- The only nations within the United States are the Dakota, Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Hochunk, Oneida and many others. Nations are sovereign entities that can create treaties and govern their people. Cultures do not. Nationalities do not. Folkways do not.

The groups outlined in the article-Yankeedom, midlands and the like are contemporary mashups of regions, culture and folkways. They are not nations. This commentary perpetuates the myth to us, our community, our children and new immigrants that the USA is only comprised of white people and only their cultural aspects are important. Yes, I do agree with Ms. Barcum’s statement that we have “multiple regional cultures in North America” but they do not make virtual nations within our union.  Only indigenous nations have that right.

The cultures that make us mighty are African American, Dakota, Ojibwe, Japanese American, Chinese American, Mexican American, and, yes, European American in addition to many more. Acknowledging and validating this reality gives us strength. Each cultural group contributes to the dominant American culture through the vitality of their cultural beliefs, practices and traditions. In fact, we have many sub- cultures in Minnesota such as Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Norwegian, Dakota, Swedish, African American cultures for example.

The overall commentary leaves the rest of the United States out of the United States. It begs the question as we move to 2040- who is an American and how will we work together to change the narrative from myth to the truth of who we are as Americans?

What is Culture, Race and Ethnicity?

What is culture anyway? Is it race, religion, food or a way to dress? Do some people have culture and some don’t? That is what I want to discuss in this week’s post. The classic anthropological definition of culture is that it is a way of life that includes belief, traditions, food, rituals, behavior, language, facial expressions and music. This is not an all-inclusive list. Dr. Yvette Jackson, from the National Urban Alliance says that culture is “whatever is meaningful and relevant to a person”.

Culture is what we pass down to our children every single day through our speech, dress and actions. Every country has a dominant culture that houses its language, governance, education, belief and family structures to name a few. In the United States, the dominant culture is English-American, sometimes referred to as WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), that originates from English Puritan roots from 1609. Let’s unpack this: We speak English, we dress in English style clothes and have Christian style of beliefs rooted in Puritanism. That is not to say that America was not influenced by the Iroquois, Africans, the Spanish or the French. We were but, have you noticed, we are not speaking Algonquian, French, Swahili or Spanish as the national language? Language is THE carrier of culture. It means that the English colonists created the USA and spread their cultural hegemony from sea to shining sea.  My observation is that in the national context culture is labeled as entertainment, art and having high status and excellent manners a la “being cultured”.

Words that have become synonymous with culture are race, nationality and ethnicity. In case you are wondering, the USA is not a culture although we will encounter people who believe it to be true. The USA is a nationality that is designated on a passport. Adding to the fray is the word ethnicity. This is another word that gets mixed up with culture as well. It stems from the Greek word for nation and really stands for a social group who share a geographic region, language and culture. Over time though, the national media continues to confuse us as does the US Census Bureau. Take a look at any survey and I guarantee that you will be asked to supply your ethnicity when you know full well you are being asked to disclose your race.  The US Census Bureau categories are another story that needs its own discussion.

Culture is not a race though we will commonly hear people make references to the white culture, the black culture and the Indian culture. What gives? Race is a social construct invented by the Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linneaus, back in 1758. We can thank him for the lovely terminology of negroid, Caucasoid and mongoloid. His invention has been disastrous for the world and we have inherited a false belief of people based on skin color. Even though we know there is only one race, we continue to give it importance by perpetuating that there are five races. American society is obsessed with race.

So are there white and black cultures? I think not. If we decide to go down the white culture and black culture path we run risk of racially stereotyping people e.g. “all white people eat watermelon and all black people have no rhythm. However, within each of these racial groups, many sub-cultures exist trying to survive. For example, if all the white people of the world were put in a line, one would find cultural distinctions of Russian, Dutch, English, Portuguese and Euro-American to name a few. Ditto for black people. What about whiteness and blackness? Those terms have become popular as well in the American lexicon. What do they mean? I prefer to label them cultural behaviors associated with each race. Despite the fact that the Human Genome Project and American anthropological Association have all proven beyond a doubt that there is only one race Homo Sapiens Sapiens, we hold onto the false belief that skin color is the prime determinant of intelligence and behavior.  There you have it. I have contributed to perpetuating race in the guise of unpacking what it means to be us in the early 21st century while trying to be helpful!

The major reason we must be clear about definitions is that we need to bring culture back into culture and not be cavalier about it when so many cultures are in danger of becoming extinct and their languages no longer spoken. This just happened in Scotland, is a huge issue in Indian country and across the globe. Home work for this week:

  1. Identify your culture, nationality and your ethnic heritage.
  2. Share this information with a friend and post.

Don’t wait to find this information out when you travel and you are “outed” by others. That is cheating!

Cultural Musings

Is it just me or is culture being misunderstood, misaligned, being stripped away of its importance or simply ignored in today’s society? We are comfortable focusing on pop culture, high culture, high society culture, being “cultured” and participating in culture wars. What does this mean and should we care? Yes we should. Has culture become a synonym for race, entertainment or a war of values?

The United States is becoming more culturally and racially diverse with each passing day. Demographers predict that by 2040 people of color as a group will shift to majority status. Although there will be more people of color than the white race, this is a misnomer- the white race, as a single race, will still be in the majority. Does anyone care to talk about this radical shift?

This shift is not just about numbers or a fear that certain races are going to disappear into the sunset. It is about many diverse cultures figuring out how to live together in harmony while trying to keeping their cultures intact.  Are we going to walk softly into that 2040 world being culturally blind and unconscious or will we take the time to personally reflect and build our skills?

Let’s break this down. The USA is not a racial or cultural melting pot and never has been but it is the national narrative that continues to be taught in k-14 schools. This misguided narrative has led us to cultural blindness. I offer a perspective that within each racial group is the potential of a “gazillion” cultures fighting for survival in the coming decades. How prepared is the average citizen, like you and me, to interact in a multicultural USA?

The action for this week, should you decide to accept it, is to reflect and discuss with others, preferably someone from a different race or culture:

  1. What is culture?
  2. What will your culture look like in 2040?

On Being “Cultured:”

The Guardian

NY Times Arts Beat

NY Times T Magazine Blog

On “Culture Wars:”

The Culture War is Over

Culture Wars

The Culture Wars Are Over

Can We Call Off the Culture Wars