Why We Don’t See Culture

M. Williams Stefani W. Redskins V. Secret Boy Scouts

Another day passes and I encounter another colleague who behaves as if he or she does not have a culture. How do I know this? By the words they say and the actions they take towards others. Example, “My ancestors gave up their culture to become an American”. This may be true but the ancestor chose to adopt another culture- a variation of the English speaking dominant European American culture. Another common statement told to me is, “Why can’t we all get along? We are a melting pot”. To be accurate, only white people can claim kinship to the melting pot myth. People of color are not able to “blend” into being white.


A common activity at work and school is to host “diversity and inclusion” events that are often billed as being multicultural. These events mostly showcase people of color sharing their cultural story through a window and mirrors activity. The prime objective is to educate white people about diversity. The European American cultural experience is missing except as spectators.

These statements and activities stem from an unspoken and even unconscious belief that many European Americans do not have a culture and in, fact, only people of color have one. This is culture blindness. It is not being aware that you have a culture and, as a result, think only people of color or people that speak different languages have culture. An unintended impact is to feel free to “take” from other cultures and be entertained.

A contributing factor to culture blindness is white privilege. A white privilege that is rooted in a belief that European American culture, specifically derived from England, is the desired way of life in America.  Everything we do is measured against those norms including beauty, type of speech, dress and religion to name a few. This privilege allowed white people to believe they “had the right” to study others and tell them what kind of culture they had, point out deficiencies, measure other people’s brains for their own gain and photograph them in order to document them before they became “extinct”. John Winthrop upon seeing empty American Indian villages full of corn and other crops ready to harvest wrote in 1634, “God hath hereby cleared our title to this place”. I believe that this statement began a racial narrative that people descended from Europe, specifically Anglo-Saxons knew better and deserved the best.

White privilege fed into another contributing factor of culture blindness that I call the National Geographic phenomenon. The stories (ethnographies) and photos from social scientists, like anthropologists, became the stuff of college curriculum and National Geographic magazines. Any white child growing up in the USA, educated in its schools and reading their parents National Geographic subscription would learn that only people of color with darker skin, had a different language and were “primitive” had a culture.

White Americans, in those contexts, did not talk about their culture in that way. No one came to “study” them. They also did not need to address their culture because it was normed and not on the verge of intentional extermination. Still today, a typical college classroom curriculum has students focused on learning about the Pueblo, the Nuer and the like but never their cultural self. This practice creates a cultural knowing gap that perpetuates blindness. National Geographic has an exoticizing effect on the cultures by treating them as different, mysterious and the “other”.

These factors have unconsciously lead major corporations, leaders and entertainers today to take a misstep towards exoticism, cultural misappropriation and potentially racism. Cultural misappropriation is defined as a practice of a dominant culture taking (stealing) music, art, a religious practice, etc. from an indigenous culture and using it in an inauthentic way and without permission.  It is a serious problem today. Current examples are:

None of us are immune to avoiding culture, exoticizing or unintentionally misappropriating another person’s cultural practice but we need to make an effort to stop. We really need to be intentional about working on ourselves by increasing awareness about our cultural self, increase knowledge about other cultures and taking action towards change. We are at a critical juncture in America as we move towards a more culturally and racially diverse society.

Practical steps for improvement:

  1. Self-reflection: Do you know what your culture is? What is your cultural identity? Take a moment to explore and find out. Take an interest in exploring your cultural self. Who are you and what cultures make you who you are? Talk about your culture to others.
  2. Get out more. Talk to people from all walks of life and make cross-cultural friendships.
  3. Stand up and speak out when a colleague or friend decides to keep a mascot or purchase something that is inappropriate.
  4. Hire more people from a diversity of cultures and races. Be sure to create pathways for multiple perspectives to be heard or else you will have segregated silos at work.

Once we are confident of our cultural identity then we can branch out and connect with others from differing cultures in authentic ways.  Change requires action. Action requires confidence. Confidence requires faith.

Race, Satan and Our Need To Change

Social media has been atwitter with commentary on the casting of Satan in the History Channel’s miniseries: The Bible. Did the producers purposely cast an actor who looked like President Obama? I will not address this question but instead focus on what I think is the root of the commentary and offer solutions. Does racial prejudice continue to operate in America in regards to accepting a person of color, especially a black person, to be in a position of authority?

History Channel

This is old news, and you may be asking yourself why would someone write another blog about another instance of racism? I get that. The permanence of racism is alive and well. Just yesterday the New Times reported that a licensed psychologist had testified that race plays a part in predicting future violent behavior!

A quick scan on our nation’s hiring data confirms that, while great inroads have been made for people of color in positions of authority, we still have a long way to go. We continue to have a serious issue with coconscious and unconscious racial bias towards people of color. The data across all areas tell a similar story:

  • 4.2% people of color hired for CEO positions
  • 18.5% people of color for 5 of 20 Silicon Valley companies reporting
  • 2 % African American and 2% Latino for superintendents
  • 22% people of color for the current Supreme Court Justices
  • 16% people of color for members of Congress
  • A lack of American Indians across the board

There are a few ways to think about this data:

  1. There are no qualified people of color to fill these positions. Therefore racism does not exist. America elected a black president so there is no more racism.
  2. Hiring managers talk behind closed doors and decide that only 1, 2 or a handful of people of color should be in authority. This would be a reverse affirmative action policy.
  3. There is racial bias in hiring.
  4. Deficit thinking is at play. Hiring managers believe that black people, Latinos and American Indians are not as smart as whites and Asians. It starts in grade school when students are identified for special education and gifted and talented services. K-12 tracking fuels the practice of segregating white students in enriched classes with little or no students of color except for Asians. Black, American Indians and Latino students are relegated to special education. It is no wonder that students believe that black, Latino and American Indian students are not smart. Because they are not present, a deficit belief starts to take root.

What can we do to change our beliefs so that our behaviors reduce and eliminate our racial bias and prejudices?   A few studies illustrate that with effort racial bias can be reduced. One study (Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias) found that racial bias behaviors are malleable and can be changed with effective training. Another study (Can Racial Bias Be Changed?) concluded that a person’s attitudes about racial bias can positively or negatively affect outcomes.  Another compelling study (Racial Bias Can Be Changed by Teaching People to Differentiate Facial Features Better in Individuals of a Different Race) focused on helping people differentiate faces of people from other races which reduced their racial bias.

My key point is that we have the ability to eliminate racism by working on ourselves. Here are a few suggestions:

  • First, we need to make genuine interracial friendships. My mother’s dear friend Agnes Brawley, living in segregated Milwaukee, used to say: “The problem with race relations is that there are not enough relations”. We need to build friendships across races and cultures. This will help reduce prejudice and racial bias.
  • Second, we need to acknowledge that we have unconscious and conscious racial beliefs and act on them every day.  It will take effort and training, day by day, for us to make positive changes.
  • Third, we need to start having courageous conversations on race. Talking about race and addressing issues should not be a fear anymore. We have to believe in ourselves that we will not be afraid of offending someone or being called a racist.  Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group offers a practical framework for action called Courageous Conversations on Race.
  • Fourth, Tod Ewing offers up a spiritual solution in his book. He states that a powerful step for racial healing is taking a step to see heaven in the face of black men.
  • Fifth, researchers have found it is possible to eliminate our racial biases but we must be internally driven or otherwise motivated to suppress them.

Deciding to take action is a first step to help us change our beliefs about different races. The rest involves hard work, internal motivation and practice to see positivity instead of deficits in people of color.