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!


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