Social Question

Harp's avatar

When does talk about culture become talk about race?

Asked by Harp (19038 points ) October 9th, 2009

Flutherers seem to have very different standards for what distinguishes commentary about cultural phenomena from racial bias. Is it possible to disentangle the two? If so, how?

It seems safe to say that there is a correlation between culture and behavior. Different cultures vary in their values, aesthetics, customs and lifestyles. Some cultures are racially divers, others more homogeneous. When a comment is made about a racially divers culture (e.g. American culture), even a negative comment, we don’t tend to assume that the comment is racially motivated. But if the comment concerns a more homogeneous culture, especially if the comment is negative, the specter of racism is raised.

It seems to be the modern scientific concensus that race is an artificial construct, having little to no biological basis. This is considered by many to be the progressive way of looking at race. But if we assume that discussions about culture are really about race, even if race is never mentioned, aren’t we in effect validating the concept of race?

I realize this is touchy ground, but as Eric Holder said, we tend to be cowards in talking with each other about race. Maybe a first step is exploring when we’re talking about culture and when we’re talking about race.

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77 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

One way is when it is couched in a derogatory or negative sense. When it is done that way it can appear the the person initiating the discussion has an opinion and it looking for confirmation or validation. This is especially so if it involved a minority or migrant race.

Sabotage82's avatar

There really shouldn’t be any talk about race. Race does not exist, rather ethnicity.

Grisaille's avatar

Great question.

I think we all understand that old habits die hard. Let’s face it; we all descend from racist or culturally biased ancestors. It is in our nature to be fearful of that which we do not know. The question, “when does talk about culture become talk about race” is just a modern extension of that.

That said, there is also the undeniable, underlying fact that cultures generally are associated with one “race” – and an exclusive association is unfortunately made quite often. I’m in complete agreement that it is an artificial construct (more, understand); unfortunately, ignorance runs rampant in all of us. I’m inclined to believe that the more intelligent the individual on a myriad of topics, the less likely the chance of that person thinking of individuals as categorized in races, and more likely to think in “cultures” and subcultures or countercultures, instead. That isn’t an exclusive statement, of course.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Sabotage82 There really shouldn’t be any talk about race. Race does not exist, rather ethnicity.

Race does exist but the term is often misused. Semantics aside, it is the way that many people refer to ethnicity. You know what they mean when they raise a “race” issue.

mattbrowne's avatar

Talks about culture in Germany are talks about countries of origin or ethnicity of origin.

marinelife's avatar

Since people can intermarry and produce fertile offspring, there is only one race: human.

Perhaps there are even more variations than those you describe here.

There is culture, which may or may not cross national boundary lines. For example, people talk about Hispanic or Latino culture, but there is no single culture. There are Mexican Latinos, Puerto Rican Latinos and many, many more all with some similarities (language), but many differences.

Then there is ethnicity, which people talk about. Some people consider Judaism an ethnicity and others only a religion. Obviously, the group includes both. Even within the group of the Jewish, there are many cultural and ethnic variations.

Then, there is genetics. It is clear that people of similar genetic structure share certain tendencies that other groups do not. Diseases are examples of that, such as sickle cell anemia.

Despite the touchiness of all of these issues, I agree completely that all people need more dialogue about these differences and about our sameness. I think the shrinking barriers of geography are making those discussions more important and more possible.

Productive discussion will require ground rules about civility and a willingness to shoot a lot of sacred cows.

Some of my opinions on some of these issues are quite controversial and not politically correct. While I think that what colonists of European descent did to the inhabitants of North America was appalling including reservations, smallpox infused blankets, cultural imperialism (such as forced proselytization by missionaries), I am completely opposed to either of the terms Native Americans or First Peoples.

Certainly, American Indians and Canadian Indians were not Native Americans. They came across the Asian land bridge. Actually, they found other earlier waves of migrants, who they in turn worked very hard to wipe out or totally assimilate.

Some of those earlier migrants were of Caucasian ancestry. The infamous Kennewick Man being one example.

Another example of a sacred cow is the assertion by the Japanese despite clear scientific and historic evidence to the contrary that they are a distinct people, not ethnically Chinese.

These types of beliefs associated strongly with people’s very identities make open discussions difficult.

I see the climate improving, even incrementally slowly, and remain hopeful for the future.

Harp's avatar

If I were to ask the question: “Why do Mexican truck drivers lash stuffed animals to the grills of their trucks?”, have I asked a cultural question, an ethnic question or a racial question? Suppose I also express the opinion that it’s a tacky thing to do, and kind of gross too. Does that negative comment change the nature of my question?

perplexed82's avatar

@DarkScribe Your answer is completely irrelevant to the question asked.

@Harp Asking a cultural question is fact much different than being coined a racist. If you ask, for instance, “Why do Mexicans/any other race do such and such” it is clearly a cultural question. It’s when people say, “Why do dirty Mexicans have to such and such” then it becomes racially biased.

perplexed82's avatar

@Harp You are entitled to your opinion.

dpworkin's avatar

Ethnicity and race are factitious social constructs fabricated by the observer. In my opinion, when you see a question built on the paradigm, “Why do (Ethnicity) do (Behavior)?” You are not really seeing a question. Instead, what you have just encountered is an ethnocentric statement implying the superiority of the questioner’s own cultural identity. That’s what makes such “questions” obnoxious.

Harp's avatar

@perplexed82 If you ask, for instance, “Why do Mexicans/any other race do such and such” it is clearly a cultural question.

Well, I would say that if you’re considering “Mexican” to be a race when you ask that question, then it becomes a racial question, not a cultural one.

perplexed82's avatar

@Harp I guess it is how these terms are defined. The definition varies though and a lot of times they are confused or misused.

Grisaille's avatar

@pdworkin Fantastic.

EDIT: Beyond fantastic.

dpworkin's avatar

@Grisaille Yeah, that’s what we Jews are good at.

Harp's avatar

@pdworkin I understand that that is the common assumption, but can’t such a question actually be asked out of a desire to understand the roots of that alien behavior?

dpworkin's avatar

Of course it can, but is it often? If it is asked by anthropologists, one expects it is being asked in a scholarly way. If it is asked by someone planning to move to an (Ethnicity) neighborhood, not so much.

CMaz's avatar

When you take it personal.

Grisaille's avatar

Also, @Harp it also heavily depends on the way the question and relevant details are worded. You can tell if someone is genuinely curious for academic reasons as opposed to feeling a sense of superiority or disdain over a cultural group. It’s per-case, but I find that often times the question falls into the latter.

JLeslie's avatar

They are intertwined. For the sake of discussion I think people need to be less worried about being offended and listening for what might be offensive, and more interested in whatever subject is at hand. That is, if we are talking about a constructive conversation.

@pdworkin has a great point. The question might be more of a judgement or ethnocentric statement. But, it does not take away from the fact that it might also be a curiouslty on the questioners part. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I think we need to ask ourselves do we want to get rid of racism by not discussing it at all? Not acknowledging the differences between different groups and the statisticly signifant behaviors that might apply. Or, do we want to get everything out in the open? Be willing to listen to each other, be willing to hear why what is being taught to me in my subcuture might be holding me back from my goals.

tinyfaery's avatar

Ugh. I can’t do this on my phone.

dpworkin's avatar

Question 1.) Why do all the Mexicans in my neighborhood paint their trim magenta?

Question 2.) I see a lot of magenta trim in my neighborhood. Is there an explanation for this?

DarkScribe's avatar

You can discuss race without problem as long as you do not impute the race under discussion. Many comments seem to (indirectly) do just that.

Leanne1986's avatar

@Marina If there is only one race (ie: human) does that mean that race and species mean the same thing? I always considered humans to be of the same species but divided into various different races.

Harp's avatar

If racism is based on specious assumptions, then it seems dangerous to bring other assumptions into the fray. There’s a lot of gray area between scholarly exploration and pushing reactionist agenda. I’m not sure that we can assume that it’s either one or the other.

dpworkin's avatar

@Leanne1986 There is more genetic diversity among groups than between groups. This is an established fact, since the Genome Project. What it means is that there is no such thing as race. Sorry.

Grisaille's avatar

@JLeslie That is ideal, and I love it. But people never behave in the ideal, sadly. In a perfect world, everyone would be willing to come to the table and discuss ethnic and cultural differences – outside of the evident (that is, “that asian guy has slanty eyes. why?).

And, quite frankly, the general populace is ignorant and immature; they revel in generalizations and the obvious. What is the main, unspoken driving force against Obama? He has brown skin. Why are people opposed to the Public Option? Death Panels that will kill grandma. People enjoy the simple arguments because they are simple.

Harp's avatar

@pdworkin How about “I was in Mexico recently and saw that most of the houses had trim painted in bright colors. Why is that?”

Where would that fall?

Leanne1986's avatar

@pdworkin No need to apologise, I was ignorant to that and I thank you for informing me.

dpworkin's avatar

@Harp, I don’t want to make myself the adjudicator, but it sounds value-free to me.

JLeslie's avatar

@Grisaille so true. Not everyone is as intelligent and mature as us. Hahahaha JK.

@pdworkin but if it is only the Mexican’s painting their house trim magenta, why is it so awful to ask the question that way? The basic answer the collective came up with was that in the country they are from using that color is customary. If I were Mexican I would put up a picture of my house in Mexico if it helped explain, I would not be offended.

I just think people are too sensitive. And, too worried that others are out to get them, instead of just understand them.

If you are proud of your home with majenta trim then stick up for it, feel good about it. If others don’t like it, that is their problem.

Grisaille's avatar

@Harp I think that’s a fair question, but context is needed.

For example, if the question read “I was in Mexico recently and saw that most of the houses had trim painted in bright colors. Why is that?” and the details read one of the following:

- I’m curious to know if there is a cultural reason behind this. Perhaps because of the environment provides a lot of inspiration?

or

- I see a lot of houses that have all these colors, and it’s strange. Why do they do that?

…then which one would you consider to be ethnocentric? There is a line here, and obviously it’s constantly shifting.

@JLeslie We wish. :D

dpworkin's avatar

There is nothing inherently offensive about the question, @JLeslie. The fact is, when I encountered the question on Fluther I made my own value judgment about the intent of the OP. I then extrapolated from that judgment a fallible but useful rule of thumb.

Harp's avatar

@Grisaille How would you distinguish between ethnocentricity and racism?

Grisaille's avatar

Good question. In my opinion, racism is deliberate ignorance. Ethnocentricity is generally ignorance coupled with a false sense of superiority. Both perform the same function in an open forum, and both should be considered disdainful.

CMaz's avatar

“In my opinion, racism is deliberate ignorance.”

I will give you ignorance. Deliberate? No

JLeslie's avatar

@Grisaille @Harp I wonder if the real question, or maybe realization is that there is a difference between racism (I will lump being ethnocentric in with it) and making objective observations about various cultures and subcultures. A statistical truth does not make someone a racist I would submit.

Grisaille's avatar

@ChazMaz You pretty much have to go out of you way to remain ignorant on such a socially important topic such as ethnicity and culture, I reckon. Does environment play a factor? Absolutely. But I refuse to submit that a racist person has never heard good things about someone of a different ethnic makeup.

@JLeslie I’m going to respectfully disagree here. Generalizations are always inherently flawed, as no two people are exactly the same. Judging someone based on statistical truths is… well, prejudice. Kinda. That’s a fine line.

Harp's avatar

If I say that I don’t like Hip Hop culture—the music isn’t to my taste, the materialism and advocacy of violence offend me, and the clothing aesthetic just looks ridiculous—I’ve certainly made a value statement. But am I commenting on an ethnicity, a race, a culture, or what?Does this kind of statement have any place in public discourse?

What if I make the same kind of observations about “redneck” culture?

Grisaille's avatar

And lol at the irony of me saying saying generalizations are inherently flawed, yet talking about racist people hearing good things, or whatever.

Moving forward: @Harp

It’s a culture. Absolutely. And we’re running in a vicious circle here. On the same note – does that make everyone who enjoys the hip-hop culture wrong or evil?

for the record, I’m from The Bronx and was raised in the Hip Hop Culture and enjoy it to this day, at least the underground artists. does that change your opinion about me?

Harp's avatar

@Grisaille It was strictly a hypothetical. Honest.

Grisaille's avatar

haha, don’t fret. I don’t take anything personally, even if it was.

Harp's avatar

Racism doesn’t have to involve an assumption of good or evil, really, does it? There’s often the “now don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against blacks. Some of my best friends are blacks” element in the racist mentality.

Grisaille's avatar

@Harp I think you’ve brought up a good point. Perhaps I should elaborate on my theory above: racism is rooted in prejudice, ethnocentrism is ego-based. I think that might work a bit better.

JLeslie's avatar

@Grisaille I agree. Judging someone based on statistical truths is racist/prejudiced all of those things.

What I mean is if something is statistically true for a group, and that behavior seems to be keeping them from their goals let’s say, talking about the disconnect might seem judgmental, but it might be just sharing information. Trying to help them. Maybe the guy who paints his house majenta when no one else has in that area, doesn’t realize that it might hurt property values, his own included (doesn’t apply to the fluther question, because it seemed to be fairly common in that neighborhood). I have talked about teenage pregnancy on fluther, and my point there is not that I am sitting in judgement, I am saying what is your goal if you are part of the groups who have high rates of teenage pregnancy? If your goal is to have a life like mine…college, career, etc., know that having a baby as a teenager will make your process to get these things you want much more difficult. I worry about it more among the subcultures who find teenage pregnancy acceptable, because I think they might be receiving mixed messages or wrong messages. If they are fine with a different life, I am fine with that. And, certainly we see teen pregnancy in all walks of life. But, I am fine with the choice like I am fine with people choosing to be Amish. I am not trying to tell people how they should behave or what they should want, just the reality of their choices. Does it make me a racist to want to inform these people why their thought process migth be hurting them? Like when Oprah says, she just said it again the other day, that she hates when black people say a well spoken black persons sounds white, like it is a race thing or bad thing. Is she a racist against her own people? Or, is she just trying to be informative?

Think about this extreme example: it is culturally accepted in parts of Africa that raping a young girl will rid you of AIDS. I don’t think everyone there believes that, but where this is accepted a lot of people have argued that it is difficult to combat this idea because of cultural taboos. I honestly don’t give a sh#t about their taboos, they are harming themselves and others. I am willing to be sensitive to their culture, but only so far. Does that make me ethnocentric or a racist? It might, I don’t care in that instance.

dpworkin's avatar

Maybe @JLeslie ‘s question could be the basis of a whole new thread: when are we justified interfering with the cultural beliefs of others? Stoning adulterers? Clitoridectomy or infibulation or female circumcision? Airing out mattresses on the balcony?

Harp's avatar

@JLeslie I wonder if a lot of the ambiguity here doesn’t just boil down to a lack of clarity about the criteria we use to define the groups we’re talking about. If we define the group as “negroes” , then clearly we’re making a racial statement. If we’re talking about hip-hop, we may just be talking about a group related only by culture (though that’s not a given). If we talk about Mexicans, we could be referring to people related by nationality or ancestry or culture or language or physical traits. It’s not at all clear without considerable context.

Grisaille's avatar

@pdworkin That’s all shifting sands, in my opinion. Though harming others is pretty concrete. Like forcing passerbys to smell your shitty mattress.

@JLeslie Well, that’s the thing. If a person’s cultural beliefs harm the people in their vicinity, then yes, I believe there is a cause to intervene. I don’t believe that’s ethnocentrism, I think it’s being socially responsible. A great example of this – and I’m sure I’m going to catch hell for saying it – is the burka. Islam teaches that men are not responsible for their sexual urges; if a woman is not covered from head to toe, then she is asking to be raped. The burka apologizes for rape. It condones rape. This is obviously a strong cultural device for those of Islamic faith, but runs counter-active to to our beliefs.

Might I say, great responses from everyone. Great discussion.

JLeslie's avatar

@Harp I guess really the best thing to do is not talk in terms of race or ethnicity, but rather behaviors. My sister-in-law always asks, “who do they mean by Mexican’s?” She grew up in the upper classes of Mexico. American’s are usually generalizing about Mexican’s who are lower income when they are attaching stereotypes. It’s like when I am in England and they use an extreme American southern accent to mimic American’s, and I think, jeees, do they think we all sound like that?

JLeslie's avatar

@Grisaille I am mostly against the burka in America because you must be identifiable. It is not a judgment on their culture. I admit I don’t agree with that idea, that women are asking it for it if they let part of their body show, but that is not why I am against women wearing them in my country. No one should be able to cover their face, not the kkk and burkas. My only conflict with this is subzero weather, I would have a hard time taking away someones ski mask.

Grisaille's avatar

@JLeslie It’s all situational. You could walk into a bank with a ski mask on. You could walk down the street naked. You could wear a KKK uniform walking down the streets of NYC.

Thing is, not for very long.

I’m firmly against the burka. It’s a misogynistic, sexist and loathsome piece of fabric… but I digress.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

another great discussion – let me come back to this after lunch

marinelife's avatar

@Harp Were you being hypothetical about the houses and colors or had you seen this question, which I thought was racist (as well as ignorant)? If it was coincidental, it was extremely ironic.

Harp's avatar

@Marina I was just responding to @pdworkin ‘s comment here

I knew of the Q you’re referring to, but stopped following it after I saw the tone that was developing.

Harp's avatar

@JLeslie Sometimes the ethnicity or culture is relevant to understanding the behavior, though. The question “Why are people in my neighborhood putting up shacks in their back yards? It’s like living next to the Beverly Hillbillies” takes on a whole new meaning with the additional information: “oh, and they’re all Jewish”.

The question is asked out of ignorance, and there may be some racism (or ethnocentricity) mixed in there too, but the “Jewish” piece is necessary to the discussion, and the outcome of the discussion could very well be positive.

marinelife's avatar

@Harp Well, I may be responsible for some of the tone. I haven’t checked back on the thread, but seriously, when a question is stated that way, I think it clearly shows cultural bias at the least and prejudice (cultural or racial) most of the time.

There have been several instances of that recently including one in which the asker said something like I am not being racist, but why are most of the people guilty of driving too timidly Asian or (one other group I can’t remember).

I think when asking a sensitive question in a genuine way intended to foster discussion or acquire knowledge, it is incumbent on the asker to phrase the question vary carefully. I also think questions that generalize about groups of people are dangerous and a slippery slope.

For me, blatant racist or other prejudiced thinking in a public forum cannot go unchallenged. History has shown us the evils of staying silent in the face of unacceptable bias.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I agree that both race and ethnicity are social constructs but as such they have power to people and a real lived meaning because people treat others differently based on these markers – it takes a lot of introspection and knowledge, I think, to start to understand why there are differences between ethnicities and races without thinking they’re inherent…

JLeslie's avatar

@Harp That is why I think it is so important to be able to ask a question, and not have a knee-jerk response of being offended. Your example is very good. Maybe the questioner is being a little ethnocentric in his question, but we have to have faith that he will be understanding when he hears the explanation, or maybe that we will see the questioners point to why it might be a problem. The discussion is important in my opinion. That is how I lean. I think the best response to a question like that is, “thank you for asking.” I would prefer to explain myself than be talked about behind my back and possibly seen as a “foreigner” in my community, rather than sharing my culture.

wundayatta's avatar

Asking “Why do [racial group] do [x]” is a question showing bias, because the language of the question implicitly assumes that all members of that group do X. I suppose you could ask it as “Why does it seem like so many members of [racial group] do [x] much more often than other racial groups do it?” If you offered data to back up this assumption, then we would be talking about matters of fact.

If your question shows bias, then, if you’ve been around for more than a minute, you have to know that people will jump on that assumption and question it and accuse you of bias. On the other hand, if a question does show bias, we don’t have to jump on a person. We don’t have to assume they are a troll. And if we do think it is a troll, it is especially important not to lambaste them, because that’s exactly what they want.

Instead, I think we should calmly point out anything that bothers us, and inquire further as to whether the person really has that bias, or just used an unfortunate choice of words. If they do have a bias, it is still inappropriate to attack them personally, or to consider their comments as inappropriate for fluther. We need to talk about this stuff. Censoring opinions or prejudices just because we don’t like them is not helpful. Even people who hold opinions that are odious to someone else have to feel free and safe to express those opinions, or we all lose out. We are burying our heads in the sand if we do not welcome people who have opinions that are very different from someone else’s most cherished beliefs.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

lloydbird's avatar

I wonder if replacing the word/idea of “race” with the word/idea of “breed” might be of help.

Grisaille's avatar

@lloydbird No way, ever. That implies an idea of sub-humanism and would be almost surely used as a derogatory term.

YARNLADY's avatar

My answer is the same as @daloon first paragraph.

augustlan's avatar

Great question, great discussion!

Just as a side note, I think the reason everyone jumped on the individual that asked the “magenta house trim” question is because every question she had asked had to do with a race/ethnicity and an assumed-negative behavior… including the “timid Asian drivers” question Marina noted above. Four questions like that in short order seems pretty damned suspicious. That individual is no longer among us.

lloydbird's avatar

@Grisaille Are you sure? And in what way “sub-humanism”?

dpworkin's avatar

Because “breeding” is what we do to manipulate domesticated animals to suit our needs. One does not “breed” humans, although during the time of slavery there were breeding metaphors.

lloydbird's avatar

@pdworkin What about “breeding” that we don’t “do”? Breeding that just happens, un-designed. Either as a result of geographic separation/isolation, or culturally motivated ‘dissuasions’?

dpworkin's avatar

What the hell are you talking about? Assortative mating? The “founder“principle? Natural Selection? Breeding is for dogs. We have other names for what happens to the gene pool of human beings.

lloydbird's avatar

@pdworkin But aren’t there different races of dog then? Or cat, or horse and so on? They can each interbreed in their own respective “races” and yet each appear in different forms, can they not?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

ugh, why do people always bring up dog breeds in these discussions – it is not analogous to humans

dpworkin's avatar

Those are strains. They have nothing to do with race. They do serve to demonstrate the marvelous genetic diversity that is possible within one species, but they have nothing to say to us on the subject of race. Maybe it’s time for a little independent study. There are plenty of books on genetics available in most libraries, and there are tutorials on line.

lloydbird's avatar

Hmmn, strains of people….I think it has potential. I must go away and study this and other ideas about race. And return when I am accomplished. Until then I shall leave the discussion to you @pdworkin and those others that you designate to be sufficiently adept at discussion here on this.

Response moderated
lloydbird's avatar

Shame that such an interesting discussion (in no small part due to yourself) should descend to such a shallow posting as your last. You would be helping me out if you could more specifically identify any aggression that I have displayed. Perhaps on a PM, to save further sullying this thread. @pdworkin

dpworkin's avatar

I am so ashamed.

dpworkin's avatar

(The post removed above was a reference to a famous quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Someone is being a little sensitive. The post contained the word “stupidity” but referred to no one in particular.)

JLeslie's avatar

Breed? WTF?! No. The idea of that word conjures up horrible thoughts. During Hitler the Aryan women were encouraged to produce as many Aryan children as possible. There were special homes to house women whose main job was to reproduce. The Muslim fanatics do it now, women are serving the cause by creating more soldiers. Please let’s not use that word associated with humans. Although, the accepted term is breed for a dog, as in what breed is it? I hate it associated with any female animal, like the job of that female is simply to produce.

I know I am kind of confusing to meanings of the word, but I can’t help it.

Grisaille's avatar

If we ever want to successfully progress the human race (note the italicize placement) as one people, one civilized, intelligent species, then we’d do best to stop thinking of ourselves as animals. A certain amount of arrogance is needed here – to think better of ourselves and throw away the notion that we are just animals; we are more than that. Sentient, intelligent creatures, cursed with a level of curiosity and born into this universe without an instruction booklet. Dividing ourselves into “breeds” or “strains” is entirely counter intuitive to what we aim to achieve: peace amongst all people, longer, happier lives and actual steps forward in discovering the true mysteries of the cosmos.

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