Race vs. Culture

Culture is different than race, and yet, the two are often confused.

Warning. I am about to enter politically incorrect territory. Ironically, it may even earn me the accusation, “racist” (which I’m not). But I have a very simple point to make, albeit it one that won’t win me any brownie points in today’s PC society, and one that I have not observed made virtually anywhere, let alone among the regular information sources or media.

Allow me to begin with a practical and personal qualifier.

First, let’s define racism and clarify what we mean by race. A google search turns up this definition of racism: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Race is often (although not always), especially in the United States, considered correlative to a person’s skin color, but the basics of race don’t preclude various differences among peoples of similar pigmentation, such as the historical Franks, Germans or Slavs of Europe, among whom differences in physical appearance were minimal.

At best, the idea of “race” is a loose description of a person’s biological heritage . At worst, race is a pathetically invented and gross distortion of biological heritage, whereby people with various amounts of pigment in their skin are “grouped” in a category of “race.” (I have written on the dangers of collectivism here.)

Race is a meaningless concept to me insofar as it has no impact on any conceptions I have about people. To have pre- or post-conceived ideas about someone, let alone condemn them as inferior, because of their skin color or their biological heritage is—forgive the unprofessional language here—stupid. Period. Still, that genuine racism seems entirely irrational and illogical (not to mention immoral) does not make it any less real, and I don’t intend to pretend otherwise. To do so would require ignoring historical and present (if overstated) realities. Many Nazis truly believed in the superiority of the “Aryan race.” Many Americans in U.S. history really did believe in the inferiority of the “African race.”

But I didn’t come to write a sermon on the topic. And while that is a rather long qualifier that some readers will think I simply put in there for the purpose of remaining politically correct (despite my initial warning), I really don’t mind ensuring that I am not misunderstood. My main point is not compromised.

And we’ll get to that now.

Culture is different than race. Culture is the vast array of traditions, norms and features of a society. And while cultures are vastly nuanced and complex, there are distinct differences between them. Given my own aversions about collectivist thinking, I do not believe that any individual should be viewed first and foremost for any cultural tendencies; this is as irrational and wrong as racism. They are an individual first and foremost.

And so long as we understand that norms and tendencies are laden with exceptions and must be held very loosely, we can still evaluate the aggregate. Cultures differ. It is common in “U.S. culture” (good luck trying to tie that down!) for people to ensure that aging parents are entrusted to an elderly care facility, whereas in “Central and South American cultures”, you will often find extended family, parents and grandparents all living under one roof. Whether this is the product of wealth disparity or other factors are entirely beside the point. I’m not playing anthropologist here, simply making an external observation that helps demonstrate cultural differences.

This is my key point: The problem is that many people confuse culture and race. Many people fail to recognize that a cultural critique is not racist simply because there is a correlation between people of that “race” and people who share that culture. The only way you make that connection is on the assumption that a person’s cultural norms are the result of their biological heritage or race. This has no scientific or logical defense.

How do you jump to the conclusion that a person is racist simply because they take issue with an aspect of a culture different from theirs?

Here’s an example that will get me slandered in politically correct groups. It is a cultural norm in Islam that men have complete political and personal authority. Women are not given legal representation, and in moral matters pertaining to Islam, many men are given the responsibility to stone their wives if there has been any real or alleged infidelity. Many men in Islamic culture are prone to this position of dominance over women (and this is not unique to this culture), a cultural difference that is currently causing cultural clashes in Europe. None of this has anything to do with race. And yet somebody out there is ready with the label “racist”.

But some will recognize my logic and go for “ready-to-use” insult #2: bigot. A bigot is defined as someone who “is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices” (Merriam-Webster). Still, how did you reach that conclusion? I made an observation regarding cultural tendencies in one specific area.

So, if cultural observations are often confused as racist remarks (a logical fallacy), and those who make such observations are often considered racists and/or bigots, then what can we draw from this?

First, prejudice, regardless of the reason, is a tragic and natural tendency of human nature. I’m not digging into the reasons for this here. Nevertheless, I believe adamantly that it is wrong for me (or anyone) to hold prejudice of any kind, whether I exalt myself and degrade others for my gender, my “race”, my intellect, my level of education, my culture, my skin color (or lack of it), et cetera. If I think less of Muslim men generally because of the cultural tendencies from which they come, that is the real issue, not the observation made. I believe equally adamantly that charity and compassion should always describe our view and action toward any individual.

Second, and as I have said before, recognize the individual first. Collectivist thinking is a logical fallacy, and the individual should be recognized for who he or she is, not for his or her biological heritage or their cultural tendencies.

Third, don’t get confused by the tendency to confuse cultural observations as racist remarks. Recognize the skewed reality that is perpetuated around us, sometimes by habit and sometimes deliberately. To call someone racist for a particular commentary on something that is cultural is, in and of itself, an empty argument that merely perpetuates the collectivist thinking that is so problematic in the first place.  It’s a non-argument.

Sadly, there is truth in the words of economist Thomas Sowell: “Some things are believed because they are demonstrably true, but other things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly.”*

*Video link here.





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