Culturalism- an acceptable, more accurate alternative to racism?

It is a clear and self evident fact that racism, that is, to discriminate a person on the basis of the country(or continent) of origin is in this day and age both wrong and grossly inappropriate. It seems to me that most racism is centered around virtually inconsequential physical features such as varying hues of skin, or the shape of skin around the eyes. From these physical differences, a racist believes it is possible to infer a person’s history, way of life, upbringing, intelligence and physical prowess. This is surprising given that the definition of race is pretty much hokum.

Racism is still quite prevalent, even in more developed countries. Undoubtedly a lot of racism is a delineation between in-group and out-group. However I think racism has endured even when in-group and out-group definitions become fuzzier. This is because it acts as a universally understood shorthand of the type of person (or not) that an individual being described is like. So collectively understood, we could say something (forgive the racist examples) like “she’s Asian, so you know what she drives like” or “his name is Nicholas, so you know he’s Greek”.

This kind of understanding may or may not have many real life examples that the person can draw from- and racism is useful only when the person they are talking with has also experienced similar occurrences or at least knows what they are talking about. Whether they are universal truths is not up for debate here, but the usefulness of a racist descriptor when we are consistently bombarded with different races whose group individuals seemingly share similar traits is difficult to ignore.

The backlash against racism since the 60s has been strong, necessary and prevalent. Groups such as the ADL do exceptional and important work. However, outcry for racism is occasionally taken too far, or in a way it is not meant to be. Accusations of racism are common in inter-racial police matters where it is sometimes and sometimes not an actual issue. It can also be used as a weapon, one that academics have found hard to fight against given its inherent taboo. For this discussion, I believe that there are certain claims that are deemed “racist” but which can be better described as “culturalist” and as a result may still have a place in the emerging world.

I believe that culturalism can be an effective shorthand descriptor of individuals, as well as a legitimately acceptable type of communication without invoking race. Indeed this is already manifest in a few forms, such as the classification of generations like the baby boomers or a complex designation such as WASP; both of these examples have traits indicative of their behavior and custom.

The trick is, I believe, is to keep the cultural classifications alive while doing away with the racial markers. There are several advantages as to why this is beneficial and acceptable. Firstly, defining someone by their culture and their adherence to that culture is a really good way of quickly defining what sort of person they are in shorthand. You can’t really do away with it if you want to get multiple points across, and you can’t call upon racial traits because they are both abhorrent and wrong.

Secondly, cultural trends are a choice, not something that a person has no way of escaping, and this makes it acceptable to discuss it in whatever connotations you want to discuss it in. This works in the same way as critiquing someone’s love of peas, or their political affiliations, or answer for a mathematics question. Of course you may choose to keep your views private, or even share those views, but the point of the matter is is that it is not illegal or racist to possess counter views. Whether there is potential for meaningful criticism is up to debate, but one could say that one culture is “better” than another for particular goals. For example, if one culture promotes family bonds and another promotes individuality, then you can easily say that the former will produce more independent people. I think it is acceptable to say something like I personally prize science, as a result I will favor western rational cultures moreso than cultures that support hero worship or are strongly religious.

Another advantage of culturalism is that it will tend to be more accurate. A common racial slur in Australia is the term “Wog”. The etymology of the word is interesting, but it has come to define individuals of middle eastern descent who drive modified sports cars and adopt different language terms (such as “bro”,”cuz” and the eponymous “fully sik”). Now while this is technically a racial slur, it seems unfair to both people from the middle east as well as modified car driving enthusiasts (who are not from the middle east) that are involved/not involved in this slur. I know many non-middle easterners who could be termed to behave “Woggy” in the same way I know many middle easterners who would not be. We can see here that cultures are easier barriers to break than racial ones, and that they also encapsulate objective social truths better too (and I dare say better than any alternative descriptive methods). Chris Rock points out the dichotomy between race and culture, as well as pointing out how a supposed racial slur is really a cultural one:

So I think (unless someone can correct me) that culturalism is acceptable, accurate, useful and allows us to be open to criticism.There are fringe benefits when this is taken large scale. Firstly,it is far less upsetting to be criticized about one’s culture as opposed to race, due in part to the fact it can be changed, and that you will personally know its foibles and be able to change your stance if you so desire. Secondly, the illusions of patriotism go down very quickly when racism is completely replaced by culturalism. Not only does everyone have cultural groups that will be recognised as such by everyone, but it makes it easier for people to get along when they don’t believe that their particular country doesn’t have a god given right to exterminate another particular country, and that differences between individuals are malleable and not all that dramatic.

I’m not saying discrimination is a good thing- it is not. What I am saying is that we should be allowed to use culturalism shorthand, retain our sense of identity, have some fun with it, and remove ourselves from the painfully rigid and dangerous forms of patriotism and racism. What do you think?

Update:

recently seen this video on youtube. While the whole discussion isn’t really about “culturalism”, Dennis Prager points out his definition of the term “Islamophobia” as a way in which to comment on a cultural phenomenon as opposed to a peoples.

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~ by freeze43 on June 1, 2012.

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