Notes on Race and Culture 1-16

1. Racism is the belief that bio-genetic-physiological races exist as natural categories, defined by biological-genetic traits (and these correspond to typically defined races) and that there are relatively superior and inferior races. This is a wrong belief, both empirically and morally.

2. Culturalism is the belief that relatively distinct cultures exist as socio-historical entities, and that there are relatively superior and inferior cultures. Culturalism is often confused with racism (even by racists).

3. It is, however, not at all clear how “relatively distinct” these cultures actually are. There are discernible cultural practices and beliefs, certainly, and relatively demarcate-able groups that conduct these practices and hold these beliefs. But no sufficient nor necessary conditions for belonging to any particular culture seem to emerge. Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances” (a critical mass of a set of identifying characteristics) seems useful here to make any (never absolute) distinctions between cultures.

4. This issue notwithstanding, it is, for me, impossible to conceive of a social system that does not depend on some form of culturalism. Even the basic degree of social cohesion and agreement that most people accept as necessary for a functioning society requires a shared understanding of accepted cultural norms; this becomes more critical as a global society emerges. At the very least, a collective value judgement is being made, if not only hypothetically. There is an inevitable demarcation made between good and bad behaviours. Cultures that promote the good behaviours are better than those that perpetuate the bad ones.

5. Most cultural phenomena, however, are arbitrary. This is not to say that they don’t serve concrete functions (and certainly not to say that they don’t have value), but merely that a possibly innumerable set of different cultural practices could serve the same function equally well. Take dance as a case in point. Or perhaps language is the best example. The notion that one language (or form of dance) is inherently superior to all others is specious culturalism.

6. Most racists are specious culturalists and vice versa.

7. However, it seems to be the case that at least some cultural phenomena serve certain societal functions better than others. Social cohesion or social order, for example, can be enacted in ways that are more or less oppressive. But even in this case, there are probably a set of equally functional options (and thus no particular set of cultural practices can lay claim to superiority). The specific logistics of democratic governance, for example, can be arranged in more than one unique way (and probably require variation based on a set of other social and historical circumstances and contexts). But this set (e.g. the set of democratic political systems) is limited enough that it is not fully arbitrary. 

8. But racists imagine that these cultural phenomena emerge from natural racial characteristics, instead of understanding them as socially and historically contingent. Which is to say, whatever bio-genetic-physiological human characteristics exist (which do not correspond in any way to existing racialization), these do not lead to inherently superior cultures. Moreover, any existing racialized group could have, under different socio-historical conditions, happened upon the cultural norms we deem as (universally) beneficial.

9. The uncomfortable conclusion of such reasoning, however, is that certain cultural phenomena (e.g. traditions, institutions, class-structures, political arrangements) are preferable to others. But, assuming that human beings can collectively deliberate on ideal societies, this appears to be the case. The contention is less provocative when one considers the issue on an intra-cultural level. Support for and opposition to some cultural practice regularly emerge from within a relatively distinct cultural group – the history of legislative decisions in a particular culture provides a long list of examples. Specific attributes of “Western culture” are regularly contested by those belonging to this culture.

10. This is to simply say that once we abandon the inherentism of conceptions of race it becomes clear that cultures are not inevitable, nor homogenous, nor static. Cultures are actively built and contested, not merely adhered to. The logic of “respecting” a particular cultural phenomena in virtue of it happening to be an existing cultural phenomena is tautologous and vacuous.

11. The only promise, I believe, for movement towards an ideal human society – one that maximises human health, happiness, freedom, social cohesion and minimises suffering, desperation, and oppression – is the abandonment of sectarian cultural allegiances and movement towards an increasingly inclusive conception of human culture. Then, deliberations on ideals of human existence can proceed.

12. This doesn’t mean “escaping” the context, situated-ness, and constructed-ness of culture to find some non-cultural point of view. There is no escaping culture or history or society. My own thoughts, these arguments that I put forth, emerge out of a particular time and place, and culture. I write in a particular way, I reason in a particular way. These are not timeless, nor uniquely optimal. It can be debated whether they function well or not.

13. Many people seem to get caught up on this point, as if it leads to a paradox, or some insurmountable relativism. Culture is constructed. That’s the point; it can be made how we see fit. It is not autonomous; it doesn’t inherently deserve acquiescence or deference.

14. To be able to propose these deliberations is the consequence of privilege. This privilege is begat by the broad set of social, political, economic – in other words, cultural – conditions in which I find myself. Privilege of affluence, that I am able to deliberate about ideals and not merely subsist and contend with the exigencies of basic human survival. Privilege of education. And so forth. But again, this merely reinforces the point I wish to make; these are the kinds of cultural conditions are those to which all of humanity should have access. These conditions are not inherent to any particular group. No one deserves them, through fate, and no individual earns them through solely their own volition.

15. The other consequence is that an increasingly inclusive conception of human culture will mean, in the short term, a loss of privilege for certain cultures whose privilege is guaranteed by various forms of cultural exclusion.

16. To be able to reflect upon, contest, and reject your own culture – especially those that confer privilege – is itself an achievement of cultural privilege. It is a privilege that should be conferred on everyone.


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