On Race and Culture

1. Racism is the belief that races exist as natural categories, defined by biological-genetic-physiological (i.e. inherent) 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.

5. Addendum. Perhaps there are really two levels of arbitrariness here. First, even if we can plausibly outline a general set of “cross-cultural” values or goals worth pursuing, the specific set of cultural practices that will function to promote or achieve these will be diverse, and choosing between them somewhat arbitrary. Second, it could be that the arbitrariness emerges from the fact that values are arbitrary. All kinds of cultural norms (e.g. specific manners, customs, traditions) are valued deeply, but might be inconsequential (i.e. the value emerges not because of their function in actually promoting some broad level societal goal, but merely for their own sake). This second point, I suppose, is a point for cultural relativism of certain kinds of things.

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). Given that you care about something like democracy (a rather large assumption), it seems that the possible set of cultures that promote democratic political systems can be demarcated in some limiting way that it is not fully arbitrary. This, I suppose, is a point against cultural relativism for certain kinds of things.

8. Racists (who are also specious culturalists) imagine that cultural phenomena emerge from natural racial characteristics, instead of understanding them as socially and historically contingent. The latter is to say that, whatever bio-genetic-physiological human characteristics exist (which, in any case, 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 cultural norms deemed (universally) beneficial or valuable.

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.


17. I suspect that white supremacy emerges not merely from the belief that the “white race” (whatever that means) is inherently superior to others, and thus the dominance of cultural whiteness is legitimated by this natural superiority (which even if it were true, is as a dubious an ethics of power as one could imagine), but also from the subconscious anxiety that the “white race” is not superior at all, and that other “races” are just as good, or more importantly, (potentially) just as bad.

18. In this light the “dominant race” myth becomes a way of assuaging the guilt of perpetuating an obviously immoral race-based class system. If we are to grant a natural truth of the matter (which is admittedly, probably a stretch) it is that all human cultures will organise into a system of dominance and subordination. White supremacy, then, is the ethics of “better you than me.” The perpetual need to assert dominance stems from the fear that roles could very well be reversed. If this is indeed the case, it seems to beget a self-fulfilling prophecy of the (apparently) inherent human need to dominate, as when power roles do begin to shift, the previously dominated will be less inclined, motivated by resentment as they will be, to consider a system of equitable power and mutual self-determination.


19. A key distinction that is often forgotten even when combatting racism is that between racial groups and racialized groups. In the senses often imagined by racists – inherent biological, genetic, natural attributes – race does not exist. There exists only racialization.

20. A crucial point here is that this also applies to dominant and oppressive cultures. Just as there is no “black race,” there is no “white race.” Racial whiteness is a self-imposed racialization, one that confers privilege rather than disenfranchisement.

21. This leads to complicated consequences regarding cultural belonging, privilege, and ultimately, individual responsibility.

22. White privilege is conferred on individuals that do not actively pursue it, and who reject it, at least morally and conceptually. White people are just as much a product of social and historical circumstance as any other human, except that the structures and systems that shape and determine their existence confers benefit, whereas for others it confers disenfranchisement.

23. The crucial question here: What kind of individual responsibility is demanded by these social structures?

24. It is unsurprising that most white people do not recognise their own privilege: this is how thorough-going the privilege is. The irony is that their privilege is marked by a personal moral deficiency: ignorance (or at least a form of psychological denial) of their own privilege. But hat deficiency is a consequence of the structures and systems begetting that privilege.

25. A system that begets privilege of which its beneficiaries are unaware is more thoroughly privileging than one that might lead to awareness, and hence moral conundrums about said privilege. Thus, questions of blame and responsibility become less clear than we might wish. Ignorant white privilege is a product of the system. It is a structural problem.

26. Of course, reflexivity about privilege is clearly possible, and when this emerges, so do a host of moral responsibilities. But what is entirely unclear is what moral expectation we can have on members of privileged cultural groups, who are structurally determined to be ignorant of their privilege, to become reflexive. Arguably, reflexivity is also a product of privilege: resources, education, leisure, exposure to cultural traditions that encourage certain kinds of moral thinking. But it is unclear why privilege leads to reflexivity in some, and ignorance and obstinance in others.

27. Questions of power are surely crucial here.

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