Culture vs. Race: Why so much confusion?

by Devin

In the Beginning

When I entered first grade in Greenville, South Carolina, it was the first year of the newly mandated school integration. My class at Sara Collins Elementary School suddenly went from around 30 students to 40. I was six years old.

My new class now had a proportionate component of black children and because the class size was so big, we also had an extra teacher, who was black.

I was a wide-eyed little boy who had no concept of racism in spite of my short life having been spent entirely in the South. My mother had always had a maid who came once or twice a week to help out with the laundry and a few other house chores. She was black. Her name was Mamie. My siblings and I felt like she was practically a member of our family. Mamie retired before I finished elementary school and her sister, Violet, came to work for us until she retired, sometime after I had graduated from high school. We loved Violet. She always had a cheerful attitude and worked diligently all day long when she was at our house. Whenever we would walk in from school in the afternoon, she would say, “How you be doin’ by this hour?!” and we would reply that we were doing fine and ask her how she was doing? She would always reply by saying, “Oh, pretty good for an old cripple woman!”

I don’t honestly know why she said that. Other than being overweight, she never seemed to be physically handicapped in any way to me. But I think it was just her way of humbly saying that no obstacle was too difficult for her to overcome. Violet was a strong and faithful Christian with a strong sense of Christian values. She was a gem. Violet passed way many years ago having lived a long and joyful life. I have no doubt that she is in heaven with God and having a glorious eternal life in paradise. For that, I am truly grateful.

My parents taught me from a very early age that there is no difference between black or white, or yellow or red for that matter. That all people are “created equal.” As a young child, that made perfect sense to me. Children have a pretty good bullshit detector and if things don’t add up, they can tell. My parents were, of course, absolutely right.

As I got older and progressed through elementary school I got to know some of the black kids in my classes. I never once had a negative opinion of even one of them. When I got to middle school, I began to discover that some black kids had a sensitivity to their skin color. This was new to me. I did not understand it. By the time I reached high school, I began to notice that outside of athletics, few black kids were socially integrated with the white kids. A few of them definitely were. I remember occasionally seeing some of them at parties and, of course, they came to school functions like the prom and homecoming, etc., just like everyone else. Quite a few of my former black classmates regularly attend our class reunions. But most of them drifted away from the white social circles.

I can only surmise that as they grew older they were being influenced by external sources and those influences made them feel less comfortable around white people. I don’t know. All I know with certainty is that I never saw even once during my grade school years a white student treat a black student any differently than another white student. Never.

When I reached college I began to hear people talking about the prevalence of racism in the South and I was surprised. I really had no idea that racism still existed. I certainly knew that it had in previous generations. There were no secrets about this, but I genuinely thought it was a thing of the past. I thought to myself, what are people talking about?

Fast forward to the present.

Now days it seems, if you believe the media, if you believe black leaders, racism is rampant in the United States. Why is that?

Well, I firmly believe that history has demonstrated beyond any doubt that where there is an advantage to be gained by anyone through the promotion of discord between any two or more groups of people, then someone will surely step in to exploit it. This is a universal truth that exists external to any human ethnicity; from the Ku Klux Klan (started and dominated by Democrats in the South) to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton; from the Nazis in Germany and their persecution of Jews to the Japanese and their hatred of the Chinese in the first half of the 20th Century. It happens all over the world and this has been so since the dawn of human history.


Let’s take a look at the facts for just a moment. We now know that there are some incredibly bright people among every skin color on the planet. We now know that there are some incredibly stupid people among every skin color on the planet. We know that evil presents itself in people of every skin color on the planet. No race has a monopoly on either perfection or failure in terms of personal character.

With these facts, these premises, we can conclude that the statement “all men were created equal” (translated as equals in that no king, no dictator, no president, no rich person, no poor person has superior value as a human being to any other human being) is factually true. It is undisputable. The Founders of the United States of America knew this and enshrined it in the Preamble to the United States Constitution. That said, all of us are fallible. All of us. Every single human being on this planet is fallible (yes, even the Pope) and not long after learning to think and communicate we begin to make mistakes.

Why does racism exist?

Let’s examine a phenomenon that has been widely observed in the United States. When integration of public schools was implemented back in the late 1960s, that was a period of time in US history when blacks and whites were the most proportionately represented in public schools. It was true then, as now, that there were all white neighborhoods and all black neighborhoods, but students were bussed, if necessary, to schools outside of their district in order to ensure all schools had a black to white student ratio that matched their representation in the community at large. In the South, this was somewhere in the ballpark of around 20/80.

So what do we see now in terms of black to white student ratios in public schools in the South? We see that over time, schools have slowly, but surely, resegregated. Why is this?

Culture vs. Race

Let’s take a moment to step away from the discussion of skin color and talk about culture. What exactly is “culture?” A brief search online for the word will return an abundance of definitions, but one that seems particularly well suited to this discussion is as follows:

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

If you’ve read this far you probably already had a pretty good understanding of what a culture is. You probably also know that you have a culture of your own. It is the culture in which you were raised, or possibly adopted as a young adult. Culture is something that becomes ingrained in humans and becomes a part of who they are. Few people change their culture late in life, but some do and it is entirely possible. You simply have to make up your mind to do it.

Now ask yourself, why has there been such a strong effort over the last few decades to celebrate cultural diversity? If living among multiple cultures was an easy thing to do, then it follows that there would be no need for such a campaign. Another, more direct question: why is it that cultural groups tend to remain groups, rather than simply dissolving into each other until there are no cultural groups? I think the answer is obvious. People feel more comfortable around other people who accept the same “behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols” as they themselves. This is an undeniable fact. I have observed many times people who come from one culture who have moved to a new city or state leaving their own culture behind. Almost as often, I have seen those same people adopt the local culture in order to fit in.

Now let’s focus again on the last part of our culture definition above. Culture is “passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.” Your culture comes from how you are raised from birth, or shortly thereafter. If you are white and raised in a white home, and your parents and grandparents have a culture they inherited from their ancestors, then you will also have that same culture, which becomes part of your basic nature. If you are black and are raised in a black home, and your parents and grandparents have a culture they inherited from their ancestors, then you will also have that same culture, and it will become a part of your basic nature. Obviously, cultures change over time, with each generation leaving its own mark. No one would argue that American culture today is the same as it was in 1776!

If you are old enough to be interested in reading this article, then you surely have witnessed situations where people of one race have completely integrated culturally with people of a different race. I have witnessed black people chastising other black people for being “white” or even just being “too white.” Of course, what they mean is that the black person on the receiving end of their criticism has adopted some form of white culture. As you can see and probably already know, culture and race are so closely associated by people that rarely does anyone make a distinction. And certainly the race baiters never do.

And this, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road. When you observe someone who is discriminating against another person of a different race, it is far, far more likely not because of their race, but because of their culture. Let me say this again in a different way. People are far more inclined to associate with those who share a similar culture, and conversely, they are far more inclined to not associate with those of a different culture. People self-segregate based on culture, not race, but because culture is not nearly as visible as skin color and because culture is so often tied to skin color, people naturally assume such self-segregation is based on race, not culture. And it is a fact that no race is immune to this tendency.

Let me take this a step further. Every single human being on the planet who has any friends at all has used some form of discrimination to determine who they will accept into their inner circle of friends and who they will exclude. This includes people of identical color and culture! Human nature is imminently pre-disposed to discerning which personality characteristics in other humans are attractive to them and which ones are not. This is a fact. If it were not, then all it would take to be in someone’s inner circle of friends is to be from the same culture! That means that you and I might have thousands, if not millions of friends in our inner circle! That is obviously not the case.

Each and every human being practices discrimination in the process of deciding with whom they will associate. We generally prioritize our relationships starting with our best friend, then our close friends, then our not-so-close friends, then members of our socioeconomic class, then those who share our political views, then other members of our culture, then acquaintances, then maybe our neighbors, our community, our region, our country, and finally, the world. Everyone does this. Everyone. We have to. We cannot be close friends with everyone in the world! And some people within our own culture, oftentimes within our own family, are not only not close friends, but sometimes even downright repulsive to us. None of this is racism.

Cultural Relativism

With the rise of anthropology as a scientific discipline in modern times, has come the concept of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the belief that no culture is superior or inferior to any other culture. This is an important concept and a very useful tool if you are an anthropologist because it helps you as an observer not to make judgments about any particular culture you may be studying. The removal of judgment helps the anthropologist to minimize bias when observing cultures other than his or her own.

Relativism vs. Absolutism

There are those who argue that there are no absolutes. Everything is relative. “It depends on how you look at it” is a common refrain. But this idea can very easily be put to rest by this simple logic: If someone says, “there are no absolutes,” then they have just disproven themselves by stating an absolute.

Cultural relativism is a very recent and modern theoretical construct. Throughout history, humans have always been cultural absolutists. And for good reason. Some cultures truly are inferior to others! So while all humans are created (as) equal(s), all cultures most definitely are not.

That’s right! It’s true. Now before you go and start hyperventilating about what I’ve just said, let me just say that every culture is flawed. They are all flawed because they are devised by humans, who by their very nature are flawed. Anyone who would believe his own culture is perfect is only fooling himself. And if you believe that some other culture than your own is superior to your own, then you are free to adopt that culture which you believe is superior.

How do we know some cultures are superior to others?

To start this discussion, let me point out (and I hope you agree) that there must first be some generally agreed upon criteria that define what a superior culture looks like. Now, if you merely agree with this, then you have also just acknowledged that it is possible to rank cultures by degrees of superiority and inferiority. If you don’t agree with this, then read no further. You are either too young or too unreasonable to understand what I am saying.

If, more likely, you take issue with exactly what those criteria are and then say that no one has the authority to decide them, then I would ask you, do you believe that a culture that has being nice to others as one of its values (think Canada) is superior to a culture where being cruel to others is one of its values (think Islamic State)? If you say yes to this, then you are a normal, rational human being and you would be correct. If you say no, and I am certain there are those among us who would (if for no other reason than to be contrarian), then you fall into a very tiny minority of people who are willing to try and twist themselves into a pretzel to find a way to avoid what most of us instinctively know to be the truth. If this is you, then ask yourself, would you prefer to live in Canada or in the Islamic State? No need to tell me your answer.

This is a critical point. The fact cannot be overstated that while you have no control over what color your skin is or into which culture you are born, you and you alone ultimately have total control over choosing whether to remain within it or leave it behind and change to another. Sure, if you happen to live in a jungle in South America where you have never observed any other culture but your own, then maybe adopting a new culture is not available to you, but in such a case, it wouldn’t be necessary and quite likely would be fatal if you did.

Why is this a critical point? Because if you find yourself on the receiving end of what you believe to be racism, it is almost a sure thing that if you were to adopt the culture of the person or people you believe is or are engaging in this racism, then you will, practically always, find yourself no longer on the receiving end of it. I say “practically always” because I recognize that true racism, unfortunately, does exist in the world. Fortunately, it only exists among a very small percentage of the cultures in developed countries. In undeveloped countries, it may be more prevalent, but those countries are not at issue and they are usually home to an extremely poor and uneducated populace (think India). And even in those countries, you are likely to find many people who are not racist.

As a born and raised Southern white male, I observed first hand black people who adopted Southern white culture and were completely accepted into Southern white social circles. Think Herman Cain. If Southern white culture were truly racist at its core, then such a thing would not be possible. And let me further state that in a nation where black people make up a very small overall minority, we citizens of America still elected a black man as our President, twice. How was this possible? I will tell you. Because in the words of the esteemed former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he is an African-American “with no negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” In other words, as a black man, he has adopted enough of white American culture to be accepted by enough white people to get elected. If you are still not convinced, then how far do you think a white man who had adopted black inner-city street culture would get in a bid for the White House? Case closed.

Culture vs. Racism: Conclusion

I probably don’t need to say anymore about this, but just to be sure and to provide a clear statement regarding the whole point of this article, here goes. Racism, although it does exist on this planet as it always has and always will, is by far the exception rather than the rule. Culturalism (meaning discrimination on the basis of one’s culture) is by far the most common explanation for what many believe to be examples of racism. Racism is despicable and evil at its core because people are unable to choose the color of their skin. Culturalism is an absolutely necessary part of civilization. Without it, all cultures would resolve to the lowest common denominator. And finally, every single human being on this planet practices discrimination simply by choosing with whom they will accept into their inner circle of friends. Even you.

So the next time you see someone playing the race card, be suspicious. Most likely, it’s not.

And if you still have doubts, watch this video:

This post was updated on June 22, 2016 to add the YouTube video link.