We White People Think White Culture Is Cultureless – My Daughter Leni Looks For Hers In An Essay Assignment

23 Oct

This is a kind of culture, too, right? little sister, Darla, (left), Leni, essay author, (right)

This is a kind of culture, too, right? little sister, Darla, (left), Leni, essay author, (right)

I was glad when my daughter Leni told me that her 10th grade English teacher gave her class an assignment to write an essay, titled “My Cultural Identity.” I’ve heard white people say many times that they feel like they don’t have a culture. That to be white is to be bland,to be a white American is boring. That to be anything else but a white American is more interesting–that people born in other parts of the world, who come from people with a more ancient history, have richer traditions, foods, and manner of dress.  I’ve been guilty of this myself. White people sometimes use words like “exotic,” “intriguing,” and “fascinating” when describing cultures different from theirs, and can have a difficult time defining their own culture or even believing that they have one. I’m told this “othering” of people of color is typical when one is a member of a dominant group.

I know that the color of one’s skin doesn’t  define one’s culture, and that ethnicity is only one element of culture, though again I’ll admit that growing up I thought that was the main element of it.  I know the concepts of race and culture get mixed up a lot by people, too, so I reached out to my scholarly friend, Diana Fox, Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at Bridgewater State University and asked her to give me her definitions of both culture and race. Here’s what she had to say:
“Culture refers to learned behavior and customs underpinned by norms, and reflective of belief systems, values and symbols. It consists of cognitive features (beliefs, norms and values) and tangible/observable ones (behaviors, material culture, symbols). Culture is not homogeneous, it’s often contradictory (behaviors can contradict values, for ex) and it is emergent, not static.

“Race refers to social and cultural notions of how human physical and biological distinctions organize people into groups. The terms and characteristics of racial groups vary cross-culturally. (There is more genetic variation within so called races than between them). The American Anthropological Association has a statement on race that says it best: “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes.”

Diana’s explained the following to me before, but I always have to hear something more than a few times for it to sink in. I asked Diana to explain more about the fact that race is a social construct, something made up.

Diana replied, “Yes–the racial categorizations we are familiar with are the product of the slave trade and western colonialism that drew from social Darwinist and cultural evolutionary models that are ideological, and rooted in theories of cultural evolution that erroneously tied race to culture. We are still undoing this damage. So called racial characteristics–Skin color, hair texture, nose shape, ear size, etc. do not correlate with discrete racial groups that correlate to specific genes.” She continued, “It is random to choose certain characteristics over others to group people–why not choose length of second toe, or straight or crooked teeth, or high foreheads vs. low foreheads? Racial categories have real implications because they are sociological categories that have shaped peoples’ access to resources, opportunities, treatment, etc. In slavery days people were ranked from savage to civilized according to whether they were mulatto, quadroon, octamaroon or “pure white” etc.—1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and different terms like “high yellow” were used as racial categories. By the way, 25% of so-called Caucasians in the US have at least 1 black ancestor and 75% of so-called “negroids” have at least 1 white ancestor.”

“The ‘one drop rule’ illustrates the social and cultural values attributed to race: if someone had any indication of any African ancestry, they were not white. Someone like Sophia (Diana’s daughter) who shared 50% of her father’s genes and 50% of mine, for years would’ve been considered part of the “negroid race” until the category “biracial” was created.”

“It’s no accident people confuse culture with race, assuming that “races” behave in certain ways and share certain values, beliefs, intelligence, propensity toward crime, etc. This is a direct result of 19th century theories that connected behavioral characteristics with race and is completely fabricated and based on assumptions and prejudices. If people who share culture happen to look similar it’s because of socialization and acculturation processes (learning and being taught to be members of a society and culture). Culture is not inherited. So the term “black music” for example, indicates a history and tradition of sharing and creating musical styles of a population, but just because someone has brown skin doesn’t mean they were born with the ability to play, enjoy or create “black music”.”

Getting at the heart of race as a social construct, Diana finished by saying, “Basically “races” don’t exist genetically. Anthropologists prefer the term “population clines” which refers to gradual changes of a feature in a species over a geographical area, often as a result of environmental heterogeneity. So this is why people of African descent have a sickle cell gene–it’s not a racial characteristic, it’s a population cline characteristic.”

Thank you, Diana, for sharing your knowledge on race and culture, and now here is my daughter Leni’s essay.

 My Cultural Identity

by Leni Warlick

My cultural identity is not something that I think about or incorporate in my every day life.  I am kind of lazy about it.  My family does not practice our Jewish religion every weekend by having big family dinners and going to temple every Sunday.  We don’t have a million different family traditions or dishes that we eat only on special occasions. We are relaxed with our culture and love to focus on the present time we have with each other.

My ethnic background is Scots Irish, Russian, Hungarian, and we are card carrying Native Americans.  I am proud of my Cherokee heritage, but we haven’t embraced or celebrated it as far as going to pow-wows when I was younger.  The reason my family hasn’t  kept close to our roots is because we don’t have any more foreign family members or any members living in a different country.  Our only secret family recipe is for Snickerdoodle cookies, and we still keep those cookies as a tradition in my dad’s family to be made when asked.

I have grown up in cities my whole life, so if something were to not be walking distance from my home, I would get a little annoyed and think a fifteen minute car ride was basically equivalent to an hour.  I am from Manhattan, New York, so I was raised to walk anywhere and everywhere, or take public transportation. I have grown up more independent by living in cities. I don’t depend on my parents to take me everywhere unless necessary.  Also it toughens me up a bit. I’m not scared of any random stranger on the street or going out at nighttime, but I know how to take care of myself.

My family raised me with values. Ever since I can remember I have been told to give back to the less fortunate and to always help others. My grandpa taught my mom and her sisters the importance of giving back and my mom has taught me. When we lived in New York, my mom started an organization that helps homeless and mentally ill people get back on their feet with art therapy. They could sell the art or anything to get them away from what they were struggling with. That has been a huge influence on how I have grown up. I have learned to give back, be appreciative and to not do anything I don’t want to do. Those are the most important things I have learned from my family.

My cultural identity is built on my family teaching me how to be the best self I can be and to always appreciate your values. I am being raised to be independent and focus on my present self. To me, family is the most important thing I have to learn from for the future. My culture is spending time with my family, laughing and learning together, sprinkled with our little family traditions.


I have to say I was inspired by Leni’s search for her cultural identity, which I believe was prompted by her teacher to look at culture as something much broader than just ethnicity and religion.  Looks like I’ll have to do some digging of my own to further define my cultural identity, but now I know it wouldn’t be wrong to say my culture somehow includes Michael Jackson.  How about you?  Can you share something about your own cultural identity with our readers here?



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