Criticism of Culture is Not Racism

Culture provides concepts and methods for interpreting the world and for sharing those interpretations with others in order that others may benefit from interpretations, to develop a shared meaning about things in the world and relationships, and organize projects to improve the human conditions.

There are plainly different cultures, each providing different concepts and methods and interactional rituals. Some cultures allow for free play in developing explanations and understandings of the world. They allow for, and may even privilege, science, for example. Other cultures are rigid, tightly controlling the parameters of knowledge production and transmission. They may put irrational modes of knowing, like religion, in charge of explaining and understanding the world.

A woman removes a Niqab she was wearing in her village after Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of it, on the outskirts of Manbij city, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016. (Reuters)

Some say that all cultures are equal, that there is no way of determining which are superior and which are inferior. But if we use science to evaluate the efficacy of a culture in terms of the state of health and wellbeing for persons existing under its control, we will see that this is a false claim. If people are poor and unfree, and this is not solely because of external forces, then the culture may not be adequate to human needs and may therefore be fairly judge inferior to other cultures. For example, if a culture teaches people that disease is caused by witches, then those living in this culture will be disadvantaged compared to people whose culture understands that witches are not among factors causing disease.

There is a discourse that holds that identifying superior and inferior culture is a form of racism. Why is it racist to say that a culture is inferior for hampering the development and freedom of people, a conclusion that can be reached using a range of facts, scientific and humanist? For example, we reject patriarchal culture in our own societies in the west on the grounds that it limits the development and freedom of women. How could this become racist applied to other societies? Isn’t the oppression of women wrong everywhere? Is feminism conditional, reigned in by cultural considerations?

Racism is discriminating against people on the basis of their race, a false belief that imagines biological or constitutional differences between groups of people categorized by shared but superficial phenotypic characteristic and ancestry. Ironically, the claim that culture comes from race and that cultures are different because people are biologically different is a hallmark of racist ideology. Culture is not a projection of race. Race doesn’t exist.

Criticism of culture as a social force does not fit the definition of racism. Expanding the definition of racism to encompass cultural differences is the work of conceptual inflation. It is also a political ideology that functions to stifle cultural criticism and arguments concerning the adequacy of cultural forms to human thriving. Unfortunately the demand that cultures (and moral systems) must be taken on their own terms lest one be accused of racism is quite common in the universities and in corporate media.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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