Society, Culture, and Communities
With virtually no exceptions,
people live in societies. Societies
shape and constrain individual lives, options, even thoughts and
beliefs. Society can be
thought of as a set of roles waiting to be occupied, with various rules
of behaviour associated with those roles, and forces designed to push
people into them. A social
system or an institution is a subset of society, but it does the same
thing-- sets out roles, rules of behaviour, and sorts and keeps people
in them-- or out of them.
Systems of social organization
exist to fill some human needs. For
example, consider the economy. It
fulfills human needs for food, clothing, and material goods generally.
To do this it assigns people roles-- worker, manager, owner--
according to certain rules. The
people in the roles must act in certain way (workers have to obey
orders, managers give them, owners… own).
The roles in the economy put
some people in power over others. That
is, the economy divides people into groups with differing interests
(people with power want to keep and extend it, groups without power want
to resist and win power). If
you're on the side of people without power, you're trying to reorganize
society to meet human needs without putting some people in positions of
power over others-- or at the very least, to limit these hierarchies as
much as possible.
The book Liberating
Theory discusses this in more detail.
There, the authors describe how the human needs to socialize
children, have sex, and mediate relations between young and old is met
by a sexist role structure that elevates men over women and
heterosexuals over homosexuals; how the human need to reconcile
differences is met by an authoritarian role structure that concentrates
power in a few hands and leaves the rest at their mercy; and how the
human need for identity is met by a racist role structure that elevates
dominant groups and cultures over subordinate ones.
Moreover, the authors discuss how these four systems of
oppression (the three above and the economy) are linked, and how
advances against one can be unmade by regression in the others.
Fitting racism as a social system into this framework, explaining
how that system works, and developing visions for a decolonized, non-
(or at least anti-) racist society is the purpose of this work.
The authors of that book think
that culture is about identity, and it is.
But identity forms around any kind of group membership.
A person can have an identity as a parent, a child, a young
person, a man, a woman, gay, and so on.
Culture is at least as much about communication as it is about
identity. Colonization is
about leaving people out of communication, communicating about them, and
forcing them to communicate in the language of the colonizer.
Cultural genocide is about destroying a group's existence as a
group and its means of communication and forcing its members to use the
colonizer's channels of communication, even to talk to each other.
This was the purpose of the residential schools which destroyed
the lives of native children, of the deliberate separation of slaves
from their families and language-groups.
What the authors of Liberating
Theory do that is useful is set out the concepts they are going to
use very carefully, and try to build their analysis based on those
concepts. I'm going to try
to do that here, as well. I'll
offer definitions of the concepts that I need to use to talk about
racism. The definitions I
offer will be familiar sometimes, but might also be different from what
readers are used to. If
that is the case, I ask that you make a note of it and continue.
The concepts and definitions were chosen as they are specifically
because I'm trying to get as far as I can into what racism is, what its
roots are, and how it might be dismantled.
Those are the goals. I
invite you, however, to be critical of the effort.
If you find this way of analyzing leaves something important out,
or limits insights that could be found with another set of concepts or
different definitions, I would like to know.
So here are definitions of
concepts I'll be using. Like
all definitions, these are imperfect and incomplete.
from a biological perspective, is a group of organisms that can
interbreed and differs from other groups in the frequency of certain
hereditary traits. So for
biology, the only kind of race that makes sense is the human.
As far as the social perspective goes, the dictionary.com
definition is fine: 'A local geographic or global human population
distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically
transmitted physical characteristics; A group of people united or
classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or
dictionary.com definition of nation is also fine: 'A people
who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language';
is very similar to the definition of ethnicity: 'a common and
distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural
be using caste, 'A social class separated from others by distinctions
of hereditary rank, profession, or wealth'.
the toughest definition, that of culture.
The dictionary offers several possibilities:
totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs,
institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a
particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian
culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a
particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of
expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture;
predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the
functioning of a group or organization.
is too wide a net. If
culture is 'the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns,
arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and
thought', then the economy is part of culture, and so is kinship and
culture is all the products of human work and thought, there is only one
human culture. There is no
need to even worry about the problem of how people of different cultures
can relate to one another.
think it is true that there is only one human culture, in the same sense
that linguists say there is only one human language.
If someone from Mars came to earth, they would probably decide
there was only one human race, one human language, and one human
for non-martians, there are serious questions.
There is a continuum of culture and of cultural difference.
Like people who speak different languages, people of different
cultures can often be incomprehensible to one another.
And to analyze specifically cultural oppression, to understand
how cultural groups relate to each other, it is useful to try to
separate culture from economics, politics, and kinship.
I will offer this modification of the dictionary definition of culture.
Culture is those tools, practices, assumptions, and
behavioural patterns members of a group use to communicate with one
another and to demarcate themselves from other groups.
The communicative function of culture is what I will
emphasize throughout, but the identification function is important as
well. So to the extent that
there are tools, practices, assumptions, and patterns common to all
humans, that all humans use to communicate with one another and
demarcate themselves from non-humans, there is one human culture.
To the extent that white people have practices, assumptions, and
patterns they use to communicate with one another and demarcate
themselves, there is white culture.
And so on. This
allows for a continuum of practices and for people to have multiple
cultural affiliations. It
also helps in the definition and understanding of racism, as I'll show
the concepts we've just defined I can offer a definition of racism.
Racism is a caste system of hierarchically ordered races
that uses economic, political, kinship, and especially cultural practices
to maintain the separation and hierarchy of races.
instructional is about institutional racism in North America.
The Racial Caste System