Of Cultures or Colors?

By Rev. Kate Braestrup

culture |ˈk∂lCH∂r|
1) the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively: 20th century popular culture.
• a refined understanding or appreciation of this: men of culture.
the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group: Caribbean culture | people from many different cultures.
• [with modifier] the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group: the emerging drug culture.

Nurture interacts with nature to generate the enormous complexity found in any given human creature. When a bunch of human creatures get together (as we are wont to do) we interact with one another and with exogenous variables (landscape, weather, available foodstuffs, proximity to enemies). The interactions form patterns, and the most prominent and persistent patterns can be recognized as culture.

Once created, a culture will tend to be self-reinforcing and, in the absence of dramatic alterations in those exogenous variables, will remain remarkably stable over time. Indeed, it will persist long after it has ceased to provide for the flourishing of its members. In other words, contrary to the dewy-eyed assurances of multiculturalisms more saccharine proponents, not all cultures are equally just, functional or healthy.

Example #1: In antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery was part of American culture. Slavery is no longer part of our culture. Do any of my readers disagree that present-day American culture is in this way far superior to antebellum American culture?

Example #2: The culture in Saudi Arabia is deeply oppressive of women. Saudi women only just won the right to drive a car (though the men in their lives still have to give permission). If you are a Saudi woman convicted of adultery, the penalty is death by stoning. Your male lover meanwhile, will merely be whipped. In Sweden, women have the right to drive, vote, run for President and handle their own sex lives, while the list of criminal punishments does not include throwing rocks at women until they are dead. Therefore, Swedish culture is superior to Saudi culture.

Thats just your opinion!

Culture from wooden letters

To which I say well of course it isand my strong suspicion is that it is also your opinion. For that matter, a whole bunch of people born and raised in cultures similar to that of Saudi Arabia, have recently voted with their feet for the superiority of Sweden. Meanwhile, Europeans are not risking death to emigrate en masse to the Middle East.

However much we might like elements of this or that non-Western culture, even disaffected Americans prefer Western culture to others.

Remember when Donald Trump was elected and a whole bunch of horrified people declared their intention to emigrate?

Barbara Streisand, for example, was going to move to Australiaor maybe Canadashe couldnt decide. Brian Cranston, the star of the show Breaking Badwas headed for Canada too, along with Raven Symone, Lena Dunham, Neve Campbell, Chloe Sevigney and Keegan-Michael Key. Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer said they were moving to Spain while, presumably because of the horrible history of racism in America, Samuel L. Jackson was planning to move toSouth Africa. And Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she was going to retire to New Zealand.

My Democratic friends likewise expressed an urgent wish to move to Toronto rather than to Riyadh.

A group that shares a strong commitment to a central logos, a shared story, mythology, theory or ideological identity, can tolerate quite a lot of what we might call multiculturalism-lite.

My first husband, Drew, was from the South — Tennessee, to be precise. He came from a family of good ol’ boys. He owned guns. He counted ancestors who fought for the confederacy — he also had African American ancestors, something much more common among white Southerners than white Northeasterners like me. And yes, Drew talked funny.

Now take me and my friend M.

Ms dad, like mine, served in the military, though her father rose in the ranks while my father was wounded and honorably discharged. We both went to Georgetown University, where we were both actively involved in feminism and anti-racism. We marched together against Apartheid in South Africa, against American intervention in Central America, and against the deployment of Pershing Missiles in Europe. M went on to Harvard Law school while I got married and had babiesbut even so, she and I had far more in common — not just in terms of shared interests but also in the cultural language and assumptions of educated middle-class Northeasterners — than Drew and I did.

Drew and I often had to explain ourselves to each other — as in what the hell is aspic?” or Good Lord, your mother eats lard?

I never had to do that with M. Sure, there were the usual small differences: she grew up in Philadelphia, I mostly grew up in and around Washington, DC. My family opened presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning, because thats what my fathers Danish-immigrant family did. Ms family went to church on Christmas Eve because thats what American Christians do.

Our UU churches are chock-full of people like me and M. Same Northeastern background, same sort of education, same politics, same middle-class habits with only minor variations, like whether you put a creche scene with baby Jesus on the mantle, or maybe a menorah, skip the Jesus? But if M was sitting next to me in the pews at my UU church, the other congregants would congratulate themselves.

Ms black skin would allow our church to count itself multicultural.Drews presencewouldnt.

I am quite sure that M could point to elements of her personal family culture that she shares with other African American families and not with mine. Not only can M tell me about Af-Am culture writ large, she can describe the variations held within the whole — distinctions made between New England, New York and Southern, not to mention Caribbean, black cultures, or the black elite who, back in the day, sent their kids to Jack and Jill and vacationed at Oak Bluffs.

Even in the early 1980s, when I lived in New York city, there was an Eastern-European subculture on the lower East side of Manhattan, Little Italy still felt really Italian, and there was a fabulous gay sub-culture in the West Village.

As gays and lesbians increasingly join the ordinary mainstream, some of my older gay male friends have lamented the loss of that gay subculture, even as they acknowledge that it was created in response to discrimination and prejudice.

We used to be dangerous and outrageous, just by being ourselves,one friend complained. Now, gays are just like everyone else. We get married, we have mortgages and golden retrievers, we talk to our neighbors about the quality of the school system…”

Meanwhile, without really be aware of the fact, the broader culture has incorporated elements that used to be part of gay and lesbian culture — men wearing earrings, for example, and women with tattoos and ironic haircuts.

Ma Po tofu
Squirrel stew, a specialty of one American subculture

Which brings me to why multiculturalism is impossible: Given half a chance, for better and worse, human cultures change. They borrow and lend, adapt and blend; mosaics melt and merge and what you end up with is a changed broader culture with some perhaps-still-discernible lumps of subculture slowly dissolving within it.

College students, who have the time and energy to be outraged a lot, get outraged by this wholly normal tendency. They call it cultural appropriation. Recently, Bowdoin College students were incensed when non-Mexican classmates threw a Cinco de Mayo party that included a piñata and the wearing of tiny plastic sombreros, as if the songs we sing and the holidays Americans celebrate should be determined by DNA test.

Should that come to pass, I guess my kids could dress up as Vikings, Nascar Drivers, George Washington or Charles Dickens and, thanks to the one-drop rule that social justice now demands we resurrect from Americas racist past, my kids could also celebrate Kwanzaa and wear hoop earrings because, as I mentioned earlier, their father — my first husband Drew — had black great-great-great grandparents.

On the other hand, my nephew B, who was adopted as a child from West Africa, would have to forget all about those Danish and English Christmas traditions — no more sugar cookies, Christmas pudding and filled stockings for him! And no more French cooking or German opera either, and you’d better trade in the business suits for a batik loincloth Or not: the technique of fabric batik was imported to Togo from Indonesia back in the day, so unless Bs DNA test shows that the Indonesian traders left more than indigo dye and beeswax in his village, my nephews adire is going to have to be monocolored

My nephew is genetically West African, but he is culturally a mixed bag, which is to say, he is 100% American. To the extent he brings a different perspectiveto any group he joins, it is that of an American first and then all the other stuff: he is heterosexual, an adoptee, a young black male (which means yes, he has been passed over by New York cabdrivers) a businessman, a college grad, a Californian and so on.

My nephew B is another one whose handsome face would — because its brown — be especially welcomed in a UU church, even if his cultureis pretty much the same as that of his Aunt Kate.

Again, race is not culture.

If cultural diversity is what were after, our multicultural potlucks should include, next to the vegan enchiladas and couscous, Appalachian delicacies like biscuits and squirrel gravy and two-liter bottles of generic cola.

Shall we pin pictures on our multi-culti Sunday school cork boards of overweight white toddlers in tiny wife-beater t-shirts and NASCAR hats? Are we hanging velvet Elvis reverently beside our dream catchers and African masks; have we included Sweet Home Alabamaor Turkey in the Strawin our multi-culti hymnal along with the old spirituals and Korean songs of spring?

All cultures are equally valuable!we declare, and then post a few pictures of attractive brown people in brightly colored clothing, as if thats all culture really is — skin color, oppression, and maybe some interesting jewelry or hats.

Meanwhile, every description and definition of what is declared to be white culture” (the only culture not considered equal,by the way) makes it perfectly clear that what is really being talked about is exactly the culture that my nephew, my college classmate M and I have in common — the culture of the Enlightenment, the culture of humanism, reason, science, equality under the law and intellectual, political and religious freedom.

This is not whiteculture but it is Western and it is American. The feminist, former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truths famous speech “Aint I A Womanmade its challenge from within this culture — Truth wasnt invoking African cultural norms of how women should be treated, but American ones.

Martin Luther King used the norms and mores of his Western/American culture to challenge his/my/our country to live up to those self-same norms and mores, and thereby become better at being itself.

When Barack Obama intones thats not who we are,the wehe refers to is not Kenyan, Irish, Hawaiian or Chicagoan but the Americanthat binds and liberates all.

Recently, Denise Young-Smith, Apples new and, as it happens, black and femaleVice President of Diversitysaid the following:

I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color or the women or the LGBT or whateverAnd Ive often told people a story — there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because theyre going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.

In the now distressingly common, Orwellian way of things, Ms. Young-Smith was quickly sent forth to apologize publicly and profusely for apparently unacceptable remark.

How absurd. The Vice President of Diversity was saying something that is not just true, but actually crucial for the future of Apple, America and — urgently — of Unitarian-Unviersalism specifically.

Ideological and not cultural (meaning racial) diversity is the only kind that actually matters, a diversity of ideas, a multiplicity of perspectives. This is — or at least it was — the calling card of Unitarian-Universalism.

This is the one thing our denominations got that no one else has. If we abandon ideological diversity in favor of multi-color-ism dressed up as multiculturalism, it wont matter how many shades of brown and beige weve packed into the pews or how many faltering renditions of De Colores” or Trouble the Watersthe DNA-approved might sing — we will have lost the chord we sing as one, the logos that lies at the core of our religion, the open-mind-open-heart cord that binds and frees us.

Copyright 2017 © Kate Braestrup



  1. I was thinking this morning about my We’re Not All Equal, in Racism https://trulyopenmindsandhearts.blog/2017/10/16/were-not-all-equal-in-racism-draft/
    in light of your Of Cultures or Colors, above. My friend in the coffee shop, based on her cultural roots, thought that there must be an overwhelming white culture that necessarily includes a heavy dose of racism toward African-Americans. But I believe local subcultures are far more varied than she does. In my Northeast urban Jewish immigrant neighborhood, it seems to me, everyone was too busy getting by in the New World to make distinctions among the various goyem.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The blog and the service you gave last Sunday feel negative to me–with the agenda of debunking a particular conceptualization–and the accusation of being somehow silenced.

    The latest issue of the UUWorld, for example, contains quite erudite expositions of what I take to be your basic critique. I should look it up but I believe it was Mark Morrison Reed who wrote about how it was easier to find a black face than a working class one. He has been a hero of mine since I met him at the Providence GA.

    The essential concept that privilege or blessings are unevenly bestowed is hardly new or radical but there is a new emphasis on those of us who have had more needing to take stock of it, not to feel guilty but to feel truly blessed, and also to work to make the bestowal more even.

    I know no one who has worked harder than many of those I grew up with who have had less–because of race, appalachian culture, or simply working class roots. And I respect their work and mourn because I believe they are wrong about why they are still stuck at the bottom.

    I suspect I became a sociologist partly from struggling with those issues for myself and others. (And the fact that the UU thought I was too angry to become a minister.)


  3. no apology necessary! Thank you so much for entering into a conversation, Peter:
    It is possible that a big part of the reason the website sounds
    (and perhaps is) negative may very well be that I, for one, am

    Not because everyone in UU land doesn’t agree with Mel and me (heck, we don’t
    agree with each other!) but because
    no one seems willing or perhaps able to engage in a true dialectic.
    It’s not enough to say
    “you sound so negative” (let alone “check your privilege!” or “enough with
    the white fragility”) we have to be willing to make a case.

    It is a proposition, not a fact, that those of us who have more privileges
    should be taking stock of them—why? Why now? With what end in mind? Cui bono?

    It’s worth looking up Mel’s history on this. He hasn’t been “somehow”
    silenced, he was absolutely and unconscionably silenced by people who should have known better.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Speaking just for me, I do feel that the current trend in UUism is indeed to make me feel guilty and responsible for the past and current sins of all white people. I am a first-generation white Jewish American, so neither I nor my parents took part in either the slavery or the Jim Crow eras. Not only that, but my grandparents on both sides were themselves enslaved at times during their lives in the shetls of the last 19th and early 20th Centuries. And then, of course, I lost two uncles, two aunts, and five first cousins during the Holocaust, before I was born. And another cousin was enslaved in concentration camps and on death marches for three years and survived, weighing 80 pounds.

    But the point is what’s happening now and the best way to fix it. Do I owe financial, emotional, or legal reparations to every person of color because of our respective pigmentation?

    Let’s forget even that question and the issue of fairness. What methods are best to right today’s wrongs. One could make the case (and I do) that the continuing sense of white privilege and responsibility fosters a paternalism that’s harmful to persons of color. This is a debate over means to the end of greater equality, but when I express my honest opinion I do indeed get labeled a racist.


  5. Incidentally, the reaction to Trump’s “Pocahontas” crack is a good illustration of the wider problem: one could (perhaps should) decry Trump’s boorishness and lack of appropriate boundaries in using a relatively solemn occasion as an opportunity to take a crack at one of his long-standing opponents, but labeling it “racist” was just dumb. He wasn’t making fun of Elizabeth Warren for being a Native American but for NOT being a Native American and still claiming to be one.

    Declaring this “racist” simply validates the strong impression among everyone on the center-right that “racist” doesn’t actually mean anything other than “not a Democrat.” And, as one podcaster I listened to pointed out, this is exactly why people voted for Trump: they were tired of the constant and unfounded accusations of racism.

    It’s important to remember not only that culture is not the same as color, but also that there are other motives for bad behavior (including very bad behavior) than racism.

    Liked by 1 person

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