Archive for March, 2015


March 10, 2015

With the possible exception of some Chelsea fans, hardly anybody likes to be called a racist. But these days it’s very easy to be called a racist, if only facetiously, when one expresses an opinion that members of a given ethnic or cultural group are more prone to certain kinds of behavior than those of other groups. I’ve done it myself (facetiously). There’s no need to give examples.

Of course I don’t want to be called a racist. I have experienced racism in its crudest form — that of the Nazis toward the Jews — and I don’t want the term to be trivialized. But like many other people I have found by observation that different ethnic, national or religious groups do in fact exhibit characteristic traits of behavior, some laudable and some not.

Whether such groups constitute “races” is a matter of semantics. Among northern Europeans and their descendants it’s common to use race in  a genetic sense, whether defined by skin color as in North America, or just by ancestry as in Europe; the Jews and the Gypsies constitute races, and to the English even the Irish were a race. In southern Europe the equivalent term (e.g. raza in Spanish) has more of a cultural connotation. Hispanics in the United States often refer to themselves as la Raza, though according to the U.S. Census they may be “of any race”. The term la Raza originated among Spanish intellectuals of the so-called Generation of 98, marked by Spain’s loss of its overseas empire in the wake of the Spanish-American war, and was intended to replace Spain’s position as the metropolis of an empire by that of the motherland (la madre patria) of all the peoples that had inherited its language and culture, be they European colonists, indigenous Indians or Filipinos, or exiled Jews; all of these make up la Raza. The greatest among these intellectuals, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote a poignant article, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, insisting that la Raza had nothing to do with the Nazis’ biological concept or race.  Even Hitler’s friend Franco, who wrote the screenplay of a film titled Raza, meant it only to denote an ideal of what it means to be a Spaniard.

But because “race” is such a controversial term, perhaps it’s best to follow the practice of most contemporary American anthropologists and avoid using it. In my mind, what determines typical group behavior is the group’s culture, not its ancestry, and the group’s members can be expected to share in these characteristics only of they are brought up in its cultural milieu.

I thought that I would substitute the word “culturist” for “racist” to designate someone who makes generalizations on people’s behavior on the basis of ethnicity. But “culturist” already has a number of meanings: one is “cultivator”; another is “advocate of culture”. On the other hand, the unabridged Merriam-Webster has the word culturalist, defined as “one that emphasizes the importance of culture in determining behavior”. Maybe “emphasizes” is a bit strong; if we simply substitute “believes in” we get the definition of a word that pretty much describes what I mean to say.

And so, if I’m ever called a racist for saying that such-and-such is typical so-and-so behavior, I will say, “No, I’m a culturalist.”

Of course, there is also an obscure philosophical school called culturalism. I don’t know anything about it, so I don’t know if I’m a philosophical culturalist.