Thursday, May 26, 2011

There's them that's us, and there's them that's got culture

Last weekend I got to attend a conference hosted by my very own Childhood Studies department at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where I'm a PhD student.  There were lots of great presentations, but one paper I heard especially sparked my interest.  I'll tell you about it in a minute, but first, this little caveat. On the second day of the conference I woke up with pain and blurred vision in my right eye.  My first response, as usual, was to go online and diagnose myself.  Here were the options:  brain tumor, stroke, or acute glaucoma.  Every site I went to said the following:  "This is a medical emergency.  Seek medical attention immediately."  Thankfully, I was able to get an appointment with my eye doctor right away, and it turned out to be nothing serious (just a treatable virus).  Here's the interesting part -- not wanting to miss the conference, I asked if I could still drive to Camden.  After all, my left eye was fine!  The doctor didn't blink an eye (sorry) about my driving at high speeds on a major highway with less than perfect vision.  Instead she said, "Ooh, Camden.  You don't want to get lost there." Concerns of race and social class win out over general health and safety every time!

Anyway, I made it to Camden just fine and attended a session where a woman presented a study she'd done as part of her master's thesis.  She'd analyzed children's books in preschool classrooms, looking at various views of childhood as depicted through characters in these books.  To do this she'd created categories, such as body size, gender, class, age, sexuality, and ability, and counted how many characters she found that fit into each category.  Her last category was culture.  If you've been reading this blog for awhile, perhaps you see where I'm going with this.  Culture as a category?  Curious. What is culture?  According to the dictionary, it is "the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group." Since we're all part of a "particular social group," or of many particular social groups, we all experience the cultures of those groups.  We are all products of those cultures that in a variety of ways work together to make us who we are. So I asked the presenter what she meant by culture. (When I told my son about this a few days later he wondered if I'd stood up and shouted, "Are you SERIOUS?" and thrown a chair.  Gotta admire the direct approach.)  Did she mean things like race, ethnicity, language? And why had she grouped them all together?  Of course, that's exactly what the presenter meant.  She explained that she'd grouped any characters that weren't white under the heading of culture.  Further, she said that she'd done this because "the master's had to get done really fast."  People in the audience chuckled at this -- those darn master's degrees!  Gotta get 'em over with!  No time to think about race or ethnicity!  Just lump it together under culture -- that's good enough when you're in a hurry! Oh, and did I mention that the presenter was white?  Didn't have to, did I?

I know, I'm being facetious.  Nothing against this presenter, but I could not help but notice how her grouping of characters in children's books so perfectly reflected a common disposition among whites -- we're white, we're just regular.  Culture, and by extension race, is something other people have.  I know I've posted about this before, but it just keeps jumping out at me.  

Dyer* notes that traditionally, the study of race has implied the study of races other than white (p. 9).  The tendency of whites to see themselves as raceless allows them to believe that “other people are raced, we are just people” (p. 10).  This, Dyer believes, keeps whites in the position of power, because while others can only speak for their particular race, whites believe that they represent the interests of all human-kind.  Dyer suggests that as long as whites continue to see themselves as “normal,” white power will continue to reproduce itself (p. 12).  This is important, because whites won't see how our race and culture interacts with others (both historically and in the present) if we don't think we have a race and culture. 

Amazingly, all of these reflections, and this wonderful conference, took place in Camden.  Who would ever have thunk it.

*Dyer, R. (2005). “The Matter of Whiteness.” In P. S. Rothenberg, White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism, NY: Worth Publishers.


  1. First of all, camden can be a dangerous place to get lost...I say that as a new jersey boy...and I agree when we (caucasions) speak of cultures or race, we mean different from ours.

    I wonder how African-Americans or hispanics refer to those who are not the same as them? Would white studies be the same as ethnic studies are to caucasions?
    I guess as long as african- Americans remain a minority then that attitude might remain.

  2. Agreed about Camden, but it just seemed funny that the eye doctor wasn't worried about my driving in general, just about my driving in Camden.

    I'm not sure what you mean, but whiteness studies are a part of critical race studies, and looks at the construction of race by whites -- in other words, how do whites think about race? This is my area of interest.

  3. P.S. And some people who drive with me regularly might say that there's plenty to be worried about, even under the best of circumstances!

  4. What I meant was, I have a pretty good idea of how whites see other races as different but I was wondering if African-Americans think the same way about whites...

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I am daily amazed at how unexamined beliefs about culture, race and gender are perverting the education system.

  6. And I include White culture in that statement. To clarify, since, as you mentioned, the collquial and the academic definitions tend to omit White culture. Ie. "I'm nothing."

  7. Jim, if you're asking if people of color see themselves as "just normal" or "regular," research suggests that the answer is no. In fact, they may grow up believing that white is normal, too, and may, for a time, internalize feelings of inferiority because of it.