Cultural Fictions

I have been working and living in more multi-cultural settings the last few years and have discovered that the American Melting Pot is fictional. It never existed I think. It was a concept that allowed people in the US to feel good about the caste system here. I have no way to know who came up with the idea or why. The effect of it was to mask the way in which immigrants are necessary to provide a new, lower caste so that social movement could happen for middle caste members. Big words. What do I mean in real terms?

I see new immigrants to this country being treated poorly in relation to the number of hours they work and their work conditions. 12 hour days in a meat-packing plant should gain you respect in a society. So should 14 hour days in a restaurant. But it doesn’t. You are doing the servant caste work. Go to another country with a caste system and report back whether the servants of the society are treated with respect.

The people who did those high hour/low pay jobs a few decades back have now educated their kids so that the kids can have higher pay and better work conditions. They move up the social ladder, if their skin tone allows. Those kids then can buy into a melting pot idea; they are not identifying with the homeland of their ancestors; they identify with a larger US ideal culture. Not all kids did, but some, maybe many.

Which leads me to another fiction: that there is such a thing as a culture which spans geography. I no longer believe in a US culture, suburban culture, urban culture, white culture or African-American culture. I am in a location, in an economic class, in a religion, and that I have food preferences and clothing preferences based on what my family enjoyed. My skin color is not part of that list. Nor is my ancestral origin. I may have things in common with a person from another region, but we are not in the same culture. From organizational theory I learned a nifty definition of culture: it’s how we do things around here. Notice that it specifies location and behavior, not background. So a person who lives in a small town in Alabama who is Catholic and is in the educated lower economic class will have a definite culture. As does someone who lives in a mid-sized city in Iowa and is SBNR (Spiritual but not Religious) and is in the middle class (can afford to own a modest house). These cultures are specific and real.

So what?

I think that we have a fiction that there is such a thing as race in the US and that it is part of culture. That a separate culture exists for each race. Hogwash, I say. My economic status is part of my cultural identity, and in this caste system skin color indicates which people may advance to a higher caste and which people will remain in a lower caste. So to that extent my skin tone is part of my cultural location, but my skin tone does not alter my culture. The culture in which I raise my kids will be the same whether their skin tone is the same as mine or different.

I have met people with darker skin tones gain education and find higher paying jobs, but a few of them have said it was a struggle against people trying to shame them into staying within their “communities.”  How frustrating. How false.

Because one was already a resident of the US when the first European settlers arrived does not mean one should be permanently in the lower social castes. But some people in the higher castes disagree. So they use appearance to enforce this economically oriented prejudice against those who look Native American or look like their ancestors came here as slaves from Africa. Don’t know why they use appearance, but it’s been going on a long time (Mark Twain comments on it in “Puddin Head Wilson”).

Where am I going with all this? I no longer believe that I can identify another person’s culture by looking at their skin tone or facial features. I can identify, at least somewhat, which people will fight to gain social advancement and higher pay. I have met quite a few people who look like they might be part of this or that racial culture, and then I find out they aren’t. It’s then that I see how I had bought into a fiction. I now think that the efforts to end racial discrimination are not going to be successful so long as they buy into fictions which reinforce the caste system. Enjoy your local culture and notice that all the people in your locale, religion, and economic class are culture-mates without regard to skin tone or ancestry.


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