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White people in Ethnic Studies


White people in Ethnic Studies

I suggest four areas that should be part of Ethnic Studies that involves white people.

1. What culture means; self as a cultural being. White students commonly see culture as quaint or colorful practices brought from elsewhere, which people of color seem to have much more of than white people. This huge misunderstanding of culture positions white people as nostalgic for something lost, while failing to recognize how everyone is culturally constructed, and how the normalization of white people’s culture maintains power relationships.

Anthropologist Ward Goodenough (1976) defined culture as “the concepts, beliefs, and principles of action and organization that . . . could be attributed successfully to the members of that society” (p. 4). By this, he meant all of the knowledge and principles that guide shared behavior and understandings. Understood in this way, everyone is a cultural being; we all participate in shared behaviors and understandings. White people are fully cultural, but use power to make what is cultural appear natural or normal. I do not find it particularly helpful, by the way, to hand students a list of white cultural traits, as such lists sometimes cause defensiveness and do not help them learn to see with a cultural eye.

I do find it very helpful, however, to teach students to read their own everyday lives through a cultural lens. There are many ways of doing so. For example, since much culture is learned in the family, I have had students analyze how things are done in their own families through a cultural lens, using questions such as: What is your family’s structure? What roles do family members play? How is affection communicated? How are disagreements handled? How is time structured? What kinds of behaviors are rewarded and how; what kids are punished and how? How are meals handled – what is a “proper” meal, who fixes, it, and when and with whom are meals eaten? Such questions begin to get at cultural practices we learn while growing up. When students compare their descriptions, often they see similarities and differences among their peers, which begins to make culture…

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