Culture and Diversity in the United States
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Culture and Diversity in the United States

So Many Ways to Be American

Jack David Eller

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eBook - ePub

Culture and Diversity in the United States

So Many Ways to Be American

Jack David Eller

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Über dieses Buch

Knowledge of and sensitivity toward diversity is an essential skill in the contemporary United States and the wider world. This book addresses the standard topics of race, ethnicity, class and gender but goes much further by engaging seriously with issues of language, religion, age, health and disability, and region and geography. It also considers the intersections between and the diversities within these categories. Eller presents students with an unprecedented combination of history, conceptual analysis, discussion of academic literature, and up-to-date statistics. The book includes a range of illustrations, figures and tables, text boxes, a glossary of key terms, and a comprehensive bibliography. Additional resources are provided via a companion website.

Chapter 3 of this book is freely available as a downloadable Open Access PDF at under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND) 4.0 license.

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1 Thinking About Diversity

What is an American? According to the 2010 Census:
63.7 percent White non-Hispanic, 12.6 percent Black, 16.3 percent Hispanic, 4.8 percent Asian, 0.9 percent Native American, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander
97.1 percent mono-racial, 2.9 percent two or more races
50.8 percent female, 49.2 percent male
24 percent under age 18, 63 percent age 18 to 64, 13 percent age 65 or over
15 percent living in poverty
78.4 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Jewish, 0.7 percent Buddhist, 0.6 percent Muslim, 0.4 percent Hindu, 16.1 percent no religion1
18 percent residing in Northeast, 21.7 percent residing in Midwest, 37.1 percent residing in South, 23.3 percent residing in West
18.7 percent physically disabled (including 3.3 percent visually impaired and 3.1 percent hearing impaired), 20 percent mentally ill2
80 percent English-speaking, 12.4 percent Spanish-speaking, 0.9 percent Chinese-speaking, 0.5 percent Tagalog-speaking, 0.4 percent Vietnamese-speaking
What then is an American? Even worse, what is a “normal” American or an “average” American? Is there any such thing?
In some ways, you are like all other individuals.
In some ways, you are like no other individuals.
In some ways, you are like some other individuals but unlike others.
Humans are a polymorphic species—that is, we come in many forms. As a species, humanity is less polymorphic than some (there is much greater physical variety among dogs than among humans, for example: imagine if humans occurred in a comparable range of shapes, sizes, and colors) but more polymorphic than others. And in addition to the physical diversity of humans is the “cultural” or learned behavioral diversity, which often makes even physically similar humans exotic and incomprehensible—and sometimes intolerable—to one another.
The characteristics that all human individuals share unite us as a species. The characteristics that no human individual shares with any other (if there are any such) make each person unique. The characteristics that some human individuals share with some other humans divide us into varied and often ranked groups and categories, for instance “societies” or “peoples” or “nations.” This diversity of traits not only affects our identity and our life-quality and life-chances but more than occasionally pits us against each other as members of rival collectivities and communities.
The question of “universal” and “unique” qualities is a valid one and a subject for other studies. This book, however, focuses on the partially and differentially shared qualities, the ones that (perhaps ironically) unite us differentially—that is, join or have the potential to join us with some people but not others. This is especially critical in the society called the United States of America, among the people known as Americans, who are fantastically, dazzlingly, some would say unmanageably diverse. While Americans claim to be, or at least aspire to be, one nation—to bridge or meld differences, to blend the many into one (an early motto of the United States was e pluribus unum, “out of many, one”)—the American people contain incredible and often unmeldable diversity. In other words, differences will not and cannot go away, nor will they likely cease to make a difference: women are not men, the old are not young, the poor are not rich, the white are not black, the Christian are not Muslim, and so on. No doubt there are things that American women and men share, or American rich and poor, or American whites and blacks, or American Christians and Muslims—or American able-bodied and disabled or American urbanites and rural-dwellers, ad infinitum. However, the group differences are there too, they are real, and in some instances they are crucial.

Diversity: Cultural and Physical

Charles Darwin’s most fundamental and most important insight was that diversity is natural and even necessary or beneficial in any population. Before his time, and commonly enough since, the idea has reigned that there is a single basic type—perhaps imaginary, perhaps real—that characterizes a group or population. One of the most obvious and odd instances of such thinking happens in the question of “race” (Chapter 3), where, for instance, the “white” or “Caucasian” race has sometimes literally been imagined as possessing blond hair and blue eyes, while many “whites” (myself included) are not blond or blue-eyed. The “blond beast” view of Caucasian race identity emphasizes an extreme or ideal trait set but by no means actually describes all the members of the category. The reality is a range of differing traits.
In this idealist perspective (or what some have called essentialism), one point on the spectrum of population traits is the ideal or essential point, inherently and immutably separated from all others. White Americans would thus have some essential quality of “whiteness” that is manifested in physiological traits like blue eyes and blond hair. In such a view, difference—within the group and certainly between groups—is not so much diversity as deviance, inferiority, or even evil. However, what Darwin showed is that variety within a population and between populations is the rule rather than the exception: there is always a range of traits in any group, and no single point along that range is the “real” or “normal” one. In a critical sense, the reality is diversity.
Commonly when people hear the word “diversity” or “difference” they think automatically of “culture.” To be sure, Americans and all human groups differ culturally. “Culture” is an important and powerful term in contemporary scholarship and politics; not only do academic disciplines like anthropology and sociology discuss it, but an entire field of “cultural studies” has emerged recently to investigate it. Even more, the general public has embraced the term, and political groups and movements often form around culture for the purposes of defending or promoting culture, especially but not exclusively “ethnic” group and movements.
Culture is thus a significant concept for understanding group characteristics. We can think of culture as the learned and shared ways of thinking, feeling, and acting within a group, particularly the kind of group that we call a society. Culture is acquired through social interaction, not innate or inborn. Certainly the capacity to acquire culture depends on the natural/physical characteristics of human beings, including the human brain. But no particular culture is programmed into all or any human brains: it is untrue that Americans are born to speak English or Mexicans Spanish or Russians Russian. Through the process of enculturation, namely life-long interaction with other competent members of a group, an individual can acquire any culture to which s/he is exposed. An individual can even learn aspects of a second or third culture; if not, then anthropology and sociology, indeed any intercultural communication, would be impossible, since these disciplines entail learning about someone else’s culture.
Further, culture is shared or distributed among a collectivity of humans. Obviously, something cannot be learned unless there is someone else to learn it from. When an infant enters the world, s/he lacks cultural knowledge and skill, but other people in the environment “have” it or “do” it. As the child grows, s/he acquires cultural competence through observation and practice. However, while it is accurate and important to say that culture is shared, it need not be and generally is not shared evenly or universally within the group. Some individuals will have access to certain aspects of the group’s cultural heritage but not other aspects. The group may have different cultural expectations for different kinds of members (e.g. male or female, young or old, tall or short, rich or poor, etc.). And some individuals may become “experts” or “professionals” in particular areas of culture while other individuals possess only “amateur” or rudimentary knowledge or skill or no knowledge/skill at all.
So, as with physical traits, there will be a range or distribution of culture within a group or society. In an English-speaking society, there are those who speak English differently from each other (based, for instance, on region or class or age or education), not to mention those who speak other minority languages; in a Christian-dominant society, there are those who hold different beliefs and interpretations about Christianity (based, for instance, on sect or denomination or liberal/fundamentalist orientation or upbringing or interest), not to mention those who belong to other minority religions or no religion at all.
Culture should thus be seen as integrated or composed of multiple parts in complex interrelation. A culture is not a single monolithic “thing” but a system of (more or less) connected elements or functions. Anthropologists commonly envision the main areas of culture as economics, politics, kinship, and religion, while sociologists add a fifth in the form of education. Each of these systems actually consists of a number of subsystems or institutions (for instance, kinship includes elements of marriage, residence, and descent). Additionally, cultural factors and practices like language and gender permeate the various systems and institutions. The integrated quality of culture demands a holistic approach to culture, noting the influence of each part on every other part. We cannot hope to understand any aspect of culture in isolation, nor can we expect to add or subtract or modify one aspect without consequences for other aspects.
Sociology in particular has a number of useful ways for conceiving the internal complexity of culture and the group that bears it. Any society contains a variety of “positions,” each of which is deemed a status. For example, American society includes the status of “teacher” and “student,” or of “husband” and “wife,” or formerly of “slave” and “master” (notice that statuses tend to occur in pairs or sets, since they are nodes in social relationships). Different behaviors—and often different kinds and degrees of social knowledge, even of personality traits—are expected of occupants of different statuses: each status then is associated with a particular social role. In every society, even the smallest and simplest, therefore, it is not only common but necessary that individuals occupy varying social statuses and perform varying social roles; there is no actual or even imaginable society in which every individual knows and does exactly the same things.
Beyond the basic and unavoidable variation within any group, there is always the possibility of serious and sometimes intentional exception, even resistance, to social norms and expectations. There really is, for instance, such a thing as deviance (although what is “deviant” will depend on the norms of the society and of the moment: slavery is deviant in America today but was normal and legal in the past). Deviance can be individual or collective: social scientists often regard gangs as deviant groups. People can also band together on the basis of interests or values to form a subculture, with its own (sometimes minor, sometimes major) deviations from mainstream culture; examples might include Goth culture or skateboard culture or “vampire” culture in the United States. People might actually organize to oppose aspects of mainstream culture, constituting a counterculture like the “hippie” lifestyle of the 1960s. And, of course, groups might be specifically designed to change certain aspects of the dominant culture, often taking the form of a social movement such as religious fundamentalism (Chapter 9), the civil rights movement (Chapter 3), the gay and lesbian rights movement (Chapter 7), the disabled rights movement (Chapter 11), and many others.
Two last things must be said about culture. First, all social scientists insist that culture is symbolic or embodied in symbols. A symbol is anything (word, object, image, gesture, etc.) that “stands for” or “represents” something—something, that is, that conveys information or meaning other than itself. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz expressed it, symbols are “tangible formulations of notions, abstractions from experience fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs” (1973: 91). The key words here are “attitudes” and “judgments,” although it is also necessary to situate these attitudes and judgments in relation to individual and collective “beliefs” (things that are held as true) and “longings” (things that are held as valuable and desirable). In every human group and society, actions, objects, words, styles, and even physical traits potentially have more social significance than their mere existence suggests. Humans are inveterate classifiers and valuers, passing judgment on and adding associations to cultural and physical phenomena, holding them up (and frequently enough smashing them) against their beliefs and longings. We must, and we will later in this chapter and throughout this book, keep an eye on the symbolic social meaning and value of human differences, not merely on the differences themselves.
Second, culture circulates. The diverse and distributed elements of a culture do not necessarily stay “in their place.” Sociology and anthropology have conventionally conceived of a society as a collectivity of humans who tend to interact and intermarry among themselves, who occupy a territory, and who share a common identity and a worldview or culture. But societies are not always—and in today’s world are increasingly not at all—discrete entities. With migration and forced resettlement of populations, members of a society may be and often are strewn across the globe, living in circumstances from refugee status to diaspora or dispersion from their homeland while retaining memories of and attachments to that home. Even more, with modern communication and transportation technologies, bits of culture become detached from particular places and groups and flow across social boundaries, potentially and actually to the entire world. As part of the process known as globalization, cultural items travel and mix and blend in interesting and unprecedented ways, such that it often becomes impossible, if not futile to identify some bit of culture as belonging exclusively to this group or that group. As a result, individuals in far-flung locations are increasingly similar to each other in certain cultural ways, even as they retain their “own” cultures and re-interpret the “foreign” cultures they meet in their own way.
In other words, we can no longer maintain the simple notion that a society has a culture. Culture is neither spatially/geographically homogeneous nor contained: there are differences within groups and similarities between groups. Culture and the identities and interests that go with it are increasingly translocal, referring to more than one place. Ultimately, it may be possible or sensible to speak of “American society” (and then again it may not), but it is ever more difficult to speak of a single “American culture” as something that unites all Americans and sets them apart from all non-Americans.

The Diversity of Diversity

Whatever “American culture” may be, it is apparent that there is considerable, occasionally extreme, cultural and physical variation among Americans. It might be fair to say that diversity is the nature of America. Most treatments of diversity, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on a few dimensions of diversity, especially race, ethnicity, class, and gender. These are, to be sure, real and important aspects of human, and American, variety, but they are hardly the full extent of it.
Americans, like all humans, are not only diverse but diverse in diverse ways; in other words, there are multiple simultaneous variables of diversity. Each American individual can be identified simultaneously by
  • race
  • ethnicity and/or ancestry
  • class and occupation
  • gender
  • language
  • religion
  • age or generational category
  • health and (dis)ability
  • geographic/regional location.
Thus, each individual represents a particular intersection of manifold social characteristics and statuses, that is, occupies a particular set of statuses. One of these multifarious statuses may be the key one for any given individual or in any given society or social situation—what sociologists call a master status—which most strongly determines his/her social identity and ...