What Do You Really Say When You Talk about Race and Culture? Part II in a Series

As we at RHB conduct diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) audits, guide executive leadership through consequential moments or conduct research and discovery for institutional marketing projects, we encounter a lot of different institutional language about recognizing human diversity. The fact that we continuously encounter race and culture as themes which make themselves evident in various ways has attuned us toward trying to help clients achieve clarity about what those words mean and what actions should follow their use.

Higher ed marketing and communications messaging is a channel by which some big issues are being worked out, even if we don’t recognize how consequential these messages can be. So it matters how we use the words race and culture, and the contexts in which we use them also matter.

In my last Insight, a thousand years ago in June, I discussed the way history shapes what we in the current-day United States understand as race and how that categorization shares its roots in the scientific movement to classify beings of the natural world. To recap, when we talk about “race” in the West, we are talking about a system for differentiating humans on the basis of perceived biological differences like hair, eye and skin color. The categories of race our culture recognizes as real are relatively few in comparison to the true diversity of humanity. These categorizations do change depending on whether we are noticing new constellations of features in new numbers. This is despite the fact that races are often treated in discourse as discrete groups of relatively stable number and composition. Finally, racial categorizations are imbued with politics and judgments about the languages and behaviors of the people we place in those categories. Race is not a neutral, objective system.

Culture provides a different lens for conceptualizing human difference. While it technically does not refer to perceived physical differences, it often is assumed to work alongside race to produce difference. But what is culture, in the anthropological sense? A famous definition of culture is nineteenth-century British anthropologist E.B. Tylor’s: “…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Even if people are not aware of the genesis of that definition, Tylor’s definition seems to underlie how people think about culture. In this relatively brief statement, one learns nothing about where cultures come from. You could almost imagine they exist outside human society as entities we enter or adopt over our lifetimes.

Thinking of culture as a whole actually complicates things, because this can convey the idea that people who practice a culture practice it the same way, and that people generally think and behave as culture dictates. It also suggests a greater degree of internal coherence than cultures may really have. We can all probably point to internal inconsistencies or competing ideas that generate conflict within “American culture” (understanding that I am using that label for rhetorical purposes that don’t reflect its complexity). Finally, we can also forget how dynamic cultures are, even at the same time we may see ours changing in front of our eyes. The idea that cultures are static, singular entities with something close to an absolute degree of control over people’s lives sometimes blinds us to the ways cultures help us adapt to new circumstances and remake ourselves. We also overlook how impactful true exchange between cultural systems can be, and that we can be changed by the better through learning and empathy on a personal level that improves us.

Let’s work through an example of the kinds of discourse we see in our work. This example is a composite of real content from higher ed marketing and communications units but not specific to any institution’s actual work. I’ve written a paragraph that represents several of the points I will discuss, and it is representative of the kinds of discourse we see when we at RHB are engaged in work across our practice areas:

“Educational excellence requires diversity, and we seek to represent our community’s multicultural composition among our students, faculty, and staff. We provide students the opportunity to learn about people from other backgrounds. Students who are exposed to other cultures, ethnicities and races are more likely to empathize with others and be successful in a global workforce.”

In this paragraph, exposure to cultures and races other than one’s own is an instrument or tool that can be used for something else. There is a level of welcome communicated here, where the institution seeks educational excellence which is attained partly by having a diverse student body, faculty and staff. At the same time, the primary value here of multiculturalism is what it teaches students so that they can learn to see another’s perspective and that they will attain economic productivity. It’s remarkable how often multiculturalism and racial diversity are treated as positives when they are related to a tangible value. This tends to be more persuasive at some institutions than stating the real value here is an intangible interpersonal one that could even mean adopting new customs or language behaviors on the basis of our learning.

Let’s go back to the word exposure. We often see some variety of that, experience or encounter used with our diversity, our diverse community or our multicultural community. What does it mean to be exposed to diversity, and how do you know you’ve been exposed enough? Do you only have to see it? Do you only have to go to one heritage month event, or take a core curricular course that meets a multiculturalism goal? Who is the our who is related to this diversity? What we see in our higher ed strategic planning research is that questions like this matter on a deep, deep level at many institutions. Many truly strategic strategic plans thread the answers to these questions across the life of the institution. To do that, they have to start with the answers to those questions and these: what is necessary and enough, and what is our duty to exceed necessary and enough? To what effects do we intend to do this work? Is it about educational and occupational attainment, or are there other things that drive our efforts?

There are a couple other issues in my brief example to point out. One is the implicit idea that exposure to multiculturalism has not occurred yet, which also carries a presumption that some students constitute an un-diverse or default population against which difference is constructed. Further, it presumes that people are unable to empathize with others unless they are explicitly taught to do so. The underlying assertion here is that other kinds of people exist in ways that are unintelligible to us, so inherently different are they, that it requires formal education to show us that we are capable of accepting them as humans.

Having taught courses on American cultural and linguistic diversity, I can attest to the fact that even people who grew up in multicultural or multiracial communities can have gaps in knowledge about the people who inhabit this country. I can also attest to how fascinating and moving it is to see the process of gaining understanding in action. However, when the first principle underlying our DEIB language and behavior is one which overlooks the unified nature of humanity in favor of imagining it as a bunch of bubbles that only meet to bump up against each other on campus, we lose the plot. It’s one thing to notice when people look, speak or act differently, and to try to understand how history and cultural processes affect which distinctions matter to which ends. It is another thing to inadvertently reinforce the idea that these differences and their effects are natural processes like cell division outside our intentionality and agency.

Now, this brings up another discussion, around the relationship of DEIB language and efforts and performativity. As a teaser, let me just say that it’s all performance and whether that is a bad thing or not is a complicated question. Stay tuned, because you know a complicated question is my favorite kind. If you need guidance about how your institution is doing in this regard right now, we are ready to help.

1 Tylor did acknowledge that cultures change, but he did so within an evolutionary perspective that tied “primitive” social organizations to “primitive” beings. That kind of thinking is passé among anthropologists now, but still has its tendrils in how cultures are discussed and tied to categories of humans.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.