Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Getting Back to Wade: On Culture

Getting back to our definitions, let's talk about culture.  According to Dr. Dennis O'Neill of Palomar College
[C]ulture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. The term was first used in this way by the pioneer English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871. Tylor said that culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Of course, it is not limited to men. Women possess and create it as well. Since Tylor's time, the concept of culture has become the central focus of anthropology.

In a comment on Google Plus, Wade Long said:
Take all the time you need, K. But it won't change the facts - there is no such thing as "White Culture" or "Black Culture". Those are skin colors.
Allow me to present one of the New York Public Library System's most prestigious collections, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Named after Afro-Puerto Rican scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Schomburg Center contains over 150,000 volumes, 85,000 microforms, 6,000 serials (including 400 black newspapers and 1,000 current periodicals) and over 500,000 photographs, prints and graphics
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research unit of The New York Public Library, is generally recognized as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. For over 80 years the Center has collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life, and promoted the study and interpretation of the history and culture of peoples of African descent.
Moving west to Pittsburgh, we have the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, while the University of Chicago offers A Celebration of Black Culture in Chicago and the University of Southern California has the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs. Going to Amazon, we find (among others) Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to FreedomBlack Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America and The African American Experience: Black History and Culture Through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Songs, and Stories.

It appears that the phrase "Black Culture" has some meaning to Americans (of color and otherwise) living around the continental United States. Wade may stamp his feet and insist that "there is no such thing as... 'Black Culture,'" until he wears out his shoes, but it would appear that many disagree with his conclusion.

Wade also said:
There IS no such thing as "White Culture", in the sense that all white people are the same in some particular way. Not even here in America.
Whether or not that is true in America, one could question whether it was true of the people at Pantheacon.  They are not only overwhelmingly white, but overwhelmingly middle to upper-middle class, politically liberal and college-educated.  For all Pantheacon's soothing talk about "Unity in Diversity," their attendees are more diverse than a typical fraternity only insofar as they didn't all attend the same college.

Despite claims to the contrary,
Wade is down with cultural diversity.
When I pointed this out I also provided input from some pagans of color as to why they feel shut out of Pagan gatherings. This appears to have struck a nerve with Wade, who seems to think that pointing out the cultural, class and racial homogeneity of the Pagan community - and suggesting that we might use the Pagan interest in various practices like Santeria, Hoodoo, etc. as a way of building bridges between disparate communities rather than simply treating them like a natural resource we can exploit for our own benefit - is somehow "racist." 

Let us assume that a culture is the acquired "knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits" of a particular society or subculture (Dr. O'Neill makes that distinction on his webpage, which is well worth reading).  In doing so we will be in the academic and intellectual mainstream. Should Wade (or anyone else) propose an alternate definition, he would have to provide some compelling reasons why his use of the term was more accurate and compelling than the common use.

Using that common definition, it would only stand to reason that the best way to learn about a culture - and a culture's magic - would be from a member of that culture.  There's nothing racist, classist or ethnocentrist about that claim. If I wanted to learn about ballet, I'd do much better learning from a person who had spent decades practicing the art rather than reading books about the subject or watching Black Swan.  If I wanted to learn how to cook like an Italian grandmother, who could teach me better than an Italian grandmother? And if I wanted to learn how to most properly and effectively work with Santa Muerte, why would I not want to study with a Mexican whose grandmother and great-great grandmother had served her? Why, that is, unless I was frightened or contemptuous of people of color and wanted to practice their cool and spooky forms of magic without actually engaging with them?