Feeling Our Way

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Is Culture an Explanation?

Do I drink expensive coffee because I’m white?

When a Chinese-American woman doesn’t speak in class, someone will say it’s because of her culture. When a white woman doesn’t speak in class, someone will say it’s because of her gender. When a white man acts similarly, someone will invoke his personality as an explanation. These tendencies have much to do with our own comfort with stereotypes. Asians are collectivist (but don’t ask Koreans and Manchurians how collectivist the Japanese were in the 20th Century!). Women are submissive—I mean facilitative. White men normally feel as if they own the place. That sort of thing.

Using culture as an explanation for behavior gets pretty ridiculous when it’s “Asian culture” we invoke. There are billions of Asians, and it’s unlikely they have anything in common. So the only thing we can possibly mean by “Asian culture” is some erroneous stereotype. Skinner says that it’s just a case of thinking that because two people are alike in one way (skin color, say), they will be alike in other ways as well (speaking up, say). It’s a natural result of the way organisms learn via generalization that we should think so, but when it comes to other humans, shouldn’t we know better by now?

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I define “culture” as implicit rules that describe social contingencies (note: I don’t think this is original, but I don’t know where it came from; in the culture of science, bad things happen to people who take credit for ideas not their own). I also define “culture” as “some other people,” as in the substitution from “Asian culture promotes familial dependence” to “Some other Asians promote familial independence.” Thus, we can redeem some sort of cultural explanation by understanding it as an invocation of social contingencies. It’s not that she is silent in class because she is Asian; she may be silent in class because she has spent a lot of time with people who reinforce silence in groups or punish speech. Whether most Asians respond to silence and speech in these ways is irrelevant. Whether the people who have thusly reinforced and punished her were also Asian is also (mainly) irrelevant ("mainly," because their appearance could affect which people she changes more easily around).

It may be relevant that the contingencies she encountered around talking in groups were specific to her perceived race or sex. If so, there may be a conflict between her desire to be a good Asian or a good woman and the advantages of talking in class. Similarly, if a white man has been reinforced for acting like he owns the place, he may experience conflict between his desire to be a good man and the social advantages of not claiming ownership of the armrest in cramped airplane seats. Culture, then, doesn’t explain a behavior, but it can alert us to sources of resistance in changing it. If an Asian woman feels like a traitor to her race by taking up conversational space, it will be harder for her to do so. If a white man feels like a wimp by sharing his space, it will also be harder. It’s hard enough that so much behavior change already invokes disloyalty to the people who taught us the old behavior.

Culture is also a useful factor to consider in separating social reinforcers from other kinds of effects. If a boy tortures a frog because of its effects on the frog, you may have to consider why he is so angry and how else he can manage it. If he tortures the frog because of its effect on the other boys, it may not say much about the boy at all, merely that he is not too squeamish to fit in with that culture of boys.

I don’t drink expensive coffee because I am white. However, “I am white” might be shorthand for the likelihood that I spend most of my social life around people who don’t scoff at me for spending money in this way, or who reinforce me with their camaraderie by going to cafes with me. “I am white” may also be shorthand for having enough money to blow some of it on expensive coffee. The problem with the shorthand is that it perpetuates stereotypes. One problem with stereotypes is that they make it harder for Asian women to talk in class and still feel Asian and female; they make it harder for white men to share space without feeling like wimps.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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