Monday, October 14, 2013

Culture is Not Biology

But that's a hard lesson to learn, especially in a society where physical differences have been used to enforce cultural difference and thus have come to be an external sign of cultural difference. This is from a New York Times op-ed by a white man who's adopted black children:
In the case of transracial adoption, there is the force of horizontal identity, where the child looks for others with the same experience of being adopted, but the vertical identity is complicated as well. When we wake them up in the morning, our kids don’t see parents who look like them. For many young transracial adoptees, every time they look in the mirror it’s a shock to see that they are black or Asian and not white like their parents....

It’s not just physical; the cultural vertical identity is at stake as well. By adopting children of another race or ethnicity we cut them off from the world they were born in. The National Association of Black Social Workers declared in a resolution in 1972 that transracial adoption was cultural genocide. The wording was, and is, cruel, but it is hard not to see its deeper truth: a Korean or black kid raised in a white world has lost his or her culture.
In what sense is that so? The only culture you have is the one (or ones) in which you are raised and which you have subsequently assimilated.

In most ordinary circumstances, yes, you will inherit your cultural identity from your biological parents simply because you live with your biological parents. A black child who is separated from her parents at birth and is then raised by a white family (or a Chinese family for that matter) will be raised in the culture of that family. That WILL be the child's family. That the child and her parents are not racially the same is irrelevant to the matter of cultural identity.

That people will treat the child as though he should be culturally different from her parents is unfortunate and it does have practical consequences. But that does not change the fact that cultural practices are not inherited in the same way as skin color or hair texture.

Things, of course, are more complicated when a child is partially raised in one family but then adopted by another. But that's just as true of a 6 year old Kenyan child adopted by a black family in Alabama and a 6 year old Spanish child adopted by a white family in Moscow as it is of a 6 year old black child from Alabama being adopted by a white family in Maine.


  1. Just happens that the artists Komar and Melamid are relevant here also. They wanted to understand popular art tastes in different countries; teamed with a polling company and ascertained taste that horrified art world folks: from countries as diverse as the USA, Kenya, and China the winner for the livingroom painting was a realistic landscape predominantly in blue with green the second favorite color.
    So much for modern art! Only the Netherlands polled it favorably.

  2. BTW this work is cited by some evolutionary psychologists evidence that we have an innate preference for such scenes which our ancestors acquired when they were living on the African savannas.

  3. Bill, I am use to reading messy descriptions in regard to ethnicity. I have no expertise in American culture but if I were to look at it further I would want to check how ethnicity is being defined in popular American culture and to what extent white and black America are seen as having very distinct and separate ethnic identities.

    If their is a high spike of description in this debate presenting cultural groups as ethnically distinct entities rather than descriptions which point towards a shared experience of being American, it may explain some of the comments.

    Its the question I would want to resolve first.

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  5. That, of course, is a very tricky business, Jeb. For example, back in WWII a group of black aviators from Tuskegee Institute defined themselves as black, on the one hand (as everyone else would identify them), but they emphasized how American they were in relation to the German enemy. I've been told that many Native American soldiers did much the same thing in WWII.

    There ARE behavior and attitudinal differences that go along with color-defined ethnic differences, but they vary widely by class, education, and region. Americans will and do attribute all sorts to things to other Americans according skin color and so a difference in skin color between a parent and an adoptive child will have differences in how that child is perceived by others. But such differences aren't carried in the genes. They're carried in a complex and messy cultural situation.

  6. I spent a large part of my undergrad degree focusing on how ethnicity developed in Northern Britain in the 6th century. The genetic part was not something I need to think about as you see very significant features here which can only lead to one conclusion. Unless you were of course a geneticists straying into the subject at the time. Were some very irate historians despairing how their research was being developed and adapted in such studies.

    I was just sent this link by someone recently. In regard to you're comment on Black service men you may find it interesting but I suspect you may be aware of the case. I would describe some of the comments as messy here as well.

    p.s thinking of the Glasgow Irish community, fought for Britain in world war one, world war two they were trying to take down the British state. Subjects built on shifting sands and demands careful contextual sloth like movement as change can happen at speed I think.

  7. p.s the link is in part about the experience of a Black service man in the first world war, not my standard dyslexic disposition for lateral thought.