Making sense of race, culture, ethnicity and class… part 3


Later in July I will be leading a seminar with the Mentoring Project of Minnesota and representatives of youthrive. It is the third of eight sessions titled the “Impact Exchange.” These monthly gatherings seek to help mentoring programs and all interested parties dialogue and strategize how to confront the issues of Race, Class and Privilege in their personal lives and the programs they lead. The July session is titled “Race, Class and Ethnicity Matters” Often times conversations regarding racialized issues get derailed for the following reasons (if not more):

      1. Fail to understand the definition, distinctions and context of the terms race, ethnicity and culture.
      2. Believing that people must belong to a group, and that by knowing the category a person belongs to we in turn, can know something about that person.
      3. Not allowing people to create their own definition or category.

I want to throw out my thoughts, and welcome you to reply with yours. Agree, disagree, expand and challenge, I want to throw this discussion onto the internet and then into your happy hour, book club, staff meeting, bed time chat, or frat list serve. Maybe we can all get to understand these issues better and traverse with a bit more confidence the Journey to Beloved Community.


Class divisions are really the clearest to define, but in America the hardest to accept. Although the USA is a very economically stratified society, and the wealth gap continues to grow, most still believe that the USA is a relative “flat” society with little hierarchy. Consider this from the New York Times:

…the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.

This past Sunday the Minneapolis Star Tribune published the article, “Inequality, It doesn’t have to be this way.” Discussing the shrinking middle class and the growing class disparities.

Class has been with us since societies first formed; there were rulers and workers, those that controlled the natural resources and those that just survived off of them. For the purpose of this discussion it is interesting to note that it was upper-class whites that worked to create and reinforce the race theory. They realized that if the all the poor united they were greatly outnumbered. Even though poor whites were better off than poor blacks, they were both oppressed by the same system that benefited a relative few.

This article by Rev, Thandeka explains how, “white racism was from the start avehicle for classism; its primary goal was not to elevate a race but to denigrate a class. White racism was thus a means to and end, and the end was the defense of Virginia’s class structure and the further subjugation of the poor of all “racial” colors.”

So the few wealthy spread the seeds of division via the lie of race- basically their message to poor whites was that, “you may be poor, but at least you are white… if you work hard someday you maybe can be rich like me.”

    • Does class say more about opportunity today than race or culture?
    • Are there still people of power using race to keep oppressed people divided? If so where and how?


Culture is defined by Merrian Webster as “the beliefs, customs, forms of communication and arts of a particular society, group, place or time”

Across the world there are thousands of cultures and millions of sub-cultures. In most every society there is usually a “majority culture” with norms and mores that direct basic “acceptable” behavior. However today, in most of the world as a result of media, internet communication, immigration and educational exposure, people tend to adapt to a variety of cultural norms from other societies. Yet most still will predominately follow the dominate culture, helping all understand the basic rules for getting along in society, communication, and conflict resolution.

Within any culture there are also sub-cultures. For example, Hip-Hop Culture can be one’s sub culture while their primary culture could be that of the USA, Kenya, or Poland. While I am uncomfortable seeing “USA/American as an all encompassing ethnicity*** (we are too different) I do see that there is a USA/American Culture, with all our class and ethnic differences we have a unique culture. We have a common language, government, and a commitment to education and personal freedom, part of which is our openness to differentness. For example, while we have basic wedding and marriage traditions – yet, we are comfortable with people “doing” their wedding in their own way. That is a unique cultural trait.

Also, Culture is unlike ethnicity in that it can be learned and changed. You are born into your ethnicity, but you can adapt and live into new cultures. Another misnomer we trip over is the term, Multi-Cultural. European-Americans often see this as a term to describe only people of color. While it is true that most persons of color, raised in the USA, must learn to traverse multiple cultures (at the very least their ethnic culture and majority culture), there are exceptions. First, there are persons of European-American ethnicity, (white) who also are multi-cultural. They have the experience, ability, and credibility to live respectfully within other cultures. On the other side, there are persons of color who are not multi-cultural, having not lived or had experiences outside their birth culture, they are then by definition mono-cultural.

In my experience I believe that while you cannot change your ethnicity, anyone can widen their cultural horizons and become multi-cultural. Multi-culture is a skill set we all can aspire to have to maneuver an increasingly diverse world with success and enjoyment.

    • Would you say your culture has expanded or changed over the course of your life?
    • What new sub-cultures have you been embraced into?
    • Are there aspects of your birth culture you now reject and no longer live out?
    • How have you experienced the confusion between ethnicity and culture?

*”* (however I would say European-American, African-American, etc are ethnicities)