This blogpost first appeared in the L.A. Public Library website on July 29, 2016: http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/what-do-notions-race-or-cultural-superiority-serve
Ideas of racial/cultural purity or superiority are alive and well in the United States. These are oppressive, non-biological, and unnatural concepts, pushed on us like other lies and illusions in our society. This wouldn’t matter much except people believe them. The Atlantic Review in 2007 published the results of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey that showed more than half of U.S. respondents claimed their culture was superior to others, more than respondents in Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Britain, and Sweden about their own cultures.
Another prejudice is expressed with the misnomer “Western Culture.” While this term may not be solely about race, I’ve heard it used to mean “white” or Caucasian without explicitly using those words.
For example, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King remarked during the recent Republican Convention: “Go back through, history… where are these contributions made by these other categories of people that you are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes then asked, “Than white people?” King responded, “Western civilization itself, rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”
Unfortunately, Hayes didn’t challenge King’s assertions. He called them “self-refuting.” But they need to be challenged. For as wrong as King may be, there are whole infrastructures in our country that keep these ideas palpitating. Even presidential nominees espouse them.
Let’s be clear: “Western” culture or civilization is a made-up concept. What we consider Western Culture was not born in a vacuum or developed solely by “white” people. For thousands of years, Europeans appropriated other people’s cultures.
From Africa and the Middle East came three of the world’s great religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The first “cradles of civilization” (where the conditions converged to establish forms of writing, agriculture, architecture, governance, and more) were the Niger River (Nigeria), the Nile Valley (Egypt), Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia), Indus Valley (India), Yellow River (China), Mexico and Central America (Olmecs/Toltecs/Mayas/Aztecs), and the Andes (Incas/Quechuas). None were in Europe.
From South and East Asia came Buddhism, paper, fireworks, oranges, porcelain, fishing reels, suspension bridges, tea, medicine, and much more. From Native peoples of the so-called Americas, who lived here for at least 30,000 years before Europeans arrived, the world obtained corn, tomatoes, chocolate, avocados, potatoes, rubber, gum, hummingbirds, forms of democracy, again herbal healing knowledge, and more. From Africa came musical instruments (guitars, drums, harps), mathematics, astronomy, engineering, medicine, and navigation, to name a few.
The “New World” and Africa also provided gold, silver, diamonds (and other minerals—all stolen) that made Europe a world power. To be accurate, European colonial domination in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia did the same thing.
And in the United States, don’t forget the “contributions” of African-based slave labor along with stolen land from Native Americans and mineral-and-oil rich territory conquered from Mexico. Free labor, free land, oil and minerals to exploit—enough to make any country “great.”
Our “culture,” therefore, is a product of the whole world. For example, if you’ve ever flown a kite, barbecued, surfed, participated in martial arts, become a cowboy, played rock-and-roll, bounced a rubber ball, chewed gum, eaten a chocolate bar, used a compass, witnessed a fireworks display, visited a library, smoked a cigarette, enjoyed a pepper, or drank coffee, then you’ve done things with origins in Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Native America.
When I grew up, schools and other institutions hounded Mexicans and others to “assimilate” into so-called Anglo culture. In fact, the assimilation expected was to submit to world cultures rendered through the prism, often violent, of U.S. history, laws, politics, etc., including a race-and-class based lens.
To be fair, most peoples of the world have adapted to, assimilated into or appropriated from other peoples—however, few to the extent or levels as Europeans or U.S. European-based peoples have done.
Does this mean that Europeans didn’t contribute anything meaningful? Of course not—Europeans and European-descended peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere have deep formidable imprints in modern technology, industry, science, governance, literature, and art.
Yet, this cannot be an argument for superiority. Only conquests, power dynamics, and wars have sustained such thinking. All of us from whatever culture, ethnicity, or so-called race, have added to the world’s complex development, both good and bad, both wondrous and disastrous.
Again, you wouldn’t know this if you studied official history books or watched TV and movies. Most of these facts and history is skewed. Misrepresented. Thrown on its head.
Recently, my wife Trini and I decided to explore our ancestral DNA. We are living in pioneering times in this field, which has yielded fascinating discoveries and will become more precise as more data becomes available. Current DNA tests through online sites provide only estimates, but quite amazing results nonetheless. We did this not to find any purity or “favored” cultural relationship, but to understand where we came from (at least from the past 1,000 years).
To provide a context, Trini and I both recognize our Native roots—Trini with the Huichol/Mexica tribes of Mexico and me with the Tarahumara/Mexica. In the U.S., we’ve worked with Native Americans (Lakota, Navajo, Chumash, and other tribes), including in spiritual and healing practices. Twenty years ago, Dine elders in the Navajo rez spiritually adopted Trini and, as a consequence, the whole family.
We also identify as working class—that class that must sell its physical or mental labor to survive. We were both born in the United States. And still, we culturally identify as Xicanx, drawing from our Mexican migrant parents, the indigenous, and expanding to include all genders and gender non-conforming members of our community. This simply situates us, providing a framework to distinguish us, not to separate or be classified into notions of superiority or inferiority.
Yet, we know we are culturally and racially mixed—like most Mexicans. A recent genome study in Mexico showed it is one of the most diverse lands on earth. Yet, genetics proved that Mexico has more native roots (at least 60 percent, taking into account all the people) and more African (in one state, Guerrero, the people had 22 percent African descent) than is often recognized. And that Mexico has significant numbers of Europeans (Spanish and otherwise), Middle Easterners, Asians, and more.
Now a summary of our DNA results.
Interestingly, Trini and I have similar ethnic/cultural breakdowns. The biggest chunk of our DNA is Native American (45 percent each). This is native from the whole Western Hemisphere. The tests didn’t break down Native America as well as I know they could. But for now, suffice it to say we have 45 percent DNA tied to all indigenous people of North, Central, and South America.
We also have African DNA—mine was linked to North Africa, Benin-Togo, and Mali. Trini was with Benin-Togo, North Africa, and Africa Southeastern Bantu. This makes sense due to the African presence in Mexico. We also have traces of the Middle East and Asia. With all this, we are each close to 55 to 60 percent with DNA from people of color. As for European strands, we are as diverse as you can imagine: Trini has traces of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Great Britain, European Jewish. Not surprisingly, she is about a quarter from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal). But she is also 9 percent from Italy/Greece. I have traces of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, European Jewish, Ireland, and 8 percent from Italy/Greece.
What threw me off is this—I’m only 13 percent from the Iberian Peninsula. I thought it would be more. But the real kicker—I have 13 percent from Great Britain (England/Scotland/Wales). I have no idea where this came from, but there you are.
Trini and I have the world in our DNA. What a wonderful racial and ethnic mix. With our DNA you can see the ongoing powerful impact of global migrant patterns, trades, wars, conquests, and other interactions humans have had over millennia.
Trini and I are also borderless, citizens of the planet, unbounded in many ways. We come from many stories, a culture of stories, a rich tapestry of colors, flavors, tongues, skins, and imaginations. And still, our biggest DNA bloc is Native American. As we stay connected to our indigenous roots, we can also honor the rest of humanity that came together at one time or another so both of us could be born, marry, have children, and help shape the world in the most positive, healing, and liberating ways possible.
The point is—wherever anyone is, wherever they came from, they belong. No one should ever feel estranged or less than others. The earth welcomes all, acknowledges every step regardless of skin color, creed, sexual orientation, or beliefs. Only nation-states and cultural xenophobes say otherwise. It’s time our economy, politics, and governance aligned to this important truth. It’s time the world could be seen as everyone’s home and all its inhabitants—people, animals, plants, trees—as part of a greater earth family. It’s time we allowed ourselves the dignity and respect we all deserve as human beings. Anything less dishonors the sacrifice and dreams of all our ancestors.
As the Lakota say, O’Mitakuye Oyasin—we are all related.
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