The lens of seeing things as cultures

  • Things like "middle class", "working class", etc, are cultures rather than economic classes.
  • You often get good things (jobs, better treatment, etc) based on what class you are in.
  • Colleges' value is not in education, but in teaching you the culture of a higher social class.
  • Races are also cultures? Genders too?

The quotes below are not intended to be a proof—more like "this is what made me think about the topic".

Siderea — Class (American)

Being in a higher social class gets you things:

I am a professional with an advanced degree and possession of the shibboleths of the professional class. [...] So, for instance, [...] if I present with a serious booboo to just about any doctor, I will have narcotic pain relief offered me with no questions asked, because someone of my social class is not suspected of being one of those naughty "med-seeking" addicts. The decision of whether or not to trust me with a prescription for percoset is not made on the basis of the MassHealth card in my pocket marking me one of the precariat, but my hair style, my sense of fashion, my (lack of) make-up, my accent, my vocabulary, my body language [...] and all the other things which locate me in a social class to observers that know the code. Contrariwise, a patient of mine – who is a white woman of almost my age – who is covered with tattoos, speaks with an Eastie accent, is over 200lbs, and wears spandex and bling and heavy make-up, gets screamed at by an ER nurse for med-seeking when she hadn't asked for medication at all, and just wanted an x-ray for an old bone-break she was frighted she had reinjured in a fall.

It's not enough to have money to get into a higher class, because you still either don't know how to mimic the culture, or don't want to mimic it:

Just because your economic class is high enough to afford certain signs of a higher social class doesn't mean you will choose to spend your money on them; indeed you might prefer to spend your disposable income on the indicators of the class you're already in – encrusting something in Swarovski crystals doesn't make it higher class, just more expensive. And conversely there is much in class signaling which is not expensive or is free. I have spent less on my clothes in thrift stores than my working-class clients have in department stores. When I need to dress-to-dominate, I wear a lovely plum-colored blazer I picked up for, IIRC, $20. I'm pretty sure none of my working-class female patients have ever bought a blazer; I suspect none have ever shopped for one. Why would they?

Colleges as a way to get into a higher social class:

The one great instrument of social mobility in the US is college. But it's not the degree. It's the socialization. College – residential college – is most people's one great shot (or not so great shot) at being socialized into a higher social class.

College admission interviews are largely auditions of the applicants' ability to perform a social class: to dress the right way, to speak the right way, to have the right manners, to observe the right rituals. College admission officers are tasked with doing something much like casting a play: they are selecting individuals who seem highly likely, with the appropriate (and ideally minimal) direction, to "succeed" at the roles in which they're being cast.

[...] This may sound horrifying to you if you romanticize the educational function of higher education, but I do not by explaining this mean to criticize it. To the contrary, I think this is the one part of college that is unambiguously worth the priceif it delivers a class to you to which you would not otherwise have access, and if you then can figure out how to leverage that into a higher economic class.


Some years ago a local newspaper editor [...] raised the argument that banning smoking was an attack on "blue collar" "working class" people. [...] He was absolutely right: cigarette smoking has come to be seen as uncouth among the middle class, but was (and remains) socially acceptable among the lower class, and as such is much more prevalent in that population. The ban on smoking in restaurants – which, let me be clear, I am wildly in favor of, being someone who can't patronize a business with cigarette smoking in it – was instituted largely by middle-class people to coerce lower-class people from engaging in a behavior that violated middle-class norms. It was not done to that purpose, but it was de facto classist.

[...] I have in no way bought into the idea that all classes are equally good ways to be. I'm on-board with the idea that all people have equal rights before the law, and entitled to a baseline level of respect as fellow humans, but I'm not sure how much further than that I go. Somedays, the extent of my charitability is the possibly very problematic and never actually said aloud, "Well, what with how hard it is to change social class, you probably can't help being like you are."

I empathize when social classes not mine find themselves on the short end of the stick, such as in the above account of smoking regulations, but that doesn't mean I'd do anything to change that outcome. Like, "Wow, it must suck to have your class' norms so disrespected by a change in the law like that. Welp, I'm off to buy a burger in this now refreshingly smoke-free burger joint, and discuss with my class-peers how else we can change public policy to make it more support my class' norms – even, if necessary, at your class' norms' expense."

Slate Star Codex — Does Race Exist? Does Culture?

There are good arguments that race doesn't exist:

There seem to be two arguments [that race doesn't exist]:

  1. Race does not separate nicely into a number of obvious clusters. Between Europeans and Asians, for example, there’s more of a gradient of kind-of-European-looking-kind-of-Asian-looking folk with kind-of-European-kind-of-Asian genes. [...]
  2. The within-race genetic differences are much greater than the between-race genetic differences. That is, a given black person and a given white person could be more genetically similar than two black people. [...]

However, the same argument can be applied to cultures, and yet cultures do exist:

What if we compare race to its closest analog, culture?

[...] It is generally believed that we can talk about the United States as being made up of different cultures. For example, Southern seems to be a culture. Midwestern seems to be another culture. Yankees are probably a third, and the West gets a fourth.

[...] We will probably never be able to agree on exactly how many cultures there are. If I say “Californian” is a culture, and you say it’s just part of the American West culture, and she says actually California has multiple cultures – Silicon Valley, LA, Central Valley, etc – there is no objective criteria by which we can say who is right.

[...] It should be terribly obvious that almost all variation in people’s cultural traits is within-culture rather than between-culture. Do you play the piano? Speak Chinese? Eat meat? Vote straight Libertarian? Have gay sex? Go to the zoo? Certainly there is more variation among individuals within California in all of these areas than there is between the average Californian and the average New Yorker.

[...] Finally, a given person from Culture A may certainly be much more culturally similar to a given person from Culture B than they are to another Culture A member.

[...] Yet I can’t imagine someone saying “culture doesn’t exist” or “culture isn’t real”.

And more important, groups can vary in terms of culture; culture can have explanatory power; cultural stereotypes can be correct. I am pretty sure Westerners really are more rugged, Midwesterners more aw-shucks whitebread types, Southerners more racist.

This does not mean that races are cultures. But it's just one step from here towards "the thing people care about when they talk about 'race' is actually culture", and I like this step. Genetics is a complete red herring here.