The Shift From Racism to Culturism

By Abel Merawi

Shift-from-racism-to-culturismJanuary 7, 2020 ( -- As long as I remember, I have heard the word ‘race’ being tossed around too many times. It could be from a stranger on the street who makes a stereotypical comment about a different group. It could be from mainstream media regarding a social or political problem ignited between two opposing factions. History books are filled with racial conflicts, yet I sense that they are somehow different from the ‘racial’ conflicts of today. Currently, most of the issues that center on race do not actually talk about racial differences but about cultural differences. In the following discussion, I will attempt to see the differences between racism and culturism by paying attention to their definition, features, and implications.

There had been numerous conflicts amongst humans in the name of race. Let us focus on only two major historical atrocities that have left their stains upon humanity: colonization and the holocaust. I have chosen the two because they both found their inception on the idea that some human races, blacks, and Jews in this case, respectively, are inferior and ought to either be exploited or eliminated. Though they have not faced much criticism or repercussion, intellectuals of the time have played a great role in spreading this stupidity. In their time, they made the world believe that some human races are biologically inferior to others. This made colonization morally acceptable because the colonizers believed that they were dealing with inferior human beings not entitled to basic human rights. Hitler believed in the scientific studies in eugenics to the point of assuming that Germans have superior genes to Jews. Thus, the holocaust was considered justifiable in their view because it was a mission to exterminate the inferior human race and further the evolutionary process by attaining superior human beings to rule the world. Viewing it from our present vantage point, it is difficult to accept the sheer ignorance and stupidity of that view.

Racism can operate only when we assume there is a biological difference amongst people. However, this assumption has been conclusively disproven by scientific studies conducted mostly after World War II. Then, why do people still talk about race and where do our differences come from? The answer is simple; it is because people confuse cultural differences with racial differences. In the book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century,’ Yuval Noah Harari states, “People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against traditional racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted. Traditional racism is waning, but the world is now full of ‘culturists’.” People grow up in different societies with different cultural values, which provide them with a different meaning to life. Globalization has facilitated the close relationship between various cultures of the world. Since every culture assumes that it is right, it makes it difficult for different cultures to coexist. Given our previous wrong assumptions about race, it becomes easier for people to confuse cultural differences with racial ones.

To be a racist is to believe human beings are genetically different, while to be a culturist is to believe that people are culturally different. The practical consequences, either positive or positive, start when we realize that culture is more alterable or changeable than race or biology. Harari explains that it can have a positive effect since people are more tolerant of cultural differences that can possibly change than to unchangeable biological differences. He also shows the negative effect that results in anger on those who can but do not change. For instance, people from a religious culture can find it hard to live with people from liberal cultures. But these differences can be tolerated because there is always the possibility of change. However, it can lead to a conflict when one culture doesn’t have the desire to accept and change to another culture. The shift from race to culture is necessary as long as we deal with the implications that accompany it.

When we deal with culturism, we find it difficult to decide the culture that needs to change and the culture that shouldn’t and should be accepted. Even if cultures could potentially change, it does not necessarily mean that they need to change. To take a popular example, African Americans are expected to accept the dominant ‘white’ culture. But what makes their culture inferior and the latter superior? Plus, is the white culture conducive enough to give them the chance to change or does it close the doors on them, making it impossible to participate in it? Generally, when the assumingly superior culture creates a system that puts a barrier on others to prevent them from benefiting from the economic and political opportunities, it becomes almost impossible to assimilate. The same issue is raised in relation to immigration. The immigrants are expected to adopt the culture of their host country, although the extent of assimilation is always questionable. Though it is necessary to accept the core values of the host country, it is unjust to abandon all of their previous values. At times, it is even useful to learn the cultural values of immigrants as long as it doesn’t threaten the host country. For instance, I expect a permanent guest to my house to respect rules like coming home before midnight or doing some house chores. However, I do not expect my guest to share my religion.  

Some cultural arguments are acceptable but others are plainly unjustifiable. Harari points out three common flaws in the arguments of culturists. He states, “First, culturists often confuse local superiority with objective superiority.” A culture could be economically and politically superior in one country but this never means that it is objectively the greatest culture in the world. “Second, when you clearly define a yardstick, a time, and a place, culturist claims may well be empirically sound. But, all too often, people adopt very general culturist claims, which make little sense.” For instance, when we say a culture is intolerant, we have to define it specifically by stating to what and to whom it is intolerant to rather than making a vague statement. A culture can be intolerant to homosexuals but tolerant to obese people. As a third problem, Harari states, “Yet the worst problem with culturist claims is that, despite their statistical nature, they are all too often used to prejudge individuals.” To perceive every individual from a certain culture as identical is absolutely wrong because it neglects personal differences. Just because I am from a given culture, it does not mean that I accept every aspect of my culture. For these reasons, it is better to consider various issues before jumping into cultural conclusions and becoming a culturist.

Now that we have established the difference between racism and culturism, it is time to see what we do with this knowledge. We have overcome the greatest obstacle when we reject racism. Yet we still have to deal with cultural differences because they are a growing concern for our generation. If we are to avoid unnecessary conflicts, we must prepare ourselves for a productive dialogue amongst various cultures with a spirit of tolerance. We have to realize that humanity transcends all cultures and that every culture is created for the betterment of our lives. Through association and dialogue, we can take the best aspects of every culture, and avoid the wrong ones, and still have a lot of room for diversity.


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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