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We All Make Our Own Paper Tigers: Amy Chua and Why ‘Culture’ Doesn’t Displace ‘Race’ the Way You Think It Does

untitled2_fisxcLast week, I did a post on Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua’s upcoming book, in which she claims to have determined which American subcultures are superior, and therefore which are inferior.  A problem that I had with the book (or to be more precise, Chua and her publisher’s advance detailing of the book) is that it seemed clear to me that Chua is largely using “culture” as a stand-in for race.  Not surprisingly, this has gotten a fair amount of pushback.  Brandon Berg probably summed up this criticism best and most succinctly (as opposed to Vikram, who I believe missed my point entirely):

You say that by “culture” she really means “race,” but the examples you give suggest otherwise…  The upshot of this book will be that culture explains everything. If genes are mentioned at all, it will be only to dismiss the idea that genetic differences explain why some subpopulations are more successful than others.

And, true enough, in their early released material Chua and her husband and co-author and husband Jeb Rubenfeld do use the word culture repetitively, and are very careful to avoid the word race whenever possible.  Despite this, I’m going to double down on my initial claim; furthermore, I’m going to go one step further and say that the error Chua and Rubenfeld make is one made by most of us in this country whenever start talking about different ethnic American cultures.

A refrain you hear often these days is that when we talk about race in America, we’re really talking about culture.  Some of this talk at the fringes is clearly racism apologetics, but most of it isn’t.  (My admittedly biased favorite example of the latter remains Mike Dwyer’s musing from last September.)  I believe I understand the general thrust of this argument; indeed, I think it recognizes some important truths and almost gets it right — almost, but not quite.  In fact, the older I get, the more I become convinced it is actually the opposite that is true:

When we talk about ethnic culture in America, I have come to believe, we’re really just talking about race and pretending we’re not.


For over a decade, I worked with an Asian-American woman who was pretty much the sole breadwinner for her extended family.  She had immigrated as a young girl with her parents, but by the time I knew her she was in her early twenties her dad was no longer around.  She remains one of the brightest people I have ever met, but when she started with our firm as a receptionist her level of education was frankly atrocious.  I am sure she would have excelled in high school if she had put more time into it, and I have even less doubt that had she gone to college immediately after graduation she would have flourished.  Instead, she had spent most of her adult life to that point working more than forty hours a week to support her mother, her younger sisters, and (eventually) three pretty terrific kids.  The whole kit and caboodle lived in a small, cheap, two-bedroom apartment at the time.

One of the things I have noticed over the years is how many people who heard this thumbnail of her story linked her circumstances to being Asian.  “Oh, that’s just the way Asians culture is,” people would say.  “They are supposed to care for their ancestors at their own expense — especially the first few generations of immigrants.  I know a lot about Asians, you see.”  My guess is that a lot of people reading this are already busy inside of their heads finding their own links between my co-worker’s story and what they know about “Asian culture.”

As you may have already guessed, I bring up this story because it is almost the exact mirror image of Amy Chua’s personal story. The moral of Chua’s story (according to Chua, at least) is the vital importance of being a helicopter parent. Chua’s missive dictates that parents sacrifice everything in order to assure the highest possible social standing of their offspring.  That might well mean working seventy hours a week to ensure that your child goes to the right private pre-school, as well as guaranteeing tutors, tennis coaches, and piano or violin lessons. (And I mean violin or piano; the right kind of people do not send their children to guitar or saxophone lessons.)  That the child might wish to have other pursuits is immaterial, because the parent knows what is best in the long term.  This, too, is what we all know Asian culture dictates.

at Verizon Center on February 8, 2012 in Washington, DC.Add to those stories the tale of Jeremy “Linsanity” Lin, the NBA star whose upper-middle class and Taiwanese-born Palo Alto mother let him spend all of his time free time playing basketball at the local YMCA.  Shirley Lin did this despite strong criticism from other mothers in the community, simply because it was what her son loved doing.  Jeremy eventually received a basketball scholarship to Harvard, and after graduation won a walk-on spot on his hometown Golden State Warriors before becoming a star for the NY Knicks.  The story of Shirley and Jeremy Lin is also taken pretty universally as the “what Asian cultures do.”  Another example of “what Asian Cultures do” is famed martial arts expert and movie star Bruce Lee, who, despite his parents’ wealth, spent most of his teenaged days in Hong Kong on the streets getting into trouble, and at eighteen came to America with just $100 in his pocket, where he finally took it upon himself to enroll in and complete high school.

For those not keeping score, that brings the sum total (so far) of what We All Know About Asian Culture to: Children sacrificing college to take care of their elders so those elders don’t have to work, except when those elders force their children to devote their entire childhood to getting into the right college, but making exceptions for those Asian elders that let their kids follow unrealistic dreams, assuming of course that they aren’t really pretty un-parent-y and their kids have to learn how to succeed on their own grit and gumption.  And of course, I assume if we want to we can  Google  other successful Asian Americans and add a whole slough of other, different ways which we can all pretend to be definitively emblematic of what “we know about Asian culture.”

What I find fascinating about our collective reaction to Chua’s parenting style is this: Were I to think of one American subculture that best describes being those who are upper-middle class, scrambling to get their kids into the “right” pre-schools, forcing violin and tennis lessons “because it’s the kind of thing that the right kind of people do,” and just generally trying their damnedest to break into the old-money set, the subculture I think of isn’t Chinese Americans.  It’s the tony, artsy, upper-middle class Manhattanite set, of which Chua and Rubenfeld are each firmly ensconced members.  Flanigan_142x175It is the kind of people who Caitlin Flannigan has spent an entire career vapidly assuming represent the cutting edge of vast national societal trends.  When I look at the Chinese Americans I know in Portland, or Seattle, or Salt Lake, their lives have as little in common with Chua’s as the Jews I know from those same cities have in common with Rubenfeld.

That we tend to look at Chua — and Lin, and Lee, and my unnamed co-worker — and say for each of them despite their obvious disparate diversity, “that’s just what Chinese and/or Asian Americans are like” actually says more about us than it does Chinese and/or Asian Americans.

And what it says about us isn’t particularly flattering.


One of the things we all know about African American culture is its unhealthy reliance on illegal drugs — especially crack cocaine.

In the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, crack was an epidemic that ran rampant through the African American community.  The drug helped black Americans’ propensity to live a gangster-lifestyle flourish.  As a generation of African American crack-babies was born, it coupled with the growing single-mother status amongst black parents to ensure a self-inflicted poverty of black culture.  news0134Even Whitney Houston, a talented celebrity who had the world at her feet, just couldn’t control herself and became a crack head.

This is all quite common knowledge.  The problem, however, is that, like our judgments of Asian-American parenting, much of what is contained within this “common knowledge” is our own personal baggage.

It is true that blacks were hit harder by crack cocaine at one point in time, especially in economically depressed parts of large American urban areas.  Since then, however, much of the crack problem has moved to rural areas.  According to government statistics, whites actually make up almost 80% of all these rural crack users.  What’s more, whites have long overtaken blacks as the primary users in urban areas by a wide margin that’s growing.  Despite this, we all know that the use (and abuse) of crack cocaine is a part of “black culture.”  Also despite this, I have never once heard of crack being a characteristic of “white culture.”  Similarly, young male whites, Asians and even Jews all have a tendency to be violent and stupid, and those from certain socio-economic classes sometimes form groups to commit crimes.  In fact, this is true of a percentage of young males throughout all cultures in every part of the world, and always has been.  For whatever reason though, we all “know” that gangs are part of black culture in a way we all know they aren’t part of white culture, Asian culture, or Jewish culture.

The whole crack baby epidemic turned out to be a myth, one that I have no doubt we all embraced largely because it said about black culture what we wanted it to say.  And of course when we talk about “crack heads” we’re sort of obliged to bring up Whitney Houston (or perhaps Marion Barry); ht_robert_downey_jr_gq_cover_thg_130416_vblogwe choose  to refer to the out of control crack usage of Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, and Robert Downey, Jr. as indicators of problems with “substance addiction.”  We do this, of course, because being a crack head is an unfortunate part of black culture, and it’s not a part of white culture at all.  That this is so is because of no reason other than we all agree to say that it is.

Even the stories we tell ourselves about black culture, single parenthood and poverty aren’t as clear-cut as we like to pretend.  It is true that in the United States, blacks (as a percentage) raise more kids in single-family homes than other demographics.  But that statistic’s bearing on poverty is a little murkier, and appears to be a story we like to tell ourselves to put the onus of poverty on the impoverished.  If this connection was as clear as the ethnic-culture warriors like to profess, then were you to plot out the number of single parents, number of children in poverty, and users of welfare over time on a graph, those three lines would roll together in sad, discordant, ant-and-grasshopper-esque concert.  But in fact, they don’t:



[See also: black culture and hoodies, black culture and marijuana, black culture and fights in restaurants.]

Or to put it another way, go back to the story of my co-worker above: A bright Asian-American who didn’t really excel in high school or go to college because she had to support her mom (her dad was no longer there) and her extended family, all of them living in a cramped apartment that seemed too small to house them all.  Now go back and reread that entire scenario, but replace the phrase “Asian-American” with “African-American.”

You will find, I believe, that this exact same story has the same stickiness when applied to “black culture” as it does with “Asian culture.”  What’s funny, though, is that when you do so many of the story’s plot points — poor high school performance, no college, working long hours for low wages, living in a cramped apartment, financially dependent adults — suddenly shift, and the story becomes not one of cultural strength but of cultural weakness.  I‘m even willing to bet more than a few people create within their own heads a forgiving story about the absent Asian-American father (death, perhaps?) and make the absent African-American father into a deadbeat.  Same facts, same story, and yet each corroborate whatever decision we’ve already made about a particular American ethnic culture.

Similarly, if Amy Chua had been born Amy Brownstone and still written her domineering-mothering book, we would have all rolled out eyes at yet another Manhattan socialite breathlessly telling all of America to be just like her and her friends.  Not one of us would have said, “Wait, you want us to raise our kids the Asian way?”

And therein lies my problem with her new book on “superior cultures.”  If she had talked about what I and other Portlanders could learn from the Manhattan upper crust set, I’d be game to listen.  If she identified ways in which the culture of Atlanta is merging Old South conservative sensibilities with a modern cosmopolitan ways of looking at things, I’d be intrigued.  If she wanted to look at how the newest generations of Salt Lake liberals were transforming the LDS and what lessons we should take away for our own communities, I would be fascinated.  Instead, the “cultural” categories identified by Chua and Rubenfeld are in fact almost all ethnic descriptors.  They ask me to believe that she and her children have more in common with my coworker than I do, or more than an upper-class, middle-class, or impoverished Chinese mom in Bellingham, Savannah, Ogden, or Honolulu has with her own friends, neighbors and coworkers, regardless of ethnicity.  And that is bulls**t, even if we like to tell ourselves it isn’t.

The truth is that when we talk about ethic cultures in America, we have a tendency to choose which we characteristics to use to condemn a culture and which we use to forgive based on our own ethic already-existing prejudices; we are completely unaware that we are do so.

Chua and Rubenfeld rightly feel it’s all good and well for them to have their fellow Manhattanites circa 2014 judge them first and foremost as being Chinese-American or Jewish, and no skin off their back if we downgrade American blacks, Hispanics or others at the same time.  Those at the top rungs always look at their perch and find it divinely ordained.  They should take care to remember, however, that it wasn’t really all that long ago when their own American ethnicity would have had them branded sneaky, traitorous, and even sub-human.

I bet they wouldn’t have thought that an objective judgement of “culture.”


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84 thoughts on “We All Make Our Own Paper Tigers: Amy Chua and Why ‘Culture’ Doesn’t Displace ‘Race’ the Way You Think It Does

  1. I think a part of the question – for me, at least – is the degree to which culture is or isn’t portable. Are there threads linking the Chinese-American culture in Manhattan to Portland? I trust Tod that it does not. I do know that what she describes does describe the Chinese-American culture where I grew up. Which is, of course, a long way from Manhattan. Some of its manifestations are different, of course. Private schooling isn’t as big a deal back home as it is in Manhattan, and so “Get them into the most elite private schools” becomes “Move into the area where the absolute best schools are, and if the district lines change, move.” I’m also not sure if I was familiar with any group of kids whose lives were as bombarded with resume-enhancing extra-curriculars (which they didn’t pick up from our local culture because where I was from was not Manhattan).

    I have, of course, also met numerous Asian-Americans who didn’t fit the stereotype. Most notably, and perhaps not coincidentally to your take on the issue, when I was living in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also worthwhile to note that the Chinese-Americans I went to school with weren’t randomly selected. They were the ones that went to my five-star high school. In some cases of counterexamples big and small – people who don’t fit the stereotype of ambitious-family and such – though most of them I could not say I was familiar with enough to know if they were Chinese, Chinese-American, or whether they came from a Korean or Vietnamese culture (a lot of Vietnamese settled where I did).

    The most interesting comment in response to your original post was Wale Bello talking about the tension of the family culture and the broader culture. That’s the thing I want to hear most about. Because while your criticisms are well took, it’s hard to escape the element of the immigrants from China and their families having culture values and behaviors that exist along the East Coast and Gulf Coast. There are also, of course, statistics about Asian Americans suggesting that their success is coming from somewhere. Maybe not culture, and obviously there is a great deal of variance among them as there is among any large group, but something that we can’t process-eliminate to nothing.


    • Will, the Chinese-American community in New York City and the surrounding area is big number wise and my career has been spent bringing them through the immigration system. There is a considerable amount of socio-economic differences between them. Most of my clients aren’t really Tiger Moms in the way that Chua is. They don’t have the time, energy, money, or even the inclination to be so. There kids aren’t helicoptered at all and the pressure to do well in school is probably about average American levels.


      • Except that we really have to understand that immigrants to Modern America
        are already ten cuts above prior immigration waves (leaving aside Germans…
        and perhaps Latino Jews), in terms of class from their home country.

        My great-grandparents were upper middle class (shopowners) at home.
        They came here with nothing but the shirt on their backs. Within a few years,
        they had a shop, and amassed a decent chunk of wealth. Because they were
        good with money…


  2. Isn’t there a study where they give you a personality test and claim to give you a personalized assessment, but in reality everyone gets the same description written vaguely enough to apply to almost anyone. And everyone says, “Wow… They nailed me!” This feels like that.

    I think a real issue is the extent to which we view the behavior of people with marked identities as being related to those identifiers. A black guy arrested for crack? Well, you know about black folks and crack. A white guy arrested for crack? Well, you know that guy’s been messed up for a while. So, eventually, we create “cultures” that encompass just about everything and we squint hard enough to make them fit what we want them to fit.

    Basically, we treat culture like a tabloid horoscope.


  3. “…and are very careful not to avoid the word race whenever possible.”

    I assume you mean either “very careful not to use…” or “very careful to avoid…” but not “very careful not to avoid”. Unless I misunderstood that. (Feel free to delete this as I don’t want to create an unnecessary subthread on grammar; I just want to make sure your point is as you want it to be.)


  4. “When we talk about ethnic culture in America, I have come to believe, we’re really just talking about race and pretending we’re not.”

    I this is true…sorta. We are talking about race but only so far as that race has a more homogeneous culture. The point of my post back in September was that modern criticisms do not fit the old model of literally believing a certain race is inferior. Do people still unfairly make negative generalizations about whole cultures? Absolutely. But because there is more of an understanding that race doesn’t determine behavior, I think we have to acknowledge that the terms have changed and figure out what that means.

    Also, the problem with single-mother, black homes goes back much farther than the 80s. It was well-documented in Black Metropolis back in 1945 and when you read it the similarities to today are striking. Single-mother births are a feature of a certain conservative culture that exists among blacks on a more widespread level and also among whites in red states. It’s why KY has many more unwed births than NY even though the actual pregnancy rate are fairly similar.


  5. In 1977, I was about to go discover an astonishing thing in Boston: People told Polish jokes. And black jokes. And Mexican jokes.

    Pretty much all I’d ever heard were French jokes, being from Maine, where French Arcadians were, at the time, the majority minority. And I was a lost member of that tribe, too.

    I knew my tribe was stupid, lazy, ugly. They smelled bad, and even animals would avoid them if they could. It was such a shameful thing that both my grandmothers, though fluent in French, never spoke a word of it around me. They never made French food, sticking to Anglicized dishes, though they were both good cooks. I’ve actually spent some time considering one grandmother, her family harried out of Canada when she was a child. The only evidence I remember of her embracing her culture is her love of the Iris; her favorite flower.

    There is no French race, and the ‘French’ I got from my grandmothers was all mixed up with Abenaki and English and Scotts and all the other ‘races’ that settled the Maritimes.

    I’d certainly like to fill in those blanks of heritage; the taste of it, the choices of dress and the layout of home. And the places where there was enough concentration of Frenchmen to hold onto heritage were ‘bad’ places to go. So they hid it away, forgotten and never spoken of because there was nothing worse then being a Canuck.

    These games are shameful.


    • Because almost everyone wants to reserve the right to poopoo on someone else’s culture and its adherents. Fewer people want to reserve the right to do it on race, or at least have given up on doing so unless filtered through something else.


      • Except you don’t, not really. You don’t choose your family and upbringing and to the extent it shapes your personality most of the damage has been done by the time you’re able to do any choosing.

        It’s like religion, only more so. Even if you reject the church you grew up in, it’s still going to exert an influence over what you later move to, if anything.


      • Rod,
        damn, I hope not. I really, truly hope not.
        Because a TON of people grow up in TRULY horrid environments.
        I don’t want their culture saying its okay to beat your children.
        I don’t want their culture saying it’s okay for siblings to rape each other.

        We can see cultures changing, people surpassing them every day.
        (I can cite sources on AA changing minds on gay marriage).


    • Since I don’t seem to be getting answers to the question I thought I asked I’ll restate a few things.

      I use the word culture in the anthropological sense. As such, growing up in an abusive or disadvantaged set of personal circumstances is not necessarily a marker of differing culture. It further means that you can’t “choose” your culture, it’s chosen for you. Certainly, any individual can transcend some cultural bounds, but an individual in a (culturally) defined racial category is often also able to be “a credit to his race”.

      If we look at history we find plenty of examples of cultural animus providing the incentive for atrocities.

      So I repeat my question.


      • I don’t really understand your question. Mendacity has to do with the truthfulness of something.

        Are you implying that cultural bias is more truthful (“less mendacious”) than racial bias?

        Or are you trying to expose some kind of supposed hypocrisy? If it’s the latter, that strikes me as one of those “how come there’s no white history month?” type of question.


      • I see how the original question might have caused confusion. Please substitute the below.

        The implication is that a genuine cultural critique is okay, or maybe less bad than a veiled racial critique. My question is, why would the cultural critique be less bad than the racial critique?


      • Helio, I assume you believe that there are no aspects of southern fundamentalist culture worthy of rebuke? Or fundamentalist Islam? I would also assume that you would not hesitate to criticize this behavior.

        So I would therefore guess that your criticism of the criticism is a criticism of the culture because of the acts? A belief that the acts (or traditions or attitudes) shouldn’t reflect negatively on the culture itself?

        I personally find culture specifically easy to target because it’s of greater commonality than race or some other immutable characteristic that follows you around wherever you go. For example, there are aspects of the LDS Church and the culture surrounding it that I admire, and aspects that I object to. These are things that are, to some extent, in accordance with either their formal values or behavior consistent enough in them to be observable.

        As such, I think the industriousness I found when I was living out there with them to be admirable. I also appreciate their family-orientedness and how not only do they place a value on partnering up, but actively seek to help their members do so. I think this reflects positiviely on their religion and their culture. On the other hand, they have formal values against homosexuality that I find objectionable. Informally, the way that they treat people certain people within society to also be objectionable, whether that’s a formal part of the religion or an informal part of the culture (often, I get a sense of the latter).

        I can also point to some things about the culture or cultures that I do belong to. Even irrevocably. I will never escape southern white culture even if I object to some behaviors and attitudes that are found consistently enough to be a cultural trait. That doesn’t make it okay to say “F the south” as some people are inclined to do. But it also does mean that there is something called “southern white culture” that is vulnerable to critique and that reflects negatively on the region and its culture among the white population there.

        Does that make sense? Does that help?


      • : “My question is, why would the cultural critique be less bad than the racial critique?”

        I would respond that there are two main reasons: practical and historical.

        1. Practically speaking, culture, while deeply ingrained and usually slow-changing, is still malleable and to a large extent a question of choice. In fact, I think you can argue that America is America is precisely because culture is as malleable as it is. I am white and my family comes from an almost entirely all-Irish lineage, but I listen to bebop, cook non-Americanized Thai and Mexican food, and enjoy easing Kundera and Dostoevsky. I am a urbanite in a cosmopolitan metropolis, but if I chose to I could give away my possessions, move to Alaska and live off the land, or move to a California commune, or live in rural Texas and claim redneck culture as my own.

        But I can never not be white.

        Culturalism as a practice is rife with potential pitfalls, and is often quite stupid. But it still has the potential to be useful. Were Dennis Saunders and I to debate with which of our two very different cultures is inherently better, one of us might win, one of us might lose, or (more likely, knowing Dennis) we’d each come away richer and more respectful and curious of those cultures. On the other hand, were we simply to declare Dennis inferior because he’s black, and not entertain arguments from him to the contrary for that exact reason… then what?

        Or to put it another way, the very act racism is an inherent stifling of dissent, disagreement, and reason. Culturalism can be that, but often isn’t — indeed, more often than not I see it used as a self-critique.

        2. Historically, critiques of groups of people by culture can lead to good results for all, good results for some, or astoundingly bad results for a small minority. Racism’s history isn’t so diverse: you only ever get that last one.


      • My question is, why would the cultural critique be less bad than the racial critique?

        I sort of understand what a cultural critique is, but I’m having a hard time to figure out what a racial critique is.

        Race generally refers to one of two things: race as historically and socially constructed identity (eg the white race as delineated by the one-drop rule) or race as genetic clustering.

        I’ve never heard anyone imply that a critique of historical and social identity is bad; in fact, that probably falls more into the category of cultural critique than racial critique.

        I have heard lots of people offer critiques that either ascribe the facets of individual identity wholly or in large measure to membership in a particular genetic cluster or make characterizations of relative worth among different cluster groups. That, however, is not criticism. It’s just racism and ethnic superiority.

        I guess my response is to turn the question back around and ask you to explain to me how you could accomplish anything resembling a “racial critique” that isn’t just racism or ethnic supremacy. Maybe I’m missing something, but it appears that your question answers itself.


      • But I can never not be white.

        I do think I get what you’re saying, but I’m not so sure. I do think race is mutable and malleable, even though “it” presumes to be timeless, claiming to be based on allegedly immutable characteristics. Who counts as “white” and who counts as “of color” (or other “race”) is often socially constructed, through the law, through common practice, etc.

        There is, or has been, an argument that Irish people in the US at one time did not count as “white.” (e.g., Ignatiev, “How the Irish Became White,” or Roediger, “Wages of Whiteness”). That literature has been much challenged and I’m not a fan of it (nor am I a fan of its most vocal critics, who go way overboard in my opinion). Also, and have in the past illustrated how Jews have a tendency to be seen as white or non-white, depending on the circumstance, and how Jewishness can be a mixture of religion, ethnicity, and “culture,” perhaps also with the racialized otherness often directed at Jewish people.

        By saying all this, I’m not saying race isn’t real, only that its reality is grounded in something that historically is mutable. Or at least arguably so. I’m aware of the argument that however socially constructed race might be, it functions as an enduring “essence.” At least this is how I interpret Walter Benn Michaels’s “Trouble with Diversity” argument.

        Part of my point is that in this discussion, and the other two threads, people here seem to be arguing over whether so-and-so is talking about “culture” or really talking about “race,” or over whether putative cultural features are meant to be or coded as racial features. Maybe to a very real and uncomfortable extent, culture is or can be intermixed with race, and vice versa.


      • This is all very true, but adding more than I wanted to make the point I was trying to make. It will come as no surprise to regular readers to hear that I am one who believes that race is a social construct, in a way “auburn hair” is not.


      • Excellent comment j r.

        Here’s how I would phrase the phrase an answer to Helio’s question (why a cultural critique is less bad than a racial critique):

        If we identify culture with racial properties, and racial properties are inherent to individuals, then a critique of culture gets cashed out in terms of immutable, biologically determined properties.

        If a identify a culture with a set of beliefs, practices and norms (one of which may the belief that culture = race), then a critique of culture gets cashed out in terms of mutable beliefs and practices which are extrinsic to the individual (even tho a person might self-identify and internalize those beliefs/practices).

        It seems to me that the second suggestion is a) descriptively accurate and b) analyzes claims of “superiority” in terms of (contingent) practices rather than (inherent) biological properties.


      • “culture, while deeply ingrained and usually slow-changing, is still malleable and to a large extent a question of choice.”

        Choose to be Mongolian tomorrow.

        “I can never not be white.”

        Compose your next post in Farsi.

        “Or to put it another way, the very act racism is an inherent stifling of dissent, disagreement, and reason. Culturalism can be that, but often isn’t”

        Try it with someone outside a tight little blog community.

        Again, there’s a presupposition that if Chua said (honestly from her perspective), “African-Americans of Yoruban descent are indolent” it’s somehow less objectionable than if she said “dark skinned people are indolent.” Why? Amiable chats you have on a blog with another dude is not an answer.


      • “That ‘no’ shouldn’t be there.”

        Okay. As a member of a culture that I share with southern fundamentalists (language, much popular culture, federal government, etc.) I criticize the religious beliefs to the extent I feel is appropriate.


      • “If you’re going to ignore the majority of what I said”

        I suspect you simply don’t understand the anthropological definition of culture. The notion that any degree of choice is involved is absurd.


      • So the degree to which Chua — or for that matter, myself — dictate our children’s day to day schedule is something neither of us has a choice about?

        If whatever definition of you’re talking about doesn’t allow for those types of choices, it’s not relevant to the “culture” used in Chua’s argument.


      • Helio, here’s the first anthropological definition of “culture” I could find (from Oregon State under the heading “Definitions of Anthropological terms”:

        culture – The learned patterns of behavior and thought that help a group adapt to it’s surroundings.

        It seems to me that word “learned” is doing all the work there, no?


      • Again, there’s a presupposition that if Chua said (honestly from her perspective), “African-Americans of Yoruban descent are indolent” it’s somehow less objectionable than if she said “dark skinned people are indolent.” Why?

        Again, your question remains problematic. Is anyone really saying that the former is fine, while the latter is not?

        What people are grappling with is trying to figure out when a discussion of culture is a legitimate consideration of how ideas and behaviors are disseminated within some group of people and when it’s just a cover for a base exercise in racial stereotyping.

        With cultural discussions, the goal is to come to some deeper understanding of transmission mechanisms; although you can certainly make the error of simply being snobbish. However, with racial discussions it’s really hard to be anything other than racist.

        Maybe the question that you really want to ask is: why is it less objectionable to be snobbish than to be racist? The comments above touch on that topic. For me it comes down to the fact that people can more easily outrun cultural stereotypes than it is racial stereotypes; therefore it is easier for people to assert their humanity in the face of snobbishness than it is in the face of racism. Of course, it’s possible that we may be close to the day when that is no longer true and socioeconomic class will be more immutable than race.


      • , By saying all this, I’m not saying race isn’t real, only that its reality is grounded in something that historically is mutable.

        Consider two people: Barack Obama and the actor Rashida Jones. They both have a “white” mother and a “black” father. Genetically, they both have an equal claim to white culture and black culture, however you want to define those. Yet Obama really has no choice but to be seen as black due to his skin color, while most people who see Jones (daughter of music producer Quincy Jones) on The Office or Parks and Recreation likely have no idea she’s mixed race.

        Race may be socially-constructed and malleable, but not by the individual. You’re sort of stuck with whatever society constructs for you.


      • Pierre, I think its moer accurate to say that during the 19th and early 20th century, the Irish could be seen as white or the other depending on the circumstances. When it came to the persecution of people of color and the white racists needed numbers, the Irish Catholics were white. When such a thing wasn’t necessary or when British imperial politics were at play, the Irsih were seen as the other. You see the same general phenomena with Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews. They counted as whites when racists needed more whites and were the other when not needed.


      • There is, or has been, an argument that Irish people in the US at one time did not count as “white.”

        Wait, are you saying the Irish count as white now? Dammit, will the madness never end?


  6. I think a lot of this has to do with how we define culture. Often times, we look very superficially at culture, at what are derisively called the three F’s… food, festivals, and fabric. But these are really just small parts of culture. More important parts of culture have to do with values, views on relationships (romantic, friendship, and family), how they play and work, etc. And major problems arise because we often try to reverse engineer our understanding of these by looking at observable outcomes and working backwards. Black folks in America have less accumulated wealth than white folks? It must have to do with their work ethic. Asians are overrepresented at top universities? They must really value education. Etc.


    • We devolve culture to food, festivals, and fabrics because genuine multi-culturalism is near impossible to pull off. The moral and ethical beliefs of a particular are often incompatible with the moral and ethical beliefs in other cultures. In America we have multiple cultures that are very strict when it comes to gender and sexual norms. Some of these cultures are home grown like the Evangelcial Christians and Ultra-Orthodox Jews and others are immigrants like the stricter Muslims. We also have people rightly fighting for greater sexual and gender freedom. Reconciling the different factions is nigh impossible.

      Thats why a lot of multicultural countries, especially in the West, really stress food, festivals, and fabric over the other elements of cultures. Food, festivals, and fabrics are safe. They can be shared and admired by all in most circumstances. When you go into the cosmology of different cultures you run into problems because the different worldviews are often in complete contradiction to each other. To maintain the peace, the only solution is the liberal solution in which every individual adult is allowed to do more or less as they please and the role of government is simply to allow this without imposing a set of values on society as a whole. This screws some people at least during childhood. A transgender individual could be born into a really traditional family but imposing any sort of norms, be it liberal or conservative, on society as whole doesn’t have a great track record.


      • While I think you are right about the practical reality of constructing a multicultural society, I was talking more about our understanding of other cultures. We can understand those aspects of those cultures without necessarily fully accommodating them when conflict arises.

        If you asked a lot of people to share what they knew about ultra orthodox Jews, they’d probably talk about skullcaps, curly sideburns, and plain clothing. They might know about keeping kosher. There is a very good chance they would have no idea about the gender segregation. Which means they really don’t know anything about the culture. Which limits their ability to make reasoned decisions about if, how, and when to interact with that culture. Even if we say that we won’t allow our social culture to be defined by ultra orthodox Jews, we still ought to understand their experience beyond how they look.


  7. I largely agree with your post and our discussion in post number one but will make some observations.

    1. I think the inclusion of Mormons was probably done in a way to go against any claims that this is about race. It might be too clever by half because people don’t seem to be falling about it.

    2. I don’t know anything about the media and publishing world but I have to think that there were lots of meetings devoted to thinking about what pushback and controversies this book would get. I wonder if any publisher rejected the book for being wrong or not wanting the controversy. This is largely part of my “All Troll Economy” belief. We seem to be addicted to outrage and publishers now this and will court this. Hence the continuing concern trolling from Douthat to the secular readership of the Times.

    3. What is interesting to me is that you as a Portlander seem to think that this is a monolithic block of upper-middle class NYC Metro Area behavior. Since I grew up in upper-middle class NYC, I know a lot more about the divisions and varying degree of intensities. My mom considered The Tiger Mom book to be too intense but I imagine you would see my upbringing as being part of the same culture as the Tiger Mom. There are all sorts of divisions between people who live in NYC vs. move to the suburbs. People who do private school v. NYC public school (De Blasio) vs. Suburban public v. Boarding. Intensity and properity of various after school commitments, etc. It has probably gotten much more intense than when I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s. I don’t think I would get into my undergrad today because the competition is more fierce than in 1998.


    • Having worked with a number of upper-middle class NYC parents, I can say that they are far from monolithic. There was a great range of parenting styles along a variety of spectra. There were probably some broad tendencies that could be said to be unique to upper-middle class NYC, but it’d be really hard to define what it means to be an upper-middle class NYC parent that wouldn’t get a lot of people saying, “That doesn’t describe me.”


      • Yeah, I fully agree. When people say “that doesn’t describe me” it is probably a combination of the true and the defensive about how they are a bit like Tiger Moms.

        We have talked about how in some circles sending your kid to a fancy private school is “just what you do”. Just like in some circles joining a club is “just what you do.” There are plenty of other upper-middle class people who think clubs are snobby and sending your kid to a good public school in the suburb is “just what you do.” What I am noticing now is that some parents think roughing a city public school system is what you do and the suburban public school or urban private school are just horrible and exclusionary things to do.


      • The statement ” it’d be really hard to define what it means to be an X that wouldn’t get a lot of people in X saying, ‘That doesn’t describe me’ ” is true for just about all X in [ways to categorize people]. I don’t know that it necessarily means that we shouldn’t make generalizations, but we should be aware that they’re just generalizations, whether X is a racial/ethnic group or a political grouping or anything else.


      • KenB is exactly right. It doesn’t invalidate the generality, though it does point out its substantial limitations on an individual label (“You are X, which means that you must Y and Z”) and should make us careful about talking about “X people, who Y and Z”… but not to the point that it’s always considered out of bounds, because when we become too careful we stop talking.


      • I think it depends on how many people say, “That ain’t me.” If it is 10% of the group? The generalization is probably fair. If it’s 40%? Probably not.

        I wonder how much of that is a function of upper-middle class white people tending not to see themselves as possessing race or culture. They presume their behavior to be a universal norm rather than a culturally specific one. “Just what you do” seems code for, “I don’t want to examine why I do the things I do.”


      • Potentially and good observation on how many upper-middle class white people but I don’t think that is exactly true. Plenty of people will refer to themselves as Italian or Sicilian even if their last ancestor left Naples or Palmero in 1882. Americans do like to hold on their native lands for a long time especially if they seem generic McWhite person.

        “Just what people do” can describe upbringing as well. Most people end up doing a lot of what their parents did under the logic of “I turned out okay.”


      • I think it is interesting that you used Italians as an example because, in many ways, the experience of whiteness for Italians is very different than the experience of whiteness for Europeans who immigrated here prior to that (this also holds true for the Irish, Jews, and other groups). I am much more connected to my Italian roots than many of my friends are to their German, British, or French roots. In my experience, the “what people do” mindset is strongest among folks we might categorize as WASPs*, who are also people I find are far more likely to identify as “American” or just “normal” above anything else.

        Case in point, I was having a conversation with my cousin-in-law’s boyfriend about colleagues of his (he’s a nurse) who are superstitious in their work habits. The cousin said, “Maybe it is a cultural thing.” His response: “No. They’re white.” My response: “White people have a culture. And many cultures associated with white groups are highly superstitious.” He definitively saw them as something other than possessing a culture (which is not to say uncultured in the way we typically use that) and went on to say that he could only imagine superstition being culturally-related among “voodoo people”. Sigh…

        * I’m not sure if that term is appropriate or not or how people feel about being labeled as such so I apologize in advance if I offend anyone


      • ” If it is 10% of the group? The generalization is probably fair. If it’s 40%? Probably not.”

        So then until you’ve made a good-faith effort to determine the actual percentage for the given trait across the entire population (as opposed to relying on your personal experience and impressions), you shouldn’t comment on it one way or the other? I’m fine with that, but as Will says, it would drastically lower the comment volume here.


    • I think the inclusion of Mormons is because, both stereotypically and to a lesser extent really, fit the bill for what she’s describing.

      As an aside, I think it’s a bit problematic to say “She’s talking about this” and then dismissing counterexamples on the basis that it’s to provide cover for talking about this. (This is not directed specifically to ND. I’m seeing it a lot.)

      That was what drove me through the roof with Ryan’s post on excessive celebration penalties in football. “Obviously, the problem here is with black people. Which makes the inclusion of the white examples in the conversation hilarious.”


  8. For what it’s worth, I think Amy Chua is just a plain ol’ concern troll. This whole thing reminds me of that old Calgon commercial, “Ancient Chinese secret, huh?”

    This has less to do with race and culture than it does with the Gladwell-ization of American public intellectual discourse. People like nice, easily digestible narratives about why the world is the way it is. Chua is a Chinese-American yuppie married to a Jewish-American yuppie, so race and class are just easily exploitable ground to till.

    Even the very question of parenting styles has less to do with a legitimate discussion of what’s best for children and is more a big signalling exercise among parents.


  9. Great post.

    Chua clearly used the word “Chinese parents” to refer to a very small subset of Chinese parents: immigrant Chinese people (or third or fourth generation) who are wealthy and high achieving, who put value on certain kinds of socioconomic success and WASPY European pursuits (tennis, violin), and willing to engage in verbal, but not physical, abuse of their children.

    Lots of Chinese parents in China, especially rural China, don’t pressure their kids at all to succeed socioeconomically. (Ever seen rural children in China? How about the millions of children of immigrant workers who don’t even go to school.) Others would be aghast at Chua’s attempt to conform to Western standards of success. Some Chinese parents here and in China would be aghast at her refusal to beat her children. Certainly, traditional, ancient chinese parenting wouldn’t be Tiger Mom parenting, nor would parenting in the Communist era.

    Even Chua implicitly admits this, but refused to stop using the term “Chinese parenting” in the book, despite effectively admitting it was grossly misleading and false to say “Chinese parenting looks like this…” and then describe her own very WASP-ish values, and high pressure on economic success that is common to many immigrant communities , to which she adds verbal abuse. It is hard to tell if verbal abuse is common among economically succesful Chinese-American parents. Chua provides no data. Anecdotally, I have been told that it is fairly common to verbally abuse daughters but not sons (which Chua doesn’t have). Yay Chinese parenting? Certainly Chua’s “arguments” that the verbal abuse is likely to cause more success is woefully awful.

    I suspect this second book will make the same sort of mistake. It will conflate Chinese culture with a particular kind of anglicized and yuppified culture that Chua lives in that places higher value on economic success -particularly succeeding in safe careers like doctor, lawyer, and engineer. I guess maybe some immigrant ethnicities are more likely to fall into this group than others. Maybe Indian, Iranian, and Chinese immigrants are more likely to fall into this group, and that is Chua’s point, to which she will add a completely unjustified claim about why these particular groups are more likely to fall into that culture, e.g. that these cultures value toughness, repression of emotion, yelling at children, etc.

    Of course, this is also why China, India, Nigeria, and Iran are such well organized, successful places.


  10. I won’t be able to do any back and forth today on this so allow me to say a few things in general response and be on my way. Where I have been too glib above I apologize.

    Let’s get some things out of the way about culture. Culture is learned, it is shared, and it is organic. It is also an abstraction. Whenever we speak of a “cultural critique” we must understand that, before we even get started, we aren’t using the term in its technical sense.

    It is contended that the cultural critique is often a dodge, a racial critique in disguise, the implication being that there is such a thing as a genuine cultural critique. But that in itself is a dodge. Race is a concept of convenience invented by Euro-Americans making it easier to keep track of subjugated peoples. Make no mistake, the mass enslavement of Africans was not just a matter of race, it was a total cultural war. Language, folkways, religion, “bloodlines”, even basic named identity all extinguished, mere echoes of those things remaining. In short, I fail to see a meaningful historical distinction between the consequences of race bigotry and cultural bigotry.

    There’s much more I could say and maybe I’ll have more time for this later, or maybe not.


  11. Awesome post.

    Regarding the charts – interesting that the only long-term effect of ‘welfare reform’, regarding single-parent families, has been to ensure that people who can’t find work can’t collect welfare either – the overall employment level of single parents is at about the same place at the start and end of that chart. Less about “welfare to work”, more about “screw the poor”.


  12. And arriving on the scene today to prove Tod right as usual is Rod Dreher’s latest hysterical outburst about scary black people music that murders little girls in Omaha: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/culture-of-death-omaha-style/

    Dreher has to be one of the most entertaining bloggers out there who’s not actually trying to be funny. The way he holds forth about culture and the malignity he ascribes to it are really something. And I really don’t think he knows what the world “gangbanger” means.


    • Oh my fishing god, did he really write that?

      Living in the “ghetto,” “ghetto clothing,” pointing out the rims on the kids car, revealing placed *’s, and telling us that he knows black people can do more because of some music that black people made and he likes? People who teach their toddlers to cuss are responsible for murder?

      That may be the most tone deaf thing I’ve ever read.


    • “the song he was listening to was an uninterrupted stream of “nigga” this and “nigga” that, except when he was saying f**k, d*mn, or sh*t.”

      The sad part is that we’ll never know what the song was. I’d give anything to know, just so I could look up the lyrics. It’s like when my dad used to say that the Beatles wrote nothing but songs where they just said “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” over and over again.

      Plus, I’d like to get an honest opinion from him about how much white country western fans “hate themselves,” what with so many songs talking about how the singers are just rednecks who can’y hold a job, can’t maintain a healthy relationship, and turn to alcohol abuse in order to get through the day.


    • Wow…what a chunkhead. He loving namechecks Coltrane without knowing how jazz music was viewed by white folk for years. it used to be scary dangerous underclass music. He also seems to be sure the guy listening to rap “hates himself”. Whether the guy knows it or not, Dreher knows it for him without actually talking to him. I wonder what his response, or the readers at AmCon, would be to a run of the mill story about a kid killed in a gun accident or a gun violence with no racial aspect. Would that be the Culture of Violence? Because that stuff happens everyday but to mention that would bring up the horrid specter of gun control where he is in the safe territory of blaming scary black music and fashion.


      • I think Dreher’s wrong about this stuff. Self-loathing isn’t something we should discourage in kids. It’s something we should encourage. I mean, think about it: the belief you can buy self esteem is what makes this country great. All our measures of personal worth are monetary and material. It’s what drives prosperity. It’s a social good. And what would motivate people to acquire self esteem on the goods-and-services market more than experiencing bone crushing self loathing at a young age?

        I mean, isn’t he a perfect example of this?


      • I don’t believe for a minute that Dreher is capable of listening to jazz because he’s wound so tight it would be impossible for him to relax and let the music wash over him.


      • He also seems to be sure the guy listening to rap “hates himself”. Whether the guy knows it or not, Dreher knows it for him without actually talking to him

        Come on, greg, you know there’s no depth of understanding to equal that of the privilege outsider looking on from afar.


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