Intercultural Communication

Course Website for Tunghai FLLD Seminar

Representing American Culture

Posted by thuicc on October 21, 2004

Chris made a comment in his post that I want to respond to in more depth because it raises an interesting and important issue about representing cultures. He implied that writers who portray white American culture as “American culture”–that is, consider whites to be the norm for American culture–don’t do it on purpose. I think it’s true that most white Americans (including me up until a few years ago) do consider their own cultural “rules” to be the standard against which everyone should be measured. Part of the reason is that whites are something of an ‘invisible’ race in the U.S. As Judith N. Martin and Olga Idriss Davis have written,

One characteristic of white privilege is invisibility and Dyer (1997) provides examples of this invisibility in American society: there are rarely references to whiteness in the everyday speech and writing of white people. In conversation, they may talk about someone else being black or Chinese, but never talk about white colleagues as white. … Whites see themselves as just human. And there is nothing more powerful than just being human–for this implies that all others are something else. (304)

They mention elsewhere that scholars in intercultural communication traditionally focused on international communication, which meant (white) Americans and (mostly non-white) other countries (298-9).

So in a sense, I think it’s in many ways a lack of awareness (and of course the influence of the mass media) that result in people viewing white people as the “standard” Americans. It’s an effect of the power that whites have (and don’t always realize we have) to shape the portrayal of our own and others’ cultures and identities.

Another thing that Chris got me thinking about is the importance of describing things “clearly.” This also relates, I think, to the roots of intercultural communication in international communication. It’s much simpler to contrast a monolithic “American” (white) culture with another culture than to try to depict all the complexities of a nation–all its ethnic groups, generational differences, differences in gender and sexual identity, etc. (See, even my use of “etc.” is omitting other minority groups–the disabled, religious groups, socioeconomic classes… ! Wow! Can you imagine trying to keep all that in mind when describing your country’s culture?)

Work Cited

Martin, Judith N., and Olga Idriss Davis. “Conceptual Foundations for Teaching about Whiteness in Intercultural Communication Courses.” Communication Education 50 (2001): 298-313.


3 Responses to “Representing American Culture”

  1. Tracy said

    I can agree with the idea that it is more easier and representative to use the mainstream culture to describe a country’s culture but I still think we still need to understand other minority group’s culture, for example, the Checheningush, which is a headache to Russia….

  2. Anonymous said

    I think sometimes white Americans like to write an essay from only one point of view. Although they didn’t prolaim that other races always use this kind of communication styles in any kinds of situations, it shows a little bit of negative attitude toward other cultures. Maybe it is only my own feeling, but I think everytime when I read the part of white Americans communication style, most of the contents are mainly containing a very common explanation. However, when the writer talks about other groups, such as native Americans, sometimes will shake their head while they are talking sounds a little bit funny to me!

    Evonne Wang

  3. It’s interesting that you bring up Chechnya (sp?), Tracy, because it points out the role of conflicts (even wars) as motivators to people to understand other cultures…

    What Evonne mentions is a little tricky to figure out–when you say that the descriptions of non-Euro groups sometimes “sounds a little bit funny” is that the result of the way it has been described or of your own views as to what is “normal” or not?

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