So You Want to Be an Anti Racist Part 4: Dominant Culture to Ethnicity vs. Race

A Growing Glossary of Terms to Know

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

1. Dominant Culture — This is a set of practices, beliefs, assumptions, values, etc. which tend to be promoted or more visible over other cultures within a society. For decades the dominant culture in the US has emphasized Western European culture, e.g., White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) is one name given to this. Part of the value of initiatives like the 1619 Project is that other aspects of the American experience and American culture can be highlighted. But this has been a nuanced discussion with some sociologist and anthologists of color pushing back and saying some aspects of American culture should not be labeled as “whiteness” but should belong to or remain open for anyone who wants to claim them. Some essayists like Albert Murray insist that Black and White Americans share a unique and common culture. The upshot is every side of this debate is “right” and some of these perspectives are both true and in tension with one another at once.

2. Double Consciousness — First coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, it is the additional mental effort that members of a minority group, often stereotyped, must make to create space in their awareness not just for a sense of self, but a sense of “how others [white people] see me.” The reason it is consciousness comes from the reality that BIPOC have come to realize that their true selves are often not initially glimpsed by white people. Instead white people carry certain assumptions, preconceptions, and sweeping generalizations about BIPOC. This becomes a matter of survival, especially in societies where BIPOC are seen as threats and must diffuse this at the outset of nearly every interaction (whether with police, neighbors, teachers, work peers, etc.) in order to avoid misunderstanding which, historically, could lead to violence.

3. Environmental Racism — While a lot of readers might not have connected these movements in the past, environmental racism is real. Study after study has demonstrated that BIPOC suffer disproportionately more than their white counterparts from pollution, environmental degradation, and climate change.

4. Equality vs. Equity — These are not interchangeable terms. The distinctions are important. Equality implies an equal start for everyone. But even if everyone starts out on a level playing field, this might not compensate for other obstacles such as variations in personal abilities, existing resources, and/or privilege. Therefore, we introduce ideas of redistribution of resources. The best way to illustrate this is through the following diagram.

When we consider the illustration it’s valuable to consider the point of view of the tallest figure (because that is likely those of us who are privileged). In the first panel, like everyone, he has a box, as they are distributed equally. But the tall figure already has height (representing our privilege). As a result of his privilege he doesn’t actually need the box. In the second panel we see an example of equity — the resource of the box is redistributed from the figure that doesn’t need it to the shortest one who does. Everyone can see over the fence now. The middle figure who still needed a box, still has one. The shortest has two. But turning back to the tallest figure, we have to recognize that he gave something up. Sure, in the final analysis, as a result of the privilege of height he is fine. But it still required a sacrifice, a loss even. It is for that reason we must realize that from the standpoint of privilege, equity, and even justice, even if it’s not.

5. Ethnicity vs. Race — This is a sticky one with a lot of different opinions. In practice I find it most useful to consider ethnicity as something we are born with (some would say God-given). It’s our culture, language, and family background. It can map to our skin tone, but not always. The concept of race came about only in the past 400 years as white Europeans began to assign value to these differences, establishing “whiteness” as the “best” and measuring the value of all other ethnicities by their proximity to whiteness. This became the justification of colonial expansion as well as chattel slavery.

Click here for Part 1–1619 Project to Colorism

Click here for Part 2 — Convict Leasing to Cultural Appropriation

Click here for Part 3 — Decolonize-Your-Mind to The Doll Test


Ted Neill, MPH, is a writer based in Seattle. He has written extensively on HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Greatest Generation. His recent novel, examines the intersection of faith, politics, and racism during a global viral pandemic. His YA novel, does the same, except with zombies, frat boys, nerds, and ninjas. His illustrated kids’ series features kid protagonists saving the world despite (and sometimes thanks to) the visible and invisible disabilities they live with.

I’m a writer because I’m terrible at math and would make a lousy astrophysicist. I cover social/racial justice, politics, mental health, and global health.