Is Culture Sacred?

Recently white sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha won the Sprite Step Off National Step Competition in Atlanta, GA (they would eventually be declared co-winners with Alpha Kappa Alpha.) Responding to both the cry of dismay that yet another aspect of black culture has become appropriated by white people, author Lawrence C. Ross Jr. has suggested this is emblematic of an inevitable and necessary reality. To the question, “Can We at Least Keep Stepping To Ourselves?” Ross says, no. His response points not only to the inevitability of culture mixture, but he points also to the roots of black sorority and fraternity life. These organizations were created as a response to violent exclusion. Can these organizations then become similarly exclusive?

Of course the question is not only about cultural exclusivity, but about history and being able to remember one’s people through common practices. But as Ross points out it is not the practices themselves that point to who we are. Our cultural practices, our heritage is inevitably tied to the ways people before us responded to similar questions and tensions, not only to what they did.

All of this is not to say that the appropriation of cultural practices by “outsiders” is to be taken lightly. There are definite dynamics of power and access, presumption and prerogative. But what makes Ross’ article so interesting is that he suggests the birth of the organizations always lie beneath the surface of such questions and thus guide how the discussion should go.

What is sad is that America more broadly is not similarly disciplined by its own conception as a land of runaways. White culture (notice I am not saying white people) in the United States exerts itself with a strange amnesia that so often excluded the stranger first.

Perhaps this is why Black History month is so important to the United States. It is not only that we recall the practices of a particular people, their incredible achievements and contributions to our national life. Rather, the history of black life in America displays the possibility that white folk can win a stepping contest. Even though there may be some grumbling, black communities have more often erred on the side of allowing entrance than enforcing exclusion. In this way black life displays what it means to be quintessentially American.

What are your thoughts? What does it mean to “remember your people?” To maintain an identity? Is it even possible?