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In its simplest sense, a dominant culture is a culture within a nation or geographic area that determines what is "normal." To put it another way, members of a dominant culture are those who most often get to experience their values, beliefs, customs, and way of life as that which is considered the norm.
Within the United States, it is those of us that have a European American heritage that would be considered the dominant culture. Additionally, because those of us of European descent are more than half of the U.S. population, we can also be considered the majority culture.
On the flip side, a sub-dominant culture are those where the values, beliefs, customs and way of life of its members are not considered the norm. Examples within the U.S. could be Muslims of Middle Eastern heritage, Americans of Chinese descent or Mexican Americans. Within the U.S., we might also refer to those that identify within these groups (as well as many other sub-dominant groups) as ethnic minorities.
However, dominant/majority and sub-dominant/minority are not necessarily interchangeable terms. For example, Afrikaners within apartheid-era South Africa (and in many ways, still today) were most certainly of the dominant culture since they held positions of governmental authority, owned the bulk of land and established cultural norms. However, they would not be considered the ethnic majority since less than one out of every ten South Africans identify as an Afrikaner.
It is probably helpful to consider dominance/sub-dominance as related to power and ethnic majority/ethnic minority as related to numbers of a population. Although sub-dominant and ethnic minority groups often are the same groups within a society, it is possible for an ethnic minority group (e.g. Afrikaners in South Africa) to be the dominant group.
Understanding these nuances can be helpful for us in recognizing the ways that sub-dominate and ethnic minority cultures can be marginalized within a society. In Suffering & the Sovereignty of God, Dr. Carl Ellis offers the following insights as to how marginalization can take place and the role that Christians can play in addressing it:
"Marginalization happens when that which is valid is regarded as invalid merely because it differs from the prevailing standards of creature-ism [i.e. judging the Creator by the standard of the creature]. Thus, people who fit this description are relegated to a position of insignificance, devalued importance, minor influence, or diminished power. How does marginalization affect human interaction?
Every society has a dominant culture and at least one sub-dominant culture. Each of these has a corresponding cultural agenda and intra-cultural consciousness. Those in the dominant culture tend not to realize they have a culture, and those in the sub-dominant culture know very well that everybody has a culture.
All in the sub-dominant culture are exposed to the dominant cultural agenda. But few in the dominant culture are even aware that there is a sub-dominant cultural agenda. Therefore, to those in the dominant culture, the concerns of the sub-dominant culture tend to be marginalized. We can define these dominant and sub-dominant cultures in terms of race, generation, gender, geography, language, etc.
This begs the question: who is going to show the world how to deal with these kind of power differential dynamics? It must be the body of Christ. There are four dimensions of marginalization:
1) Relational (face-to-face) marginalization,
2) Systemic marginalization - which is marginalization by way of time-honored conventions and protocols,
3) Marginalization by design - which is intentional marginalization resulting from subjugation [e.g. the African slave trade],
4) Marginalization by default - which is marginalization resulting from a lack of either real or perceived power...
One thing that exacerbates ethnic-based suffering in the world today is the lack of a full understanding of marginalization. For example, we tend to think of only one manifestation - relational by design. We don't think much about the other three dimensions. If we in the church are going to have something prophetic to say to the issue of ethnic-based suffering, we must deal with [all four dimensions of suffering].
Every sub-dominant group has a distinct paradigm for marginalization. For example, the African American experience has largely been a struggle against racism and its effects - an application of creature-ism. Therefore, racism is regarded as the paradigm for all marginalization. We may know that marginalization does not ultimately require a racist motive. However, from an African American perspective, marginalization is assumed to have a racist motive.
Anglo-Americans without this paradigm tend to view African American protest against marginalization as "playing the race card." African Americans, on the other hand, may view Anglo Americans' protest as being in denial. When this happens we will speak past each other, because we do not understand that marginalization is the foundation of ethnic-based suffering. The theology of the Christian community has been weak in that area. If we are going to be a prophetic voice against marginalization, we will need to address it with some serious theology."My hope in gainer a better understanding of these concepts is that we will grow together in our ability to address injustice in the world so that a greater number of people will come to know our Creator, the God of justice, truth and grace.
(HT: To my friend Chris Pratt for the heads up on Dr. Ellis's thoughts on this matter)