Know Thy Culture: Tom Sowell and Art.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash


I happen to be black. I found out what that meant in North American culture in my undergrad. I remember a discussion I had with a fellow student at the time, about why African-American students were not doing too well academically; why I never really saw other black people in the library where I worked. She explained the historical mechanisms of prejudice and because I grew up overseas, I was never subject to those same prejudices. And so, I  would never understand. I’m not really black. I didn’t share in black culture. I arrived with my own culture that allowed me to do well. Except, my culture did not. I tried to explain that we both blindly uploaded a culture, and that some parts were not serving current circumstances, prejudice or not. I told her this story:

When I was a new undergraduate student, I suffered culture shock. One of the big differences between my Jamaican academic culture and the one at my undergraduate school was the value on homework, homework and more homework. Homework is not emphasized too much in Jamaica. The exams are the main tools of evaluation. I was stunned when I found out that I was supposed to read and know the material before I came to class. The professor was not there to teach us anything but to have us apply what we had already taught ourselves. Professors would offer up contradictory opinions and force students to defend their positions. I was certainly not prepared for how much more time and effort that would take. Homework and attendance accounted for nearly half of the final grade. I realized, after a painful B-, that if I were to survive or even thrive, my previous academic culture did not serve me. That part of my culture that had brought me so far and that I prized so much, had to change. My grades went up soon after.

On a macro scale, I noticed the same phenomenon: How parts of a culture can handicap its participants. Tom Sowell wrote a book titled Black Rednecks and White Liberals. In it, he makes an argument that current, black American culture is not of African origin or descent but instead, that of the Scots-Irish slave owners from the West of England. He called it Redneck culture. Redneck culture resulted in economic lag and social problems for white people in Britain, white people in the United States South and for black people in the US now. Basically, there is not much black, about black culture. It isn’t black or white, the Redneck bit is the problem. I found this book when I was a fresh art professor meeting those same problems he described, ironically, in people that were not black. I was fascinated with the underlying point: people, you and me, upload culture blindly, often via awe, that does not currently aid our goals or survival in our environment. It is up to us to exorcise the parts that sabotage and then adapt our own culture to better help us. I did so in dealing with frustration in my classroom.

For a student, learning to draw or paint is deeply frustrating. I mean weeping, cursing, screaming and walk-out-of-the-classroom frustrating. For everyone, of every color. Right? I don’t claim to be a good teacher but I improved when I realized I was up against cultural inheritances and beliefs. One western cultural belief is the idea that people are born geniuses at making art as a genetic inheritance. It is insidious. The same belief runs true of Mathematics. I hear students say they “don’t have that talent” and de facto dismiss themselves as teachable. I submit to you that changing the culture of my classroom, also changed the results of my teaching. How one responds to that frustration, is largely cultural.  I looked at a culture that is among the best at dealing with frustration, and applied it to my class, upper-class Chinese gamers. I associate learning with something equally frustrating but that people repeatedly do: play games. As best as I can, I make learning to draw and paint into a game. My drawing classes are a series of increasingly difficult exercises where I play music, time basically everything and march around from student to student giving them tips on how to beat this level. I cultivate the culture of gamers who lose constantly and still come back to play. Bonus points if you realize you don’t have to be upper-class or Chinese, you can just take the gamer parts. Own it.

Look at your own culture and ask yourself: have you copied a belief that is holding you back? I did. We all do. Are there parts of your culture that don’t serve you right now?  Is there something you hold sacred that might be stopping you from your best achievements? Identify it, let it go and avail yourself of those who you can emulate.


Sowell, Thomas. Black rednecks and white liberals. New York: Encounter , 2006. Print.

Website for my artwork:



  1. Sean M Reply

    I suddenly have the urge to take your art class! Especially given stick men and circles are the pinnacle of my artistic ability!

    Love the first image btw. The list of more profound words than those is very short.

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