Migrant Knowledge

Exclusion and Erasure in ‘The Values Majority Culture Americans Live By’

Just a week after arriving at UC Berkeley to begin my first postdoctoral position, I was smugly fanning myself (so warm in October!) in the International House, sipping a complimentary coffee, and staring at the title screen of a PowerPoint presentation. The mandatory Scholar Information Meeting is scheduled not only to impart useful insight for living and working in Berkeley but, perhaps most importantly, for nonimmigrants to attain a necessary signature on their visa documentation. Even with the high network capital of a mobile scholar at an elite U.S. institution, the rules and regulations of visa upkeep and the self-monitoring of our migratory status are a little daunting. This move across the Atlantic was my first encounter with visa maintenance, although I had been a privileged benefactor of (white, European) academic mobility, an ease facilitated by the freedom of movement across the European Union, not yet complicated by Brexit.

In my own cartography of belonging and knowledge production, I moved from a postindustrial region of Scotland’s West Coast, whose increasingly confused working-class identity underpins my own, to pursue a PhD in Munich, Germany. From there I came to the U.S. West Coast as a postdoc at the German Historical Institute’s regional office at UC Berkeley, located in a town with rather bourgeois, suburban streets adorned with “Immigrants Welcome” and “Black Lives Matter” signs. What struck me in the Scholar Information Meeting was not actually addressed in the presentation and was indeed missed by many of my fellow “international” colleagues. Flicking through the distributed 23-page resource guide, past the pages on legal requirements, administrative necessities, and tips for finding housing, I stopped near the end at “The Values Majority Culture Americans Live By.”1 Coming from an American Studies doctoral program and stumbling over the odd title, my interest was piqued. The list, I came to understand, speaks to the intermingling of the migrant as knowledge producer, knowledge consumer, and subject to-be-known.

Who wrote this piece? Who could even author said majority culture? And what was expected from the intended audience of international scholars who read this framing? Ten values are listed, each accompanied by a short description and the interpreted “result” within U.S. society: personal control over the environment; change/mobility; time and its control; equality/egalitarianism; individualism, independence, and privacy; self-help; competition and free enterprise; action and work orientation; informality; as well as directness, openness, and honesty. From these behavior-orienting values, which are reified as American, we can extrapolate the supposed archetypal U.S. subject. In other words, we can ask what knowledge the list conveys to the migrant-researcher and what it reveals about the imagined community in which the newly arrived scholar now lives.

The list forms a rubric for interpreting any unfamiliar behaviors, motivations, and exclamations of the new host population. Its objective is to help the foreign researcher attain some semblance of belonging, that is, to allay any alienation and strangeness in encounters with American people and culture. It derives from a 1984 text Robert Kohls wrote for the Washington (now Meridian) International Center entitled The Values Americans Live By.2 Kohls conceived that piece as a reflection on the center’s prior thirty years of introducing visitors to the American “way of life.” A non-profit public diplomacy organization devoted to fostering “global leadership” skills, Meridian was established in 1960 in the midst of the Cold War superpower struggle over the planning and management of development in the course of decolonization. The most recent Meridian brochure, from 2017, lays out their vision of “a more secure and prosperous world that is characterized by mutual understanding, innovation, economic growth, and inclusion” attained through a tripartite mission to “strengthen U.S. engagement with the world”; to “empower leaders”; and to “drive collaboration across sectors, borders and cultures through a neutral platform.”3

Neutrality and mutuality here presuppose a U.S. foundation of collaboration, knowledge production, and empowerment in attaining security and wealth. There is no mention of the insecurity and expropriations that consistently shape international relations. Instead, the “global leaders” operate in a U.S.-led global governance context assumed to be neutral in the pedagogy of the oppressor.4 At the same time, the stated goal of Kohls’s original eight-page list is not to convert visiting observers but rather to enable them to evaluate the behavior of Americans: “when you encounter an action, or hear a statement in the United States which surprises you, try to see it as an expression of one or more of the values listed in this booklet.”5 Of course, the American objects of such analysis would balk at such a systematic effort due to their widely held belief in the inherently unique individual (value 5).

Although not explicit, the act of defining characteristics is in some sense necessarily drawn from comparisons, from a sense of what Americans are not. Thus, familial ties or a sense of shared heritage and traditions are evoked by calling the Western European a “near relative” of the American, or in representing Western identity as the foundation of a more pronounced American variant. At the same time, there are two examples in the text where people from the developing world are held as distinct, as potentially finding American behavior odd or distressing. Referring to Americans’ overall positive self-assessment, Kohls notes Americans “are not aware, for example, that the people of many Third World countries view change (value 2) [as] negative or threatening.” Later he describes the inverse relation: “many U.S. Peace Corps volunteers teaching in the Third World countries found the lack of competitiveness in a classroom situation equally distressing. They soon learned that what they had thought to be one of the universal human characteristics represented only a peculiarly American (or Western) value.”6 Here “Third World” functions as an amorphous signifier of difference, of otherness.

In a concluding summary, the booklet invites readers to compare a table of “American” values against “counterpart values from a more traditional country”: for instance, “Personal Control over the Environment” versus “Fate,” or “Directness/Openness/Honesty” versus “Indirectness/Ritual/’Face’.” The word “traditional” connotes the U.S. majority self as progressive and modern, a distinction borne out in these dichotomies. “Traditional” as a marker of culture carries a lot of conceptual baggage, particularly when applied as some sort of catch-all for a heterogeneous “Third World” within the Cold War international landscape. For instance, Walt Whitman Rostow, famed theorist and practitioner of the modernization theory (and ardent Cold Warrior), outlined The Stages of Economic Growth in 1960, beginning with “traditional society” and ascending toward the era of mass consumption.7 The problem with the booklet’s overarching metaphor is that the traditional–modern dichotomy characterizes change as occurring in a single, repeatable direction for which the U.S. example represents the norm.

Through his dichotomous conception of development and culture, Kohls constructs an external Other, one outside the so-called American majority culture. We can use Kohls’s construct to tease out the internal divisions that exclude certain people from his majority. The opening page of Kohls’s text emphasizes that the text’s list of “common values” fits “most” Americans. It claims that a foreign visitor armed with the pamphlet could account for “95% of American actions.” In fact, the International Office’s adaptation alters its version of the title to stress the “Majority Culture,” a move which recognizes there are multiple “minority” American cultures. A “successful intercultural experience” for the visiting scholar, then, is achieved through interaction with and understanding of the majority culture. The existence of minority cultures is present by omission only, inferable in their aggregate as an undifferentiated counterpart.

The ostensible neutrality of the majority, that is, its white, cis-male, middle-class, ableist normativity, can be seen in the phrasing of the “results” for each value in the International Office’s summary. Positive attributes read as objective statements, whereas negative views read like mere perceptions. For instance, “self-help” (value 6) translates to “respect is given for achievements not accident of birth,” whereas belief in “individualism, independence and privacy” (value 5) is said to result in “Americans [being] seen as self-centered and sometimes isolated and lonely.” Such perceptions matter. Swathes of American voters admire the current president because they believe him to be a “self-made billionaire”; by contrast, his detractors emphasize the millions of dollars he obtained from his father, interpreting his wealth and power as an “accident of birth.” The national myths and narratives of the United States place acceptance of difference and immigration at the fore: A former colony forged in revolutionary liberty is set against ancien régime European rule. The New World reads as a place of religious tolerance and a mix of many cultures and immigration experiences. The cultural negotiations of migration as a source of national pride are clear in the shifting metaphors of inclusion and interaction, from the famous “melting pot” to the “salad bowl”. In the presidential figures of the last decade, we can see the vexed place of migration in America’s national mythology, from the future-oriented hope in claims of a “post-racial” era under Obama to the Trumpian white nationalist nostalgia for some indistinct “great” America of yore.

The values enumerated in Kohls’s original and in the welcome guide adaptation construct the image of the American “self-made man” at home in a “new world” with a level playing field, where he can enjoy the spoils of his own labor. All people, regardless of their background, can seemingly succeed, if only they work hard. In this way, success is depoliticized, and failure becomes a product of purely personal shortcomings. Moreover, this mythology of self-reliance and perseverance sustains a settler-colonial logic. A dominant culture formed at the expense of expropriation, U.S. settler colonialism is present in the ongoing erasure of indigenous peoples, upholding claims to land and belonging. In this way it proffers a vision of inclusion premised upon continuing violent exclusion within a patriarchal, white-supremacist framework.

As a nonimmigrant invited to look at my host society through this self-understanding, my focus turned to those violently excluded from the framing. Packing up my guide and leaving the International Office, I strolled through the beautifully landscaped and purposefully eclectic composition of the campus. This controlled environment inscribes the histories of wealthy Californian benefactors in dedicated buildings and gates without acknowledging that this institution is built on land stolen from the Ohlone people, an omission contributing to their continued disenfranchisement as an “unrecognized” tribe by the federal government.8 By focusing on the constructed majority, we also fail to grapple with the criminalization of people of color both within our borders (George Floyd’s murder was but one brutal example) and without (in part by militarizing the borders). The ability to claim a place in this American majority culture is limited, and those limitations are stridently protected. The values that majority culture Americans live by are values some die by. Well-meaning representations in welcome packets, easily reproduced, contribute to their erasure.

Excluding Others and Essentializing Culture

A now retracted article, published in Society in July 2020 by NYU political scientist Lawrence Mead, provides a shocking example of the potential violence of so-called majority American values in the reproduction of knowledge on supposedly problematic migrant communities. Mead sharply distinguishes the "enterprising way of life" in the West from that of the non-West. His racist exclusions from "individualist" American culture essentialize crime and poverty in Black and Latinx communities in the United States as symptoms of "cultural difference." See Mohamad Bazzi's tweeted commentary for more.

Sarah Poster Portrait

Sarah Earnshaw is a Berkeley-based fellow in the history of forced migration, a tandem-fellowship awarded by the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington DC and the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School in New York. Her Twitter handle is @sadieschreibt.

Featured image: International House, Berkeley, by Roman Fuchs in 2008 via Wikimedia under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

  1. The list can be found on page 19 of the 2020 online version of the resource guide. ↩︎
  2. Producing a single page from a longer-form, eight page reflection, the resource guide presents 10 values from the original 13, jettisoning “future orientation,” “practicality and efficiency,” and “materialism/acquisitions.” ↩︎
  3. Meridian International Center, Advancing Effective Global Leadership (Washington DC, 2017). ↩︎
  4. This nod to Paulo Freire is intended to note the many and varied U.S. (non)governmental training programs across the globe. See, for instance, the exploration of the enforcement of an extensive U.S. border regime, including its export of training and resources, in Todd Miller, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World (London: Verso, 2019). ↩︎
  5. L. Robert Kohls, The Values Americans Live By (Washington DC: Meridian House International, 1984), via typescript at Lehigh University, Center for Career and Development, 1. ↩︎
  6. Kohls, 1 and 4. ↩︎
  7. Walt Whitman Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960) The five stages are outlined as, traditional society, preconditions to takeoff, takeoff, drive to mature, and the age of high mass consumption. ↩︎
  8. See “Contemporary Ohlone History” told by the Sogorea Te Land Trust, an urban, indigenous woman-led community organization. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Sarah Earnshaw, "Exclusion and Erasure in ‘The Values Majority Culture Americans Live By’," Migrant Knowledge, September 3, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/09/03/exclusion-and-erasure/.
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