Cultural Understanding or Racial Stereotyping?

Since we are fundamentally cultural beings, cul- tural concerns are ubiquitous and are not the sole province of people identified as ethnically different. A social and cultural account can be given for the origins of any behavior, action, or episode. Why then should cultural explanations be offered just in some cases? Surely this has to do with the assumption that the law is already based on a fund of tacit cultural knowledge shared by all participants from a similar background. This cultural background knowledge is part of everyday moral thinking as well as the formal deliberations of the law—both of which use reason- ing based on narrative models or templates.22 These narratives tend to present the values and perspectives of the dominant culture as simply common sense and so obscure the cultural context of moral and legal reasoning.23 The recognition of culture also reflects the politics of identity and exclusion. Certain indi- viduals or groups are recognized as different accord- ing to the history, norms, and values of the dominant society and its institutions. Their behavior therefore requires explication in terms of culture.

Framing behavior as culturally influenced or de- termined thus serves not only to explain some of their historical and contextual origins, but also to separate and divide groups. By its very nature, cultural expla- nations invoke collective values and experiences to explain individual actions. Although aiming to rec- ognize the collective roots of an individual’s identity, experience, and behavior, the use of a cultural de- fense may contribute to stereotyping and stigmatiz- ing whole groups or communities.

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