Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Dominant or "Settler" culture (USA)

(compare Multiculturalism; minority; immigrant; Scotch-Irish; Two Sets of Founders; Waves of Dominant Culture Immigration; race / ethnicity)

What kind of culture do immigrants assimilate to? (and minorities resist or come to terms with?) . . .


The standard immigrant story involves assimilation (or acculturation) to the USA's dominant culture.


In contrast to those later immigrants, America's earlierst immigrants, settlers, or pioneers from Europe did not assimilate to a pre-existing American culture.


Instead, they imported and developed their own culture.


The USA's dominant culture is not monolithic, and within limits it absorbs or assimilates other ethnic or cultural identities to an impressive degree. (As with any ethnic or cultural group, individuals make some choices on their own that can diverge from or exceed standardized descriptions.) However, its racial or ethnic ideology has traditionally been that different races are "pure, permanent, and separate," though this attitude is fading somewhat with the aging of the Baby Boom generation, and it's never been completely true anyway.


Ethnically and historically, the USA's dominant culture is primarily made up of Two Sets of Founders and the Scotch Irish. (See Immigration Waves and Sub-Cultures of the USA's Dominant Culture.)


Two Sets of Founders (who "found" the cultural and economic "elites" of the USA)

1600s: The "Pilgrim Fathers" and other Puritans of early New England, who established Protestantism, literacy, and middle-class equality through church membership.

1700s: The "Founding Fathers" (mostly in Virginia and other Mid-Atlantic colonies) who established the United States as a secular republic defending property rights and a mix of capitalism and democracy.


1700s-early 1800s: The Scotch-Irish: northern British immigrants to interior USA with less direct influence over dominant-culture politics and economics but influential as Indian fighters, soldiers in American wars, rural America, evangelical Protestantism, socially conservative white working class, etc.


Identification and analysis of the dominant culture is complicated by several factors:


It's everywhere at once, so any identifying quality seems automatically compromised by a counter-quality.


Even where one can spot it, its plain style leaves it unmarked, compared to the marked quality of other ethnic groups or genders.


The dominant culture is itself divided between "elites" and "workers"; each of these groups may also divide.

Elites: gender-fluid; birth control, late marriage and child-bearing ("Red Families v. Blue Families."); longer childhoods; predominantly white but cosmopolitan / transnational (mobile); pro-education; less patriotic but accepting of necessary government; laws

Workers: traditional gender; abstinence, early or no marriage and early child-bearing ("Red Families v. Blue Families."); shorter childhoods; all-white? + local-regional culture (stuck?); education as threat?; patriotic but hate government; honor


These groups are united by “whiteness,” by British or Northwest European descent, and at least historically by Protestantism, but the groups differ in backgrounds, immigration history, attitudes, values, etc.


Pilgrims and Puritans value literacy, education, community, and some hierarchy mixed with equality before God or the state.

The "Founding Fathers" or "First Families" of Virginia value private property and wealth, private education, and hierarchical or corporate communities. (Religion is usually an after-thought except as means to manage others.)


The Scotch Irish value family honor, fighting (or military service), hard work, independence, guns, common sense, fossil fuels, etc., but it’s easier to identify what they oppose: authority (besides God, Jesus, or parents), too much education, any question that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. I’m still learning how to describe that group—anyway they regard themselves as rightfully the dominant culture, but in some regards they resemble an ethnic minority: isolation, immobility, mistrust of authority, addictive behaviors, joblessness, environmental poisoning.


Symbols of the Dominant Culture

The idea of an American dominant culture is elusive and sometimes uncomfortable. Therefore most people don't think about or discuss it except in brief references or symbols that index race / ethnicity, gender, religion, and class:

early settlers of North America, or pioneers of the Old West, who were mostly northern European until the later 1800s. (British, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, French)

Whiteness [race / ethnicity] [color code] though white can often be pink-cheeked or red-faced.

WASPs: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants [race / ethnicity + language-nation + religion]

DWEMs (Dead White European Males) [race / ethnicity + gender + age]

"the man," "angry white men" [gender + race / ethnicity + class?]

"the 1%"; owners vs. workers; financial sector and professional vs. blue collar; "People who work for their money > people whose money works for them." [class]

other identifying SYMBOLS: white bread, vanilla, soap, blonde hair & blue eyes

FOOD: bland but sturdy; "fuel"; e.g. meat & potatoes, pork and beans, cabbage, cottage cheese, pound cake, white bread, milk, bottled water. (Supports hard work but doesn't make you linger at table.) (Cracker Barrel.)

VISUAL STYLES—public style or fashion: plain style; not flashy, cool, unemotional, businesslike; "unmarked" (clothing: khakis, business suits, skirt and heels or sensible shoes; good shoes) (+ "whiteness" can mean "blankness" or unmarked)


All such identifications mix class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, region, plus other variables, so more specific or reductive descriptions are hit-or-miss.

For American immigrant literature (and American Minority Literature), the simplest approach to American dominant culture is . . .

What is the culture to which immigrants assimilate? What styles or values prevail in mainstream American culture?
(Non-exclusive—Other ethnic cultures may share, imitate, or develop independently.)


ASSIMILATION / RESISTANCE? The dominant culture as immigrants did NOT assimilate to the pre-existing cultures in North America (i.e. American Indian culture) but brought their own cultures and languages with them. Early European-American immigrants are often called "settlers," "pioneers," "explorers," or more negatively "conquerors."

Compare to Exodus narrative in Bible, where Jews journeyed to "the promised land" of Canaan but did not assimilate to Canaanite culture.

British and other north-west European settlers came to "the promised land" of North America but did not assimilate to American Indian culture.

Later immigrants are implicitly expected to assimilate to the pre-existing dominant culture established by these early settlers or pioneers.


ENGLISH LANGUAGE (History of English; History & Nature of Language)


LITERACY: Protestantism (especially "Mainline Protestantism") emphasizes need for individual to read Bible in order to come to direct terms with God through scripture (in contrast to Catholicism's historical retention of literacy for priesthood).

Significance of Literacy:

Literate population necessary for self-government or democracy.

Written scripture essential for "World Religions" like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, providing stable reference points or backgrounds across changing cultures. For evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, the "literal" Word of God is respected, at least selectively or symbolically.

Writing essential for "constitutional government" of stable, transparent laws and social organization, plus business contracts and accounting (numeracy).

Writing establishes "a government of laws, not of men"; theoretically, each person, no matter how rich or poor, has equal rights and also responsibilities to respect the laws as written and not just as they are wished to be.


ELUSIVENESS TO INVISIBILITY (UNMARKED): America's dominant culture is surprisingly invisible or hidden (Upper classes conceal unequal wealth behind walls of gated communities, way up in high rises, or in secure compounds). Or the dominant culture may simply be so obvious and omnipresent that it doesn't catch our attention, or it becomes a familiar, even desirable background; i.e., it is "unmarked." 


SPEECH OR WRITING STYLES: "plain style"; plainspoken, non-theatrical (Puritans opposed theaters), impersonal; one's speech is one word--no separation between reality and language (cf. Biblical literalism).  (See also VISUAL STYLES above.)


IMPERSONALITY / PROFESSIONALISM: An American ideal is "a government of laws and not of men" (John Adams): an impersonal system or law prevails over personal status, birth, family, wealth. In everyday life the impersonal style may be labeled "professionalism," emphasizing reason, self-control, and individual or corporate interests or connections over personal identity and family relations. Meritocracy depends on credentials, tests, qualifications vs. personal identity.


INDIVIDUALISM / NUCLEAR FAMILY: The USA's culture of geographical and socio-economic mobility erodes Old World or traditional cultures' extended families and the stability of local social networks,


MOBILITY: In contrast to Old World or traditional cultures' identification with a home or place, the USA's dominant culture (along with subsequent immigrant groups) keeps moving, from Old World to New World, to Western frontiers or up in high-rises or outer space. (East as Old World to West as New World largely defines Western Civilization.)


NUCLEAR FAMILY: As with the ancient Jews of the Old Testament, the modern American dominant culture's mobility leads it continually to abandon extended family structures of traditional societies, putting stress on the patriarchal nuclear family of father, mother, children.


ORDERLY FREEDOM: USA's dominant culture works to maintain a "community of individuals": self-determining subjects with rights who nonetheless respect the subjectivity and rights of others.


MODERNITY over TRADITION: Immigrants may arrive hoping to enjoy a traditional lifestyle, only richer and with rights, but the USA's culture of prosperity and individual rights requires constantly accelerating change or "creative destruction" of traditional lifestyles and values.


HISTORY: the demographics and systems necessary for European conquest and settlement of North America owe largely to modernizing movements of the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism.


VALUES: modernity, mobility, individualism / nuclear family, cleanliness / sterility, security, property, purity, Protestant Work Ethic, literacy.

     "Soap & Water" may negatively associate with whiteness as blankness, sterility, disinfection, but may be essential for maintaining public health among peoples from various lifestyles, traditions?


ECONOMICS: freemarket capitalism emphasizing profit motive and heroic individualism as key to wellbeing (+- socialism); government is transparent and limited by human or civil rights. Free market provides jobs and opportunity; liberal government protects individual rights.


RELIGION: mostly Protestant, and increasingly secular or Evangelical Protestant, but also respectful of privacy or personal choice. Protestantism is compatible with modern culture by constantly splitting to new sects or denominations, but also tradition-oriented in terms of nuclear-family support, anti-intellectualism, and reversion to imagined earlier styles: new Protestant churches frequently model themselves after the first Christians in the generation after Christ. (Recently some radical-conservative Protestants double-down by re-converting to Catholicism and even Eastern Orthodoxy as expressions against modernization.)

  • Protestantism promotes individualism and self-government in at least two regards:

    •  Protestantism promotes individual literacy, which enables a system of laws and people who know their rights.

    • Literacy—originally the ability to read scripture for oneself—enables the individual to work out salvation without priests or intermediaries; to directly know and deal with God (and, by extension through contract, business and government).


RACE / ETHNICITY: Origins in European descent, i.e., "white people" or "Caucasians," but some intermarriage with other nationalities and races may occur as long as new members conform. Asian or Jewish "Model Minorities" enjoy comparable status. Counterbalancing racial exclusivity are "universal" appeals from Christianity (and other "World Religions") and Enlightenment ideas of "universal rights."


CLASS: "rich people?"—but many middle and working class whites identify through race or ideology. Poorer whites often support wealthier whites in belief that they too may be rich someday, while associating political efforts for equality with ethnic minorities.


GENDER: masculine privilege, but European chivalry honors women (esp. up the class and education ladder, as true of all cultures). Protestant ideas of individual soul's equality before God empowers wider equality.


RELATIONS BETWEEN GENERATIONS: "Honor your father and mother," but don't stick around or follow their models except in family values. Traditional cultures favor generational continuity; modern cultures require that, instead of imitating their parents, individuals imitate or emulate their peers.

More on race or nationality . . . (see Ethnicities of the USA's Dominant Culture)

USA's dominant culture derives from early settlers from Northern and Western Europe, especially England and the British Isles

Three main traditions or strains of America's dominant culture from several early waves of English immigrants:

Puritan immigrants (1600s) in New England and Upper Midwest:

  • more educated, more community organization and stability, more faith in government institutions, public schools, promotion of middle-class egalitarian society

  • vast literary heritage for study and cultural influence

Immigrants to Virginia and other Mid-Atlantic States (1600s); less commitment to community or government, more commitment to unregulated freemarket economics, private education, rich-poor society.

Scots-Irish immigrants (1700s) in Appalachian mountains and westward into lower Midwest, the South, Oklahoma and Texas, even parts of California and the Mountain West

  • less emphasis on education; more individualistic and fractious; anti-government even when dependent on government; faith in family or clan, even while suffering family and social breakdowns (traditional / dysfunctional family).

Proper spelling of a single word won't make or break your semester, but it really helps your instructor-grader's mood if you don't spell "dominant culture" as "dominate culture."

  • "dominant culture" is right. (dominant is the adjective form of the verb dominate)

  • "dominate culture" is wrong. (dominate is a verb, not an adjective)

1984 Presidential Cabinet, President Ronald Reagan front-center



Trump White House interns (March 2018)




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