America’s Default Cultural Settings

In my earlier post about unpacking privilege, I rattled off a list of the “default” settings for American culture without a lot of context or detail.

Before I get started, here is a friendly reminder: We aren’t being asked to feel bad about our privileges, simply to acknowledge the experiences of others with empathy.

Today, I want to tackle the details. When I made my list, I googled a lot for other peoples’ lists. I wanted to capture things that were perhaps in my own blind spot. This site was the most comprehensive – even then, I’ve tweaked their list as well. I’m going to start as broadly as I can, and then work my way down to the individual.

Western Privilege

Globally, there is a privilege to living in and being from a western country. We un-self-consciously speak of “first world” and “third world” countries as if that not insulting. We go on volunteerism and mission trips to places that might not want our misguided but well meaning help.

If you noticed that a tragedy in Paris resulted in an “I’m okay” button on Facebook, and candlelight vigils, but that a bigger tragedy in Aleppo went unremarked, then you spotted a fragment of Western Privilege.

This is a good list of examples of Western Privilege.

American Privilege

The “ugly tourist” is an American stereotype. This person doesn’t try to learn the local language of the place they are visiting. They expect their cultural norms to work just fine in other places.  Sometimes they do.

This self-centeredness is in part because America is geographically large, and we don’t have to learn different languages to visit California from the East coast. We expect – at least subconsciously – traveling the rest of the world to be like traveling from state to state.  And sometimes we ignore when it isn’t.

When Americans go out into the world, either traveling or online, we assume that “America” is the default setting for everyone we encounter.  In a way it’s very naive. In other ways, it can be deeply troubling and hurtful.

Okay time to get into the American-specific list. I would like to see lists like this for other countries. If you know of a good one, please add it to the comments.


I’m putting male above cis and separating them out because transmen also experience male privilege. The basics of male privilege extend to them.

Men feel physically safe when they walk alone. They are less likely to be harassed, assaulted, or followed home. Men tend to feel like their opinions are heard at work – they interrupt others more, and they don’t get behavioral employee reviews suggesting they change how they say things.   They still get paid more for the same work. And they are more likely to be voted into public office, or serve in the senior leadership of businesses.


“Cis” is a relatively new prefix to describe someone who is comfortable with the gender they were ascribed at birth. This means their external genitalia probably match that gender, and everyone around them as they grew up identified them as that gender. In short, it is the opposite of “trans”.

Have you ever felt that weird feeling when you look at yourself in the mirror and you don’t recognize who you see? What if you felt that way about your gender? This huge part of identity and how you fit in in the world. I’ll get into this more later, but being cisgendered is a huge privilege.

Adult (but not a senior…)

When I thought about adding the age-range to my original list, I did it very carefully.  Children are treated differently from adults, which makes perfect sense developmentally. But if we’re talking about the heroes we give them on TV and movies, they are still adult versions of themselves, rather than other kids.

Seniors also see their invisibility increase, and they feel like they have to fight to be seen and understood.

The sweet spot for men appears to be young adulthood to middle age.


So after gender-identity, there’s also sexual preference. Though LGBTQ groups have made huge strides in the recent past, that doesn’t mean the gap has narrowed all that much.

You can still get fired, evicted, or refused service in multiple states.


I threw skin color way down the list for a reason. First of all, it’s not really a global majority. It’s a Western majority (see above). But not global.

Whiteness is the default cultural setting. Just look at our congress, our movies, our academy awards, and our cultural heroes.


I took a quiz about privilege that did okay from certain aspects, but it didn’t include anything about disabilities.

In an effort of empathy, I think of how exhausting and frustrating it must be. And I imagine a world where I might have to spend time thinking about which door of a building is the best one for me to use. To strategize how I’m going to get from one place to another. Or how I’m going to use a bathroom stall or sink that wasn’t designed with me in mind.  I think about my blind friend who once mentioned that they put the hearing assist headphone jack in a different place on every ATM.

This is not something that I’m very aware of. I appreciated Emily Ladau’s recent insights about another layer of ablism – this is in light of Meryl Streep’s speech.


Isn’t it interesting that so many people think vaccines cause Autism. And that they think autism is somehow worse than dying of smallpox?  How do you think that feels to the non-typical person to hear?  You know what I hear?  “I’d rather kill my child than have them end up like you.”  Ouch. It must really suck to be me, to have a different sort of brain.

The stigma of mental illness as being imaginary and something someone can “suck it up” and “get over” is still something that advocacy groups are fighting to end. Antidepressants are seen as unnecessary big-pharma sales fodder, and not something that can save a person’s life.

The cultural default is that you never have to worry about any of that.


I wanted, originally, to write “not obese”. Because the cultural default of America – in spite of the fact that most Americans are obese – is not one of being overweight.

But there’s a part of the default setting that is not just thinner, it’s also athletic. Athletes are granted strange rights and privileges that none of us can understand. Pro athletes are celebrities. College athletes have different academic standards. And if you’re a successful athlete, maybe you don’t even have to serve jail time for doing something illegal.

Upper Middle Class (and all that entails)

Here, I’m also going to include other cultural defaults that are in themselves defaults for the upper middle class: Suburban, college-educated, well-employed, has health insurance (but doesn’t need it), has a reliable automobile.  I’m not saying everyone ticks all of those boxes. What I’m saying is that those things tend to cluster together, and that they are all part of the cultural default.

People who rely on bikes, public transit, or walking are generally not seen as a default except in some major metro areas. There are a ton of places that still don’t have sidewalks or traffic control adequate to keep non-car commuters safe.

The upper middle class default is a bachelor’s or maybe these days an MBA. There is a resistance to academia, or “elitist” thinking, but there’s also an assumption that everyone should go to college and can afford it.

The cultural default in the US has a good job with employer-provided health insurance. Or is an entrepreneur who can afford to provide their own insurance. But this person is healthy, so doesn’t actually need it except for tennis elbow or something.

Also, its very likely – in the cultural default – that you grew up in a family that was well-off, had a car, etc.  The rags to riches story is an American fairy tale about people rising out of difficult situations into the cultural default. I’ve got to get into the suburban thing more, because there’s something there. The rural, hick uneducated poor, and the urban, thug uneducated poor flanking the pristine suburbia.

It’s also really likely that this cultural default person lives in a neighborhood that reflects all of this. Neighbors who are also white, upper middle class, well-employed, insured, driving a reliable car, etc.


The default American man is a Christian. He’s more than likely Protestant.  He’s maybe a C&E just the major holidays kind of Christian. But a Christian all the same.

Christmas is a Holiday. Easter and Good Friday are holidays. Often employers give you the day off for that. Do the post offices and banks shut down for Ramadan? For Passover? For the Chinese New Year?  Nope. But they shut down for Christmas.

Entire “Seasonal” sections of stores and shopping malls are devoted to Christmas, Easter, and even Saint’s days like Valentine or Patrick. Only in very select areas of town, in very discreet displays will you see a shelf of Kosher foods, or a selection of decorations or treats for Hanukkah in a major chain grocery store. Otherwise, you have to go to a specialty shop.

Born in the USA

This cultural default person was a natural born US citizen, but even further, this person’s first language was English, and so were their parents’.  Third generation immigrants are pretty well assimilated into the overall culture.


3 thoughts on “America’s Default Cultural Settings

  1. Pingback: Upon Loss of Privilege | Alicia K. Anderson

  2. Pingback: A Tyranny of Averages | Alicia K. Anderson

  3. Pingback: Disability and Shame | Alicia K. Anderson

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