White Culture

I mentioned I am taking an Indigenous cultural competency course right now, and there’s a “paradox” (scared quotes because it’s not a paradox) between the reminder that Indigenous cultures in North America may be as different as Irish and Japanese culture on one hand; and being told things about Indigenous North American culture on the other.

My instinct is that all talk about race, ethnicity and culture is dangerous. As long as I regard people as people I am being safe, but if I start to see people as groups joined by skin colour, ancestry, nationality, I’m going in the wrong direction. I know I’m not alone in thinking this way. I see it on these forums all the time, I know if from my personal friends. There is an idea that the way out of racism is through individuality, that we need to be come more extremist in our individualism.

So I know that talking about Indigenous North American culture risks overgeneralization, but I wonder if my problem (and I think the problem of many other people I personally know) is our undergeneralization - that we are too insistent on the impossibility of finding any commonality between people. That we say:

  • You can’t talk about LGBTQ culture in North America because obviously LGBTQ people in rural Alabama have a completely different experience than LGBTQ people in Toronto.
  • You can’t talk about LGBTQ culture in Toronto because obviously gay cismen have a completely different life experience than straight transwomen.
  • You can’t talk about gay cismale culture in Toronto because obviously Indigenous gay cismen in Toronto have a completely different experience than white gay cismen in Toronto.
  • You can’t talk about gay white cismale culture in Toronto because obviously some of them are homeless youth and some of them are 60-year-olds with $5M homes.
  • You can’t talk about gay white middle class cismale culture in Toronto because I know two gay white middle class cismale guys and they are as different as night and day.

Basically we end up denying that culture itself exists. And I feel like it’s all in service of that idea that we can’t really be held accountable for our culture or out society, only for ourselves, which is itself part of the political power structure that gives white people power over other races.

I think the topic this spawned from goes over the idea that racism is more than just people’s attitudes and morals. It’s also power structures.

But I think there are several reasons why white culture might be elusive for us. The only white people who are willing to actively discuss white culture are white supremacists. They are proud to be white and ascribe to whiteness all sorts of positive traits. They claim white people are responsible for the creation and advancement of civilizations. Attributing anything good to white people or white culture feels extremely thorny.

But what about not good but things that are just there?

Like Heavy Metal seems like an extremely white kind of music to me. From having trouble with a white supremacist subculture at times, to the bands being very white, to my ability to enjoy metal from all over Europe (Rammstein had North American hits, Scandinavia is metal country). Of course that doesn’t mean all white people like metal or black people can’t like or play metal. But black Americans don’t all like hip hop and presumably some Finnish people hate Ievan polka.

What about food? The other night I came home and needed to make something quick for dinner. I looked up a recipe for beans and rice and it started with sauteing onions and hot peppers. So what did I do? I sauted onions, carrots and celery (and if this entire thread devolves into jokes about how white people can’t eat hot food that’ll certainly be like top 20% in the spectrum of possible results for me starting this conversation).

And of course part of looking at white culture is looking at appropriation. How heavy metal can trace its roots to black American music. How I was cooking like a white person using a Mexican recipe. Sharing between cultures is good, cultures dominating others and taking from them is bad. But to me it seems like a huge step just to admit I have a culture other than an imperialist, consumerist technocracy that seeks to devour everything.

It’s uncomfortable for me to think that I like white music, but I think it’s true. I love metal, emo, “indie” (which is crazy white), and weird stuff by people named John (Cage, Cale, Zorn, Flansburgh & Linnell). I may love ATLiens but my favourite rap album is Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives by Aesop Rock. It just sounds good to me.

That can’t just be a coincidence, can it? (I say to myself to convince myself)

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White supremacists talk about white culture as if it were a national culture, as if one could classify a painting by Titian as “white art” or a book by Dickens as “white literature”, etc…

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Culture isn’t an “either/or” thing, it’s a series of overlapping spectrums of the things that unite us as a group, including shared experiences.

I think one major reason we think of “black culture” in North America differently than “white culture” is that the vast majority of black Americans are united by the shared ancestral tragedy of slavery. Any previous language, names, national origin, traditions, family ties, food, music, fashion etc. were denied them, stolen from them, beaten out of them.

So while a white American can usually trace their national origin prior to their ancestors’ arrival in the US and find all kinds of cultural traditions to claim as their own, most black Americans have to make do with “my ancestors were abducted from subsaharan Africa some time in the 18th or 19th Century.”

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At the risk of stating the obvious, white people are also united by the shared ancestral tragedy of slavery. That unity is one of the primary reasons that we want to deny the existence of a white culture. White culture exists, has existed in this country since we first arrived, and it is an ugly legacy to reckon with.

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Not in the same sense. While all white people in America today are impacted by the racial power imbalance left behind as part of the legacy of slavery, the legacy of slavery does not define their cultural origins as Americans.

For example, I know that the ancestor who brought my family name to the United States immigrated here in 1907 from County Cork, Ireland. I know that my maternal grandmother’s family came from Massechusetts and that I may be a distant relation to Cotton Mather. I can trace other ancestors to Switzerland and England and France, so there are all kinds of cultural traditions I can identify with that predate the United States and have nothing to do with slavery.

Just last week I helped my daughter with a school assignment in which she was asked to draw a flag from one of her ancestral countries. Even this simple exercise is something we could take for granted because our pre-American ancestry was not stolen from us.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as “white culture” in the United States, but it’s not based on a single common experience in quite the same way “black culture” is.

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Baby Yoda Comments

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I guess I’m arguing that the legacy of slavery should define white culture, and possibly, by its absence from our collective self–image, that it does define our culture.

It’s true that white America was not ripped from it’s ancestry the same way that black or indigenous America was. But the fact that we continue to identify with our historical origins, while dissolving our shared bond of abduction, torture and genocide in the aqua regia of the past is a privilege made possible by the legacy of terror we have built on this continent.

I can trace my origins back through several generations - on one side back to Austria, where they end in a sea of Nazis, and on the other side back to Ireland, then Scotland and eventually, Canada. But are those points of origin really more relevant to my life here in 21st Century America than the participation of my progenitors in an economy built on enslavement and displacement?

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No matter the origin story, for pretty much any “white” person it’s going to come down to making a choice to emigrate here. Not so for anybody that had a slave ancestor. It’s also important to realize that slavery is not far removed from our timeline. There are people alive today that literally knew people that were once slaves.

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There are almost certainly Americans alive today whose parents were born into slavery before Emancipation. If a man was born into slavery in 1863 and later fathered a child at age 65 then that child wouldn’t even be 90 yet.

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Some reading on the construction of whiteness - the only one of these I have not read is the Neil Irvin Painter book (just haven’t gotten to it):

Here is a list of some more:

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Wonder showzen was a bit late to the party on that…

I lucked out and found the companion book at a second hand book shop once…

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So good to see that this thread hasn’t devolved (yet?) into jokes about mayo and the lack of basketball and dancing skills.

Having thought about the issue a lot, and having listened to more perceptive observers of white people (that is, to non-white people, who by and large have had to study whiteness), I think @Humbabella is doing a wonderful thing while learning about indigenous people and cultures, a thing that few white people would do in that situation: struggling to also understand himself in terms of his own racial status. Lord save us all from the white person who loudly stumbles into racial discussions and situations without having worked at least a bit to understand and counteract some of their own common white tendencies!

It’s clear to me that aside from a shared disinterest and/or unwillingness to face up honestly to the past and present realities of white supremacy, white culture manifests in many other ways. And I don’t find it useful to get hung up on the fact that (as with all cultures) not all white people share all of them. To say that something is a “white thing” is to not to say that all white people do or share it.

So, more specifically on topic: I see many instances of white culture, pretty much daily, that mostly stem back to common roots of whiteness, such as the illusory individualism that @Humbabella spelled out. That white individualism results in the common white thing of thinking that people who aren’t white, and aren’t doing well economically, should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like I and/or my ancestors did. That individualism is also a result of whiteness and white culture having become relatively invisible to white people themselves (but again, not to a lot of other people).

Another common thing, or whiteness root, is a fetish for cleanliness. Christianity plays a part here too, but whiteness arose in contradistinction to other perceived races and ethnicities – white people were perceived as better, as superior, in part because they supposedly weren’t as “dirty” as those others. This is a class thing too. Middle-class people have generally thought of themselves as deservedly higher up the ladder because they’ve cleansed themselves (in a lot of ways, both literal and figurative). In this sense, middle-class white people have felt doubly clean. Cleanliness, then, and a relative obsession with it, is also an example of white culture, no matter how much we can point to specific white people who are not clean in various ways. As for “white trash,” that’s also about race (and class) and cleanliness, if you think about it.

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Any talk of “white culture” is an attempt by white supremacists to tramp stamp the efforts of those who actually achieved stuff. Having nothing in common with such people other than skin pigment. Much like attributing such things to having a spinal cord and being a placental animal. “Go Mammals!”

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Ritual (if that can be described as fetish) purification and or cleanliness is present across the globe.

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And so is individualism.

I suppose I should have specified what struck me as obvious, that the ideology of cleanliness that I’m talking about here is a specific kind of cultural phenomenon, a certain set of self-serving ideas, feelings and beliefs about the relative, supposed cleanliness of one’s own people and what amounts to the “dirtiness” of others.

And it’s not something that just occurred to me as I was typing. Here’s an entire book on it:

From the press’s description of the book:

When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him “clean and articulate,” he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society’s wastes have been managed. . . . Ethnic “purity” was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity. . . Today, the bigoted idea that non-whites are “dirty” remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities. . .

And here’s a great journal article that also examines the particularly white racial ideology of cleanliness and purity:

“Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity, and Hygiene,” by Dana Berthold. PDF:

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Just a very small and slightly amusing sidenote, not to be meant a distraction: a friend of mine studied Finnish, and several other languages, and the Levan’s polka known and remixed on the internet is, according to him, sung in a rather funny and obscure Finnish dialect which is related to today’s Estonian.

Which of course fits right into the background of the discussion: from the outside, in a generalisation, this would probably sound like a song to define culture for Fins and Suomi, but if you look too close, you end up not only with a specific sub-group of the language and their relationships, but probably even with the singers who are interpreting the song as part of a sub-subgroup. [quote=“Humbabella, post:1, topic:156579”]
weird stuff by people named John (Cage, Cale, Zorn, Flansburgh & Linnell)
[/quote]

May I add Cash? Oh my. The man in black is quite white, too.[quote=“Brainspore, post:3, topic:156579”]
So while a white American can usually trace their national origin prior to their ancestors’ arrival in the US and find all kinds of cultural traditions to claim as their own, most black Americans have to make do with “my ancestors were abducted from subsaharan Africa some time in the 18th or 19th Century.”
[/quote]

Interesting observation. Another sidenote, again not meant to distract, but rather broaden the view: racism between ethnic groups in West Africa is commonplace, and “my slave” is a quite common term people from different ethnic groups use to pull each others legs. (Sidenote to the sidenote: slavery predates European colonialism in West Africa, and even today is much more widespread than anyone who could do something about it is willing to even acknowledge.) It is interesting to perceive parts of the US-american racism discourse taking “blacks” as a single, nearly homogeneous group with a shared past. From my experience in Africa (West and East) I would assume that, to a certain extent, racism among blacks in the US would also exist. And would also be based on the darkness of the skin, amongst other factors. In West Africa, e.g., people with a very dark skin tone would be called “Senegalese”, with a sneer. Racism, it turned out, is quite normal wherever I go. :.(

This, BTW, turned up in my newsfeed today:

Seriously hope I don’t fit that bill. Have the feeling I do with this post, at least partly.

Taken out of context, but this is going to be an interesting line of thought, coupled with this:

The ideals of the enlightenment as a starting point are possibly behind that idea. Personally, I need to think about this more deeply than I can do at the moment. I have the feeling that pitching individualism against collectivism, e.g., is not at the core of the idea you stated.

Sorry for the randomness in my post. Hope the link and my ramblings bring some new input, @Humbabella. As usual, your post gets me thinking. Hope that keeps on.

I’m hearing in this thread the feeling among white people that we have no culture, or that white culture is not for us. Affiliating with anything white seems like it tacitly embraces our ancestors’ crimes. As @Humbabella says, the only white people willing to talk about white culture are white supremacists.

How do we build a culture that is pluralistic, but not individualistic? What does that even look like?

Also, it occurs to me—do you think the deliberate rootlessness we’re talking about plays a part in the rise of “deaths of despair” among white men in the States?

There’re a lot of smart people here so I’m curious to see where this goes. I’ll back out and take my answer off the air.

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Considering that “white culture” would seem to be the dominant, virtually omnipresent culture in USA and Western Europe, it may be that we (SWM me, just FYI) don’t see it just as fish don’t see the water. It is only apparent when there is something to contrast it with. My family has groused at times that our family history is boring, as we never got south of the English Channel going back at least to the 1200’s. We “have no ethnicity or culture” by our own standard, because we have no contrasting element. We don’t have a culture because we are the culture. I don’t know, thinking out loud.

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