"The Devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist!" - Charles Baudelaire, 1864*
Now, I don't hold to a theory of "white devils," but this quote seemed way too perfect in a conversation about white culture. Because one of the most tricky aspects of white culture (from here on I speak of specifically white American culture) is the belief that there is no such thing.
I hear it all the time - white folks speaking to how "jealous" they are of people of color because of their cultural "roots." White folks saying that the reason they are drawn to "exotic" cultures is due to a lack of their own.
Well, I'm sorry to burst that little bubble, but American white people - you have a culture. You really do. And part of the reason you find that so hard to believe is that it is intrinsic in that culture to believe that you have none.
Let me explain here. One of the major aspects of American white culture is the belief in individuality. "Everybody's unique." We're all a bunch of snowflakes**. It is inherent in white culture to box in other people (of any race) and then follow up with an explanation of how I - myself - am not part of any particular group. It's one of the cornerstones of the American Dream - every individual can "lift themselves up by the bootstraps" if they work hard enough. We are all about the "pursuit of happiness" as opposed to a pursuit of familial security or community or any other such thing. And so, with that as one of the highest pillars of American white culture, it is exceedingly difficult for white folks (or those brought up in said culture) to then consider themselves as a part of that culture. Clever, isn't it? And frustrating . . .
In contrast, few cultures of color hold individuality in such high esteem. The family is often much more important in those cultures than in white culture. Identification with the group (nationality or ethnicity) is also very important - so much so that people of color often feel that they must represent all people of their race in whatever they do. Not so white folks. How often do white folks deny their responsibility for the actions of others of their race (positive OR negative)? Because they are all individuals.
What else is important to white culture? Logic. Reason. Controlled emotions. Folks raised in white culture often will talk about how "loud" other races are. When people display open emotion - raising their voice - they are seen to be "out of control" or even violent. Problems should be reasoned out and solved with logic. The world around should be understood through science and objective observation.
And this is a HUGE reason white folks have such a hard time understanding the experiences of people of color. Because logic does not really come into play when race becomes involved. Race cannot be understood through observation and scientific reasoning. Race must be felt to be understood. White people like to tell people of color that they "understand" where they are coming from because they logically understand the sentiments - when no person of color would ever think that their situation is truly understood in those moments.
White culture is a patriarchal system. Men dominate and make decisions. "God" is male. Women are seen as emotional (again - as opposed to "reasonable") and physically weak. Stay-at-home mothers are not valued the same as the male "breadwinners."
Youth and vitality are honored and revered. Movie stars, athletes, models - young, attractive, imitating the perfection of Greek/Roman gods and goddesses. Elders are seen as old infants - needing to be cared for (and often sent to nursing homes).
In other cultures, the mother goddess is all. Elders are revered for their wisdom and experience. Ancestor-worship is common. Unrelated elders are still objects of respect - to be obeyed.
White culture emphasizes the importance of time. "Time is money." Being on time is vital. Businesses live and die by next-day delivery. We can "waste time" or "spend time." What we do with our time is an investment in our futures. We work our asses off now, so that we can get paid or retire weeks or years on down the road.
A majority of non-western, non-white cultures feel quite differently about time. There is nothing wrong with sitting around, chatting and reinforcing existing relationships instead of working. Being an hour late just isn't a big problem. Work is meant to take care of current needs - planning for the future is less important than simply enjoying the free time of the present. Those raised in American white culture often mistake these cultural differences as "laziness."
Is this starting to make some sense? Does it hurt to see where these white cultural traits hit home? And again - I emphasize that these are cultural traits of white America - but it doesn't mean that it doesn't affect people of color. Who are the racial "sell-outs"? Who are the PoC who "act white"? Why - it's the ones who have a stronger connection to white culture.
And other cultures within the confines of the States are not immune to assimilation. As the generations go by, you can watch youth of color start emphasizing more and more of these white cultural traits. Because cultures are fluid, and they are spread via exposure - as opposed to explicit teaching. And so American media implants these cultural "givens" in the minds of all its viewers.
And it's important to be aware of this. Although few lay claim to an explicit understanding of white culture, American white culture is understood. It's why people refer to white cultural traits as "normal" as opposed to the distinctions necessary to identify the other side. It's unspoken and taken for granted because it is so pervasive. And because of that, it becomes identified with "normal" and stops being interesting or "exotic" enough for white people to be happy with it. And then they start claiming they have no culture and start looking to borrow from somebody else.
And this is not to be confused with white privilege. Because people of color can definitely partake of white culture without partaking of white privilege. But an understanding of white culture can then lead to easier explanations as to why it's so hard for white folks to be aware of their privilege.
There is so much farther I can go with this - and I will, in time - but I think this serves as a good primer for understanding of white culture. And with this basic understanding, a dialogue between different racial cultures becomes a little bit easier. Because it's hard to comprehend and respect cultural differences without consciously knowing where you stand.
I would love to hear some opinions on this matter, so please feel free to comment.
* Yes - I did originally hear a version of this quote in the movie "Usual Suspects"
** I always wondered if it was more than coincidence that snowflakes are white.
*** Of course, I didn't just make all this up. Many studies have been done on white culture and the pieces I mentioned here have been consistently brought up. For those who want more information, hit me up in the comments, and I'll see how I can help.