Monday, August 25, 2008

On White Culture

"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.


Asha said...

i don't frequently comment on blogs but i did just want to offer you a virtual high five for this post. it clearly articulates things that i have tried to explain to white people numerous times with marginal success. makes me think of all the classes i've been in where we discuss the Enlightment and the white students just can't understand why anyone would question any of it's ideals/assumptions/results.
in Canada it's slightly different because white canadians sometimes identify their culture as those things that they don't share with white americans but all of what you might call white north american culture gets catagorized as "just normal". it's such an interesting thing to observe.

CVT said...

Asha -
Thanks for commenting (and the high-five). It's funny how we all KNOW what white culture is (sub-consciously), but until it's explicitly explained, it's hard to make concrete. The first time I read some explicit "laws" of white culture, it knocked me out how right on it was - and how obvious, once it was in my head.

Now, if only white folks could just acknowledge that and move on, we'd be better prepared for some real dialogue.

Charity Childs-Gevero said...

I would have to point out that in the Chinese culture (my mother is Chinese and says so herself) the men are the kings while the women have to always show restraint for their own emotions in favor for the emotions of their husbands or fathers or brothers.

Women don't even get any of the inheritance money!

I feel more valued by white men than by Chinese men. And I think this is because Chinese men think that women are a second-class species. We can't get mad, aren't allowed to express ourselves. Unlike in the white culture, my experiences with Americans (whether they are white or just grew up in American but are of a different race), American men understand that women are wonderful creations and not second-class humans who can't express themselves and have to listen and follow everything a man says.

Anyway, this is just my experience. I'm sure other people also have other experiences. But to me, my experience does matter, since, well, I went through it myself. lol :)

CVT said...

Charity -

Thanks for commenting and bringing your experiences into the conversation - that's how these kinds of conversations can move forward.

In no way am I saying that other cultures are not also patriarchal. Anybody with a Chinese background (like me, too) knows how over-the-top devalued females are in that culture (my grandmother was pissed that my brother and I were mixed, but at least we were male . . .).

However, as a generality, white American culture is still a patriarchy. Not as overtly anti-female as other cultures, but definitely not as respectful on a base level (again, in GENERAL) as others. The beauty of American culture being, of course, how new it is and how it has evolved to be (somewhat) more inclusive over time. So, hopefully, if I were to re-do my little write-up of American white culture in fifty years, it would have changed even more.

buchisugoi said...

I found your blog through Racialicious and I'm glad I did! Thank you for writing this post. I've heard the "but you're so lucky you're exotic" quite a few times. One time even from a HR person in response to a complaint! It is so problematic for me that it's hard for me to analyze in depth, so I'm glad to see someone is starting/continuing/creating that conversation here.

CVT said...

@Buchisugoi -
Thanks for commenting. I love that inane mentality by white folks that not being white is a "look" or "so cool" - something to be "jealous" about without knowing a damn thing about what that REALLY entails. I'll see what I can do to keep fighting the good (and frustrating) fight.

thesciencegirl said...

I really like how you've pointed out aspects of white culture, especially the bit about disbelief in that culture itself.

I can definitely identify aspects of white American culture that I've acquired.

And I've definitely seen white friends react in shock/horror/discomfort when they meet my family and see how loud we all are. It's a clear culture-clash, though I wonder if they recognize it as such.

Kate said...

Science girl pointed me to this, as a response to this psot I did I'm very glad she did!

I'm with Science Girl - while I really liked and enjoyed all of this post, it was that bit about the 'defaultness' (like that? I made it up myself) of White Culture that stuck with me.

I find that all the time when dealing with men (nb, I am white. Oh, so very very white...). They think I am just being difficult, always briging up gender as an issue. Because as far as they are concerned, what they are saying is nothign to DO with sexism. That particular woman IS a bitch, etc etc.

Except it IS about sexism. Or racism, or whatever other area of privelage vs. non-privelage. And the very fact that those with power don't know that they have power, or even that there IS power, is part of the problem...

I'm struggling with this all at the moment - since my cultural predeliction is to treat each person on their merits. But sometimes it's not about that. Sometimes it's about the bigger picture. Then again, sometimes the bigger picture gets in the way of being a decent human being. Uh oh, I feel another blog post coming on... I'm supposed to have a craft blog! ;)

Out of interest, though, I wondered how your statement that white culture is logical and emotionless, and yet all women are emotional. I get that you are saying this because it explains the lower status of women in white culture (although, chicken and egg, I think) but I was wondering where that leaves me, as a white woman? This is something I think about all the time myself - finding a balance between emotion and logic is important to me. And it's a tough one.

I hope you don't think I'm critisising - these are things we all chew over, and the hard part is that there IS no right answer - or at any rate, no answer that is right all the time.

I'm off ot read the rest of your blog, so feel free to ignore me if you've already answered these questions!

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm a newbie to your blog. I'm really enjoying what I've read thus far. I agree with your assessment on how White people indeed have a culture. This whole topic of what White culture is has been facinating to me within the past few years. To make a long story short it started when I was in graduate school for my M.A. in psychology. One day, I was walking down the hallway on our department floor and saw a bunch of old books that were sitting out on a table that were up for grabs because the professors no longer wanted them. One of the books that caught my eye was titled "The Psychology of the Afro-American" by Adelbert H. Jenkins. I thought well if there is a psychology of African-Americans then surely there must be a psychology pertaining to White-Americans- Right?

White Culture seems to be the elephant in the room for which no one wants to really talk about.