What. Is. Whiteness? What is White Culture? Is that a thing?
When our history books told us about the Melting Pot theory of American society, it was a melting pot of white people, and it’s pretty well mixed now — into a nice paste of corporate indenturship (thanks to student loans, etc), hipsterism, and tween culture. WOOt. The pride. It dribbles, like cooling fondue.
White people have no culture. This refrain makes its way around (what passes for) critical thinking on Tumblr and Facebook. It’s inflamatory, exculpatory. It’s smack talking, but it’s not bullshit.
From what’s observable in popular culture and our national politics, this is what I see makes up Whiteness. When people of color look at the culture made by/for us and say we have no culture, this is what they’re seeing. We identify by our church, our school and then professional sports teams, our political party and wing of it, and by our stuff. What’s on your iPod? You drink Coors, oh. I drive a Mini. Team Edward or Team Jacob? You’re a jock or a nerd, you’re a prep or a punk. You have access to spaces and to consideration and professional networks and to modes of public behavior not allowed to other colors of people.
Now, while we take these elements of our identity very, very seriously (we shut down our government, murder doctors over these things), they are not particularly deep or elemental things. They’re all packaged for us, and most of them for profit.
We bicker and brawl and murder over them all the time because they not very thick foundations.
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Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name
Something essential about American culture is coming clear in this time of increased exposure and awareness of the regular terror imposed on communities of color and on the poor/working-class. What we see in the state violence/neglect unleashed on black and brown bodies, even of children, is the logical terminus of Euro-American culture. Our whole history leads to this floating and unpredictable damage.
To children who want to protect their mothers from the police.
To parents schooling their children on how to stay alive through encounters with the police.
To the realization that there is no sure-fire way to live through these encounters.
Now, ya, that’s harsh. But, I’m not the first person to tell us this. Nietzsche’s critique of the bogus Christianity of his German contemporaries warned of this (The Gay Science). The Frankfurt School‘s critique of corporate/media/mass culture and its stultifying conformism (the stuff the Beat poets rejected) warned of this. Foucault’s genealogies in Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization warned of this. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, and just about every kind of feminist analysis warns of this.
We know what Jim Crow was. We know what lynching was. It was this. And so is the permission we (yes, we) have given for states and municipalities to dispose with bodies of color as they see fit. We have, yes, institutionalized our racism. We have not recovered from the brutality of our history, we have not progressed all that much. Chris Rock nailed it in this interivew with Frank Rich in New York Magazine in 2014.
What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?
I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.
Well, that would be much more revealing.
Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
Right. It’s ridiculous.
So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?
Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.
No matter what we say or what else we did, European culture — from the Romans to the Vikings to Expansionism to Manifest Destiny — has been about one thing: domination. From domination, the theory has long been, flow security, wealth, ease. Dominion.
We are not alone in this. This is the logic of every patriarchal empire (all of them, ever). In the late 900s, the Saracens (Muslims) made a regular practice of enslaving Italians and other Africans. India built a caste system that ensured/ensures a permanent and unpaid underclass of dalits. Etc. Slavery has made the world go around the world over.
In The Forge of Christendom, Holland even writes of an emir among the Saracens descended from a long powerful family. He had to dye his hair black and darken his skin in order to appear at all African. His family had “interbred” with so many Italian slaves that his hair was blond and his eyes blue. — There’s a switch for ya.
In Europe, the systems of serfdom and indenture were forms of slavery minus the title of ownership. It wasn’t needed. The fact of a peasant living on an aristocrat’s land implied their status as property. Crimes could not, until relatively recently, be committed against peasants by gentry. This is the meaning of the word “dominion.” All versions of it derive from the Latin dominus, which was the official title of the Roman Emperor from 248-476 AD.
This theory of dominion has never quite held in practice. The dominated have never quite knuckled under. Take The German Peasants War of the mid-1500s, for example. (Yeah, I didn’t know either! 300,000 dead in the revolt. Seriously.) We made a lot of art, wrote a whole tradition of literature, composed lots of religious and martial music all on this general theme: Obey your Master/s (God, Church, King, Husband, Older Brother). We spent a millennium, the Middle Ages, conquering each other in the name of God, and then plain old power, and when we ran out of people to bring into the fold, we looked outward to other empires for new sources of security, wealth, and ease that would come from dominating them (making them our dominion) in what we now call colonialism.
Maintenance of this system of power expresses itself in sexism, racism, homophobia, genocide, environmental desecration, and vast economic exploitation — a system that we are currently calling White Supremacy (which is also patriarchal and heterosexual and cis-gendered and richer than thou).
The Movement for Black Lives and the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName are a renewed refusal of Americans to accept death at state hands as the wage of their citizenship, to no longer accept crappy and underfunded schools, daily subtle form of belittlement and place-putting, and to demand their full measure of dignity.
No demand, in the current socio-economic arrangement, could be more logical or real. Some its finest expressions are to be found at Black Poets Speak Out.
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This is the fix white people can do themselves. It requires two simultaneous moves.
One goes inward.
White people need to re-ethnicize ourselves.
We don’t need less difference, we need orders of magnitude more of it.
Back when we needed that melting pot idea Protestant Americans (WASPs) oppressed Irish immigrants, and later were not super welcoming to Poles or Italians. Russian Jews? Nope. Hell, people were still teaching young me “Pollock” jokes in the 1970s. Lots of local ordinances marginalized these people (Irish Need Not Apply) and there was a fair amount of random “street violence” against them.
The current critique of whiteness is that there’s no there there. Whiteness is a big blob of mass consumerism spiced up with dashes of cultural appropriation. iPhones, Katy Perry, working in little gray cubes, droning commutes and servicing debt. Even the history books that are supposedly all about us white folks don’t tell us much about ourselves. Did you know that electric lights, the telephone, aspirin and the cure for polio were all brought to you by Scots or Scottish descendants in the US? No? Well.
Pasteurization, which keeps milk for more than two days in the fridge, that’s French. Pizza is Italian, but the tomato sauce on it is Italian American. The wheat that made the Midwest what it is now comes from Germany, along with Germans. Pierogi sound Italian when American mispronounce it, but they’re Czech/Polish. The union movement to protect workers and end child labor, Irish. John James Audubon, American Naturalist who taught us to adore the wild variety of birds — Breton. John Muir, Scottish. We spoke different languages and dialects, worshipped differently, ate differently, had contentiously different ideas about what our democracy should look like — pretty much all we agreed on (and we didn’t agree universally) was that the “savages” were in the way of our Manifest Destiny, and the blacks weren’t people in the South and weren’t quite people in the North.
Look, the fact is we all need to learn Spanish. Central and South America are our trade partners, 1/3 of the US territory used to BE MEXICO, so it would only be polite. But, we could stand to learn our ancestral languages, and use them. Use them in our poetry, our comedy, our music. Not as some Humanities requirement we’re fulfilling on the way to B-school, but as parts of ourselves — OUR HERITAGE — the sharing of which lead once and would lead again to tremendous creativity.
Most of us barely know where in Europe our families come from, what language they spoke, what poems they memorized and folk tales they told, how they celebrated the summer solstice (which is still celebrated in many ways all over Europe with picnics and music festivals.) Whether your people were seafarers or forest people. What kind of music did your people make, and could you learn it?
You’d have something to stand in that goes deeper than Chiefs or Redskins.The French call it “terroir” — the earthiness of a place, it’s culture. It applies to wine, but also people.
We could be reading the contemporary literature, listening to the contemporary music from these countries, watching their movies. It’s not all a history lesson. They are still creating new stuff in these places. French Hip-Hop is fascinating lyrically, musically, and politically.
The other goes outward.
Learn about the history of Americas many ethnicities you don’t know.
Or, hell, just learn the present. Dig deeper into Hip Hop than what the music industry puts on pop music stations. Learn about Jazz and Ragtime and Blues — there is no rock-n-roll without them. If you’re reading this, you have the whole Internet right there in a new tab. Read novels and poetry by people of color and indigenous people in the US — many of them are incredibly powerful work. Take a year, or two, and just read them. It will be a more pleasurable education than you think. Hate reading? Ok, watch movies on Black Netflix. Comedies are fine, but dramas and documentaries by and about people who don’t look like you are amazing sources of understanding.
Even if you narrow your learning to just Black and Latino culture/literature in the US, you are in for a wonderful and surprising treat.
Just search for “best books” or “best fiction” or “best poetry” or “best essays” by __(insert demographic)__ and hit Enter. You will never be bored again.
Figure out how to be a good ally to people of color. You don’t have to be perfect at it, and you can enegage a little at a time, learn as you go, and you will have to learn to live with being out of your depth and off of center stage. But, you will also become a much wiser and stronger person, someone who really knows their own limits and capacities, someone who genuinely cares for their fellows. Someone robust.
Srsly. There are a bajillion good articles on dismantling your privilege, and being generally not-an-asshole to people who are not like you in ways that make them very, very vulnerable to attack, job and housing discrimination, and murder.
There’s a reason we use the words “vanilla” and “white bread” or “milk toast” to mean boring or insufficiently complex. There is no there there.
The interesting thing about white light, the kind we use to see during the day, is that it’s made up of the whole rainbow of colors of light in the spectrum. Without all of them, it does not exist.