Whiteness and culture

Why do people say “white people have no culture”? What is that intended to accomplish.  A friend, who posed this question, suggested that it means White people have no culture that needs protecting.

I don’t agree.

This statement may have some grounding in race theory that can be important and useful in a context where that is understood as a more complex phenomenon, but as it stands it is factually incorrect and erases systems of oppression.  It homogenize whiteness by suggesting all White people, meaning all people who benefit from the privilege of having white skin, have a homogeneous cultural experience.  By suggesting culture is something created by the other and suggesting whiteness is not an identity, it treats whiteness as a default and all other groups as something else.  This defines whiteness as only existing through consumption and therefor poses no other alternative.

I think this is part of a larger trend in current social justice spaces that needs to separate “us” vs “them” in order to uplift an “us” oppressed by “them”.  This is very effective and necessary  because we do need to recognize how people are othered, and how this connects to systemic oppression.  When we are challenging those systems, recognizing how different people are treated differently is crucial to understanding and dismantling those systems.  An easy example is the Black lives matter movement.  It says: why are Black lives not given the same value?

The problem arises when instead of challenging the status quo, it seeks to replace it with rules that separate and codify culture, treating it as static rather than an ongoing and changing phenomenon.  This leads to treating all cultural exchange as only cultural consumption, ignores the importance of economic and social influences and exchanges, and erases how culture changes over time.

This last element is fairly pernicious because ignoring how cultures change is part of what drives the demand for authenticity that others certain cultures by treating them as homogeneous and static.  A clear example might be the belief that all Indigenous people share the same spiritual practices and that they have not changed since time immemorial, when in fact there are literally thousands of belief systems that have changed over time.  Denying the ability of cultures to change is also used to prevent the development of people of different cultural backgrounds in order to “preserve” them or glorifying and justifying access to systems such as healthcare and education.

To return to the initial comparison between a social movement and rules regarding cultural ownership, one is discussing the power of an oppressive system while the latter has become in many cases a rule that avoids looking at how a complex set of entities and systems interact.

For instance, BLM never denies the existence of White people dying, it says look how the treatment of Black people is different and disproportionately negative.

Cultural appropriation is at its core about the same question: look at how people who are not white are being treated differently and negatively.  Look how when White people are in the same position they receive social and financial rewards.  Look how our cultural expressions are treated differently.  When we argue about who is “allowed” to use what, we become gatekeepers and suggest that culture is owned more so by some people than others.

It fails to recognize that everyone has culture and many cultures are mixed from others, and that for many people who exist in liminal spaces such as being mixed, we are often called on to “prove” or legitimize our claims to culture.

Take Peruvian cuisine, since it is part of my “heritage”.  It blends Indigenous Peruvian, Spanish, and Far Eastern food, and many more. In my family it also blends in Middle Eastern food. The Spanish colonized it and brought in a lot of workers from primarily China.  There are also Afro-Peruvians, who fight to be recognized as a part of Peru and contributors to Peruvian culture.  Other part of my heritage as just as complex.  German food varies between regions, even though there is a great deal of share history and culture.

The US encompasses very diverse cultures, and people tend to forget how many cultural groups exist in such a large country. Creole is an awesome example of a culture that is blended from many groups and unique to a part of the US, but even the food of different regions varies significantly.  I’ve often heard people insist “America has no national food”.  This statement not only erases all regional differences, it treats what Americans eat as some sort of default food, or presumes it is international when it often is not.  It also, very importantly, erases the history that Native Americans and Black Americans have had a huge impact in shaping the food of the United States.

This narrative also doesn’t create a space for “white” cultures that are under attack. Ukraine, for instance, is currently undergoing a cultural revival.  Their representative to Eurovision, an international song competition, was not only Crimean, a specific region that is inhabited by the Tatars, who are an ethnic minority, she sang about the violence experienced by her country folk under the USSR.  Her victory was a very moving and significant moment for a nation pushing back against the current Russian invasion.  Russia, in the past, tried to eradicate Ukraine’s culture and language, as it did in many other satellite states under Soviet control.

The idea that Whiteness is without culture implies this dynamic can only be between a White oppressor and a nonwhite oppressed, it might even be argued to be a facet of how whiteness is created. This does not give us tools to discuss cultural oppression in other contexts such as Japan’s treatment of Korea.  When Japan occupied Korea they forbade the use of the Korean language, Korean cultural practices, destroying or defiling national treasures and moving landmarks to Japan. It erases the significance of these actions and current Korean attempts to decolonize and revive Korean culture.  Today, you can ride the bus and watch infomercials on what the correct Korean word is for polka dots because most people use the Japanese word.

I know there’s some race theory about how this is constructed and how to understand it, and I won’t pretend to know or understand that theory well, though there are awesome academics who work on this topic, but I think we are at a juncture where there is a gap between different theories and activism, and part of it is the very absolute approach I currently see in activism, that there is only one right answer or approach, and that sometimes misunderstand theory to be not a way of understanding trends but to mean absolute rules of how to treat any case that we can associate with these ideas.  We need to instead engage with careful consideration for individual cases.

Moreover, recognizing the heterogeneity of “white culture” is a step towards recognizing that people are not simply “white” or any other race for that matter, but part of multiple cultural systems.  It’s an important step, because we need to move away from whiteness as a default state in order to dismantle White supremacy.  I believe white people should actively engage with their own cultural experiences in order to understand the complexity of other cultural experiences as well.  It’s important to understand the entirety of experiences of people who are not white- being Black or Asian or anything does not preclude being other things as well. One may be invested in their national heritage, they may be immigrants or subject to regionalism within a country, and are often of all different religions.  All these contribute to systems of oppression and to our cultures.

-Thank you Tori for posing the initial question and helping me process my thoughts.


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