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Going Where Glenn Beck Wouldn't: Defining White Culture

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My Facebook and Twitter friend @clyde_online, a community organizer in DC, has been pestering me to define U.S. white culture. Up until now, I've demurred.

Frankly, there are other things I'd rather write about. Besides, though I'm certainly aware of the status and meaning that our civilization has managed to assign to whiteness and realize that I benefit from both, I don't personally buy into either. If it were up to me, I'd get rid of whiteness altogether.

Just so I'm clear: I like the people fine. It's their whiteness (or rather the privileges associated with it) that I'd rather do without.

Of course, this wish -- to be rid of whiteness -- is at the very core of white culture. With the occasional exception of reverse racism (more on that later), white people don't want to talk about their whiteness. Given such a cultural climate, it seems like some explication, by someone, is sorely needed.

One person clearly in need of a primer is Glenn Beck. The outspoken conservative radio and TV host is one of several conservatives to have accused Barack Obama of racism, most notably in 2009 when during a morning show discussion of Obama's reaction to the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates (see my take on that story here), Beck remarked that Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

The remark was predictably controversial, and a few days later Beck found himself being asked by Katie Couric to explain the "white culture" part of the statement. Here's the video from that portion of the interview.

For those that couldn't (or did not want to) watch the video, Beck resolutely refused to answer the question. Whatever thoughts he might have had on white culture, he clearly wasn't willing to share them on the air. But, again, Beck's avoidance of whiteness is one of the defining characteristic of white culture.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's consider what culture is, more generally, and then use those principles to define white culture. Wikipedia provides a good elaborate description, but for this purpose, a dictionary definition will suffice. This one is from dictionary.com

Culture. (Noun). The sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Though the definition doesn't elaborate, "the sum total of ways" is usually presumed to include language, food, dress, music, and holiday celebrations, as well as less clearly defined concepts such as values, shared points of reference, and norms regarding how we interact and relate to each other.

If this sounds a bit fuzzy, well, it is. Most of us would be hard pressed to define "American" culture, even though most of us likely identify as "Americans", at least to some degree. Part of the issue lies in the fact that we live in a global community, one where there is frequent and substantial exchange between most cultural groups. As a result, so-called American culture includes much that has been borrowed (or appropriated) from elsewhere, including the ubiquitous burger, which of course came from Germany. Similarly, the United States has seemingly exported every part of its culture, including, according to this New York Times story, its mental health problems, which, more and more, are taking on a universal (rather than cultural) expression. All this begs an important question:

Is the notion of "culture" outdated?

It certainly seems that, on a global scale, some consolidation of cultures is inevitable, but we're not there just yet. At this point, meaningful cultural differences still exist. Certainly, Americans don't enjoy wine nearly as much as the French or tea as much as the British. More importantly, Americans still, on average, lead a more hectic, faster-paced lifestyle than practically any other cultural group. No doubt we can make a long and impressive list.

Within the United States, however, the cultural consolidation is already an observable reality. Whereas there were once vibrant Irish, Italian, and German communities, they have largely dissipated into a rather undifferentiated whiteness. Other U.S. cultural groups, while more readily identifiable, are being similarly affected. Overall, the cultural differences are getting both fewer and less pronounced. Moreover, what were once culture-specific traditions and practices are now freely practiced by members of other cultural groups, even as they are rejected by some members of the cultural ingroup that developed those practices in the first place (out of a desire to let go of traditional ways and modernize or "fit in" with the mainstream).

Black culture can be viewed in this way. Its dialect, music, and fashion are easily recognizable but have all been so widely integrated into "mainstream" American culture that it's hard to know where one culture ends and the other begins. At the same time, it seems that more and more middle-class Blacks are explicitly rejecting the accouterments of blackness in an attempt to avoid (and dispel) the associated stereotypes. To wit, black culture has largely morphed into hiphop culture.

Not that there ever was a single Black culture. There is now, as there has always been, many different Black cultures. In addition to hiphop, there is also the culture of the Black middle-class, the Black church, and the Black South. Again, this is not a comprehensive list.

So, where does this leave white culture?

There are three fundamental tenets of white culture that I want to discuss, and, appearances to the contrary, I didn't get sidetracked. A brief summary of Black culture was necessary, because though Black culture was once regarded as having been derived in opposition to the (white) mainstream, it is now white culture that is defined primarily through its distinction from Black culture. This differentiation from Blackness is the first tenet.  Thus, country music and heavy metal are both generally regarded as "white" -- not because the majority of white musicians (and fans) prefer them to other genres but because there are so few Black musicians and music fans who identify with this type of music. By the same logic, despite the handful of Black Republicans, both the GOP and the Tea Party fall squarely within white culture. And, of course, so do the white enclaves that Richard Benjamin christened "Whitopias".

But remember, culture is more than preference for music and politics. It also includes norms for how people interact and relate to each other. And if we are to talk honestly about white culture, then we must acknowledge that one of the ways that white people relate to each other is as beings devoid of race. Whereas other racial groups are seen and acknowledged as such, white people generally regard each other either as individuals or as fellow "Americans" but hardly ever as white people. This is most evident in how white people use racial identifiers. We talk about our BLACK friend and our ASIAN neighbor but never about our WHITE coworker. Indeed, the very thought of using racial identifiers for white people is so dreadful for many of us that Black theologian Thandeka made a game out of it. Go ahead and play. I dare ya!

This leads me to the third aspect of white culture: privilege. Please permit me to quote from an earlier piece I wrote about this topic (read the full piece here):

Expressions of privilege are... a choice, a choice to not value or seek to understand culturally different groups, even when members of those groups are our neighbors, our coworkers, our children's classmates, and sometimes even our friends - a choice that, as any race scholar or activist will point out, is available only to members of the majority group. Members of racial minority groups, like members of other visible minority groups, must understand majority culture in order to negotiate it with any degree of success. This, then, is the real privilege of whiteness: The ability to make choices regarding which groups are worth listening to, when, and under what circumstances, and this choice is often so taken for granted that many of us make it with hardly any awareness of doing anything at all. And because this choice-making is silent and invisible, it is easily denied and, for the past decade, has been almost impossible to address in a structural manner, no matter how many writers and bloggers have written about it.

I could go on. Certainly Christianity (namely Protestantism) is an important aspect of white culture, as is being born on U.S. soil (immigrants, even those from Europe, are generally excluded from most expressions of white culture). I left them out because they did not, in my view, distinguish white culture from other U.S. cultural groups. I suppose I could have just as easily included them. My purpose here was not, however, to write out an exhaustive description of white culture but to outline its fundamental tenets: 1. distinction from Black culture, 2. avoidance of self-racialization, and 3. privilege.

What about racism?

You might have noticed I didn't mention racism. I'm not avoiding the subject. It's certainly the case that many white people perpetrate racism -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not -- but I don't think there is anything particular about white culture that makes it inherently more racist than any other group. I say this with some trepidation, because I am acutely aware of the power dynamics -- the reality that, as the politically and economically dominant group, white people have the power to create and maintain racist systems and structures, as for example, our criminal (in)justice system.

I don't want to minimize this structural racial inequity. It is all too real and much too painful. At the same time, few white people have the power to personally influence these kinds of policy decisions. To the contrary, many feel powerless and helpless, especially in our current economic climate. There is a white elite (with a handful of nonwhite collaborators) that is responsible for maintaining these racist systems, but most white people, including those that most strongly identify with white culture, feel as alienated from this corporate and political elite as do most non-whites.

Glenn Beck (and Rush Limbaugh) aside, most white Americans who identify in some way with white culture are nevertheless quick to denounce anything that even vaguely resembles white superiority or racism. They generally believe in the myth of reverse discrimination and think that they are more likely to be victimized by racism than benefit from it. Moreover, they are tired of being accused of racism and tired of being blamed for the racial inequities, which (if they acknowledge) they attribute to group differences in motivation. As such, they want to live in a world where race doesn't matter and they tend to act accordingly, denying the reality of race and racism, not just in their own lives but in the lives of people of color. We can call this racism. Some do. But in the absence of malice -- and I do think that malice is the exception, not the rule these days -- I think the term "privilege" is more appropriate, as well as more constructive. I have just one remaining point to make.

Who gets to decide on membership?

You'll note that, based on my definition, Glenn Beck falls easily and comfortably into white culture. That doesn't mean that all, or even most, white people do. Just as there are many different Black cultures, so are there many different white ones, including a small but growing culture of white people committed to doing anti-racism work. The degree to which any particular person identifies with any of these cultures is simultaneously a matter of individual choice and a matter of public perception. That is, I can choose to interact with and value the opinions of non-whites and in so doing publicly distance myself from white culture, but if I am widely perceived as separating myself from non-whites and as expressing the other tenets of white culture, I will generally be perceived to be a member of this cultural group, whether I think of myself that way or not. Got that, Mr. Beck?

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Crossposted from Race-Talk.

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