10/08/2015 01:55 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2016

The Path to Cultural Awareness for Whites

MICHAEL B. THOMAS via Getty Images

Most white people in the U.S. don't think a lot about white culture. We see whiteness as bland if we think about it at all. We often consider ourselves to be not white but a member of the ethnic group of the country that our ancestors left to come to the U.S.: "I'm not white, I'm Italian (or Irish, or Greek, etc)." We seldom think of ourselves as white.

Some of us whites see white culture through the lens of classic white supremacy, understood mainly as the language, art, and history of European and post-European peoples (and often simply invented to further supremacist narratives). This is sometimes called "culture with a big 'C'." Whiteness, for example, is speaking certain kinds of English, listening to Beethoven, or centralizing ancient Rome in history. None of these things are comprehensively or exclusively white, but they are examples of the Eurocentric priorities of those who situate whites at humanity's apex. In this perspective, white cultural awareness means knowing about the European cultures that spawned U.S. whiteness (most usually English and German) and believing them to be both the acme of human culture and under siege in a USA that is becoming increasingly dominated by non-whites.

Others of us whites see white culture through the lens of anti-racism. They see whiteness as having no culture but only a constructed system of oppression, devoid of content. In this perspective, white cultural awareness means 1) perceiving the ubiquity of whiteness, especially white privilege, as a tool of oppression, 2) striving to abolish whiteness, and 3) adopting aspects of the national or ethnic culture (with a big "C") that one's ancestors left behind in coming to the U.S.

None of these perspectives, however, accounts for white culture with a small "c." Culture with a small "c" is the aspects of a person's worldview that are culturally determined, the shared assumptions about social interactions, identity, and the nature of reality. Whereas experiencing culture with a big "C" may be going to a Beethoven concert, culture with a small "c" prescribes what being on time or late for the concert means socially, whose responsibility it is to pay for the tickets, in fact, the rules for all of the social interactions that make up the medium in which we live our lives with others. All groups form cultures, shared assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, about what behaviors and attitudes are the norm for their members. A football team is likely to have very different norms around personal space than a yoga club. The staff of an emergency room is likely to have very different norms about the nature of time than students in an art class. And, of course, national, ethnic, and racial groups often have very different norms from each other.

The theorist Geert Hofstede developed an over-arching theory of cultures that, with some additions from other theorists, includes five dimensions. They are:

  • Individualism vs. Collectivism: The degree to which the unit of personal identification is with the self/individual or with the collective (family, group, nation, etc)
  • Power Distance: The level of the expected inequality between those who hold power in the group and those who do not
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: The degree to which members of the culture are comfortable with ambiguous situations and can tolerate uncertainty
  • Achievement Orientation vs. Relationship Orientation: The degree to which achieving goals, success, etc, versus interconnections among people are prioritized
  • Long-term vs. Short-term Orientation: The degree to which long-term concerns versus short-term concerns are prioritized

I, like many whites, grew up believing that I didn't have a culture. To me, culture was a quaint thing that other people had instead of having the direct, pragmatic view of the world that I and other white USAmericans have. In fact, the first time a professor of mine began to talk about different cultures, I thought he was being racist because at the time I believed it was racist to see other people as different. The fact that others may have their own experience of the world that is different from my interpretation of their experience didn't occur to me.

Of all of the cultural dimensions, Individualism versus Collectivism is arguably the most powerful. Individualists tend to believe that each person is the master of her or his own destiny and that her or his actions are all that matter in life. Collectivists see themselves as part of a larger human system. They are usually more focused on the impact that their actions will have on their collective (their family, for example). They tend to see the way systems impact people's lives more readily than Individualists.

Individualism has a bad time of it in anti-racist circles, and with good reason. Individualists often ignore or deny the impact that systemic racism and ubiquitous negative racial bias have on people of color, as well as the positive impact that white privilege has on them. They use examples of their own struggles or their families' struggles with adversity as proof that, with enough personal persistence, people of color who report differential treatment are blaming others for their own failures.

They see examples of success by extraordinary people (Oprah and Obama, for example) as proof that anyone can do it. They fail to recognize that if those few exceptional people from that group are successful, then some system of differential treatment must be in place or those people wouldn't be such exceptions. They fail to understand that if no system of differential racial treatment is in place, it follows naturally that the cause of different outcomes across racial groups would have to be some form of inferiority, either cultural or genetic, in people of color. If one believes the system is fair then one must believe that groups that fare worse in the aggregate are inferior. That is racism. Of course, individuals' decisions matter. Individuals can make good or bad decisions within the contexts of their socioeconomic situations, but all contexts are not created equal.

What my fellow antiracists often miss are the positives of Individualism. Individualism means that one doesn't have to subordinate oneself to the needs of the collective, especially when the collective is maladapted or is asking more of the person than that person can or wants to give.

Individualism allows us to enter our own realities in ways that release incredible creativity and innovation. Not worrying too much about upsetting the group or the status quo, while it can have a destructive impact, can also open new doors of knowledge and understanding. My own journey of antiracism has been a struggle against the teachings and opinions of some of my own family, friends, and race. Individualism, to be sure, must be tempered with awareness, but it is not in and of itself a bad thing, and is, at times, a great thing.

Most importantly, we white antiracists, having lived without a sense of culture with a small "c" for our entire lives, often don't understand the depth of its impact on us. The fact that many of us believe that whiteness is only a structure of oppression seems to me to be powerful proof of this. If we are going to attempt to change our and others' worldviews, it behooves us to be acutely aware of the actual assumptions that comprise our worldview. We can't possibly do that if we assume that whiteness is only a structure of oppression.

Put even more simply, when I'm with another white person whom I love, something is happening that is both white and not oppression. It may be occurring within the U.S. context of white oppression, but it is not necessarily of it.