What is white culture? What do white people value, what do they believe in? How do white people communicate, verbally and non-verbally? How do we show emotion, how do we discipline? What are our aesthetics, our definitions of beauty? How do we experience personal space, tone of voice or how do we value behavior or family dynamics?
I facilitate an activity in many of my workshops where we dissect white culture. I’ve lead this in exclusively white groups, as well as racially diverse audiences. It invites us all to define a culture that is rarely categorized. It asks us to do to white people what is often done to every other racial group. Generally speaking, white people feel confused and uncomfortable during this activity, while people of color find it to be easy and even liberating to name it and break it down.
If you’re white and these questions bring up feelings of anxiety and defensiveness, I get it. It’s uncomfortable to put us all in a box, right? Especially if this is the first time you’ve been asked to describe white culture, it can feeling jarring and confusing. I’ve been there too. When I was younger, I knew I was white, but I had a strong resistance to accepting that I was a part of this culture. I grew up feeling like I was different because I was raised without wealth, without economic comfort. I was different because my mom was an immigrant, came here after I was born, more rooted in an ancestral land without the generational stains of slavery and indigenous genocide. I was different because my mom was different.
These excuses about why I didn’t fit into white culture soothed me. They made me feel like I didn’t have to relate to or take responsibility for my people, specifically the ones who really fit into the stereotypes, who displayed behavior that I perceived as offensive or oppressive. I took efforts to distance myself from them and this culture. If I could convince myself that I was different, then maybe other people would also see me as different.
For most white people, we have simultaneously been asked to embrace our whiteness and accept its privileges, while also distancing ourselves from the culture because it feels lifeless, plain, not connected to anything real. Understandably we cling to our religion, our class, or sexuality, our spaces and places of difference in order to be on the outside of this blandness. Anything and everything white feels shameful, saturated in historical pain and trauma that has not been dealt with or healed. Or it’s watered down, so distant from traditions that there isn’t anything to feel proud of or joyful about.
Now, every time I do this workshop, I hear many familiar defensive responses. Voices of those who identify as Jewish, Irish, queer, poor, and so many other ways our identities can keep us from acknowledging white culture. These all make sense because there is always nuance in culture and identity. Nothing is ever a simple categorization of all people with one skin color having all the same ways of living, of being, of believing. This is true for every group that humans have tried to categorize into a color. Nothing is true for everyone. Each of us represent various experiences of class, religious beliefs, family history and stories; all of which play into the unique fabric of who we are and who our families are. There are certain cultural aspects of being poor that I experienced and can recognize across all racial groups, which differ from cultural norms of people with wealth. In my observations, the same goes for people who are wealthy. There are cultural differences for white people who are Jewish or Italian or any other ethnic group who have not fully melted into the huge pot of American whiteness.
Even in the midst of the many ways we differ, to deny that white culture doesn’t exist or doesn’t infiltrate into all European descendants in this country in small and large ways is living in denial. Ever since the first law categorizing Europeans as white back in 1669, people with shades of beige skin have been systematically boxed into a racial group. Some people who immigrated were, at first, denied this categorization, but eventually all people of European descent were accepted as white. This creation of the white race came with laws to keep people who are white away from people who are not. This has impacted many behaviors, ways of acting and seeing the world. When you are of this culture, it is difficult to see the nuances that are woven into it because we don’t see ourselves as a part of something. We ARE the thing. Even when we try and deny our connections to it, or find reasons why we are different, we are not acknowledging and accepting the ways we are of it. To accept this, offers more room to make changes from behavior that is inherently oppressive and dominating, into behaviors that are liberating and respectful.
Other cultures can often see whiteness more clearly because they witness it from the outside looking in. This is why my white culture activity is usually uncomfortable and more challenging for European descendants than it is for people who are from ancestral lands outside of Europe. The voice tones that are used in different situations, the way body language is expressed and understood without question, the words, sentence structures, and references used to explain things. All of this is specific to culture but because white people don’t interpret us as having culture, white space is seen as common territory that everyone would be comfortable and safe in. We assume that what is normal and comfortable to us, is neutral and easy for everyone else as well. For example, when I was young, I had no idea mostly white environments would be uncomfortable or emotionally unsafe for people who are not white. This awareness didn’t set in until I was able to hear the experiences and stories of people who are not white. People of color have had to study and learn white culture for survival but as a white person, I can go through my whole life completely ignorant to the experiences of people from other cultures and races, without any social or economic repercussions.
I experienced an example of this at my job recently. I was talking with a white, female student who had been involved in a racialized conflict. I had a conversation with her and she shared with me pieces of her life in Texas, where she lived before she moved to Oakland. These few stories from her past helped me understand her more and offered a wider perspective of why she acted the way she had acted in the conflict. In the conversation, we were talking about culture and she shared with me that she had no idea that a majority white class could make a Black student feel uncomfortable. Even after the Black student explained her discomfort and feelings of being emotionally unsure and likely unsafe, the white student seemed confused and surprised. She got schooled by this other student and her white veil of privilege was shaken loose. She never even knew it was there in the first place.
In this particular situation, the more academically “elite” classes at the school are made up of mostly white students. Many Black and Latino students who have taken these classes have shared their feelings of discomfort and not feeling emotionally safe enough to be their full selves. I’ve heard about these experiences directly from students I know as well as second hand stories told to me about their friends. Black and Brown students may get encouraged to join and participate in these classes or programs, but the culture doesn’t shift. It still upholds certain behaviors, language use, tone, knowledge base and other cultural indicators as the norm. When students join these spaces who aren’t of this cultural norm, they share with me a feeling of not being smart enough, not having the correct knowledge base, or being tokenized or asked to speak for all Black or Brown people. More and more programs or organizations or companies say they “want diversity” but without the awareness to support and encourage diversity once people of color join. The culture of the space remains rooted in whiteness, which doesn’t allow for a healthy and culturally diverse space for all people to feel comfortable and accepted.
Being unaware of white culture and how it operates, blocks our ability to notice how it impacts people who haven’t been raised in it. When people of color either don’t come into white spaces, or if they come and end up leaving, there is little to no accountability from the white people of how our culture and behavior has impacted this. Most often these situations create a narrative of “othering.” It’s the students or people of color who have the problem. “They” aren’t prepared enough, responsible enough, focused enough, to stay and be successful. They’re too loud, or too aggressive, or too opinionated, or too angry. They just don’t “fit in.” White people don’t take responsibility for how our culture has impact on the comfort level of others or how our culture is offensive and disrespectful towards other people from different races and cultures.
To dissect whiteness means to break apart the cultural aspects that have gone unnoticed and unexamined; to recognize the ways the normalizing of white culture impacts others. When we can examine it we have more ability to change cultural behavior that is rooted in dominance. We can widen our awareness to make room for people who’s cultural ways of being and interacting in the world are different than our own. For white people, this can also help us find ourselves underneath the whitewashing our people have gone through to gain social privileges. When we can have more depth beyond the blandness of whiteness, we have a wider ability to embrace self love. When we embrace a deeper level of self love, there is more ability to embrace all people and experience joy when other cultures embrace self love.