White folks who cannot fully recapture a lost cultural heritage, like myself, often experience a real sense of loss. Sure, there might be subcultures of whites who feel attached to what they see as a particularly American culture, like those who would claim a "Southern" culture.
However, many of us find ourselves looking at other groups and longing for the connection we imagine they feel with their roots, their homeland, their culture. Many white folks can be heard saying, "We don't have culture. They have culture."
Even if African Americans do not choose to reconnect with their African ancestral culture, many white folks generally imagine that Black culture in the United States is rich with meaning.
Many of us then travel and bring other group's cultural artifacts home with us. In my familial home, for example, we have puppets from Indonesia, figurines and baskets from Africa, a rug and bedspread from Guatemala, and carvings from Mexico. For a long time, I saw my inclinations toward tourism as evidence of my openness and respect for other cultures, having no idea how much it also betrayed my inner sense of loss.
In the mid-1990s, I attended a performance put on by the UCLA Drama Department. In one main hall, individual artists each had a roped-off section of space. Each enacted a cultural way of being. There was someone representing Santeria, another enacting a Middle-Eastern culture I cannot remember.
And then I saw her, the white woman.
I stood transfixed in front of the white female artist. She sat on a chair on a square stage four feet above the crowd in a glass case. She wore a delicate white dress and was holding a bag from Pier 1 Imports. She admired the exotic artifacts from lands abroad one after the other. I stood transfixed for several minutes, trying to sort out the emotion rising in me.
There was something very discomforting about seeing her that way. I recognized that woman. She was me. Or at least, she had been me. She was my mother. She was my grandmother, perhaps to some lesser degree. I felt that, that blandness, that plainness, that whiteness. I felt her whiteness as a lack, a loss. I felt this loss in my bones. I could barely move as I was reminded of how I loved what other cultures have precisely because I know the emptiness that results when tradition is traded in for whiteness.
I know that I am not alone. I hear the same sentiments too much from other white people. If anything, this is one of the truest hallmarks of whiteness that I have yet encountered. There is a hole within many of us, created when our families gave up our culture in order to be successful in the United States.
Of course, there are plenty of people from other groups and cultures who also travel, collect artifacts, and shop at Pier 1 Imports. However, the collection of objects is not the important point. What struck me most was the deep, underlying pain that I hear emerge from many white people as they discuss what it means for them to feel connected to another culture.
At this time, with what I now see, there is nothing about that setting that feels coincidental: the glass separating the woman from the audience, the stage that put her on a pedestal, the center, privileged position within the room, and the way her presence commanded attention. Even given that secure foundation, she exuded a sense of loss, of being lost, adrift in the larger world . . . captured by the glass case.
Shelly Tochluk is an educator with a background in psychology. She spent ten years as a researcher, counselor, and teacher in California's public schools and now trains educators to work with the diverse Los Angeles school population as an assistant professor of education at Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles, California.