Saturday, April 5, 2008

lack racial self-awareness

If you ask white people what it means to them to be white, very few will have much to say at all. The main reason is that whiteness has in a sense gone underground. Most white people no longer see themselves as white; they see themselves and other whites as individuals instead.

In anthropologist Ruth Frankenberg's excellent, pioneering study of whiteness, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, she offers the following example.

"For a significant number of young white women, being white felt like being cultureless. Cathy Thomas says,

If I had an ethnic base to identify from, if I was even Irish American, that would have been something formed, if I was a working-class woman, that would have been something formed. But to be a Heinz 57 American, a white, class-confused American, land of the Kleenex type American, is so formless in and of itself. It only takes shape in relation to other people.

The extent to which identities can be named seems to show an inverse relationship to power in the U.S. social structure. . . . The self, where it is part of a dominant cultural group, does not have to name itself. Or, to put it another way, whiteness comes to be an unmarked or neutral category, whereas other cultures are specifically marked 'cultural.'"

What will it take, I wonder, for white folks to see themselves as white? What differences would that make in how the fiction of race continues to help dictate the social performances of our identities?


  1. White Americans need to grasp hold of their culture. They have been raised to believe that they have no culture. That Afro=Amer people, latinos and even ehtnic whites like the Irish and Italians have culture, but mutt whites don't.
    Bullshit. White Americans have a food culture, a music culture, a technlogy culture, a recrational culture. . . that all sounds silly, but it's true and white people need to own it. IF they did, maybe they could be accepting and embracing of other cultures and other people.

  2. Interesting thoughts, sagacious hillbilly. Would you mind describing some examples of white culture?

  3. While there are certainly many cultural artifacts in which non-whites rarely or never participate, those artifacts are only accepted by a small minority of white people. New England town sociology, Utahn Mormon culture, etc., may be very white in the sense of "alien to non-whites" but these things are bloody alien to most white people outside of a particular region, religion, socio-economic status.

    The only thing that reliable attaches to all categories of white people AND does not attach to non-whites is white privilege itself.

    Whiteness is thus not the mirror of blackness; black culture has broad strokes, themes, content, heroes, inside jokes, religious culture - the things that make the Dutch different from the French and the Germans, heck the Bavarians from the North Germans, i.e. real culture.

    Another way of putting it is that there will probably never be a white equivalent to the scornful but intimate phrase, excuse my use, "N______ please." The common culture (outside of white privilege, its tropes and its often non-self-reflective experience) of white people is so scant that such a phrase would be meaningless, the cultural intimacy impossible.

    Try to imagine a white Cajun saying such a phrase to Dick Cheney as a taunt at a political event. Cannot happen. But maybe a Cajun could say something like that to another Cajun (Italian, Jew, Polish-American, etc.) Or maybe within a religious community, or other cultural community, it could happen. Whiteness is a common caste marker, not a common culture.

  4. Thank you Bruce, that's very helpful. I certainly agree, and would add that the lack of cultural bonding among whites occurs in part because whiteness is fundamentally about the lack of culture. Immigrants from nationalized, "ethnic" backgrounds dropped them in order to become white. And in the 20th century, especially, there was no detailed list of "white"-branded items or directives that immigrants could pick to replace their lost culture. There were instead "normal" ways, which were in effect (but again, not in name) white ways.

    As academic scholars of whiteness point out, white culture is actually an absence of culture.

    Nevertheless, it seems that being categorized as white does usually induce discernible tendencies, some of which may well amount to cultural mores and practices. But if so, it's a culture that's invisible to, especially, white people.

    Quite a bundle of paradoxes--no wonder whites prefer not to think about it all.

  5. Oh where to start. This is the stuff of a graduate thesis.
    First, let's answer the question; what is culture?
    I like to think of culture as the adornments of a society. It is easy for someone to confuse cultural aspects of a society with the societal aspects of a society. I do it often, so please forgive me when I cross those fuzzy lines.

    Culture can be common across the entire color of a society or it can be very provincial. It exists on many planes. There are things about my Appalachian existence that are VERY different from the existence of someone living in NYC or deep in New England. The objects and norms that surround me here in the mountains are different from the ones that surround someone in Indiana or Colorado. That's all about different culture no different than what makes a Bavarian different from someone from Provence.

    Culture is about the music and the art of a society. Can you say we don't have unique forms of music and art within white society? These forms are common across the entire culture and even across broad bands of culture like rock n roll and chamber music or they can be local like blue grass and cajun.

    Art is the same way. We have art forms that are extremely local and others that are broadly dispersed. One way or another, there are many forms that are very unique to white society.

    The clothes we wear are unique to our culture in many ways. I wear things that some of my black friends wouldn't be caught dead wearing and visa versa. There are also things my friends of color wear that originated in white culture like blue jeans and flannel shirts. Yea, it's cultural.

    Every time you jump in your car, fly somewhere, have some medical procedure, use your computer, sleep in your modern house, you are reaping the benefits of white technology culture. It was white culture that accomplished the most astounding feats of the 20th Century. These things aren't "artifacts." They are living and vibrant norms.

    Of course, culture doesn't have borders. I've been listening to Andean folk music for 15 yrs. That's partof my culture and my family's culture. Soul music is probably listened to by more white people than black people. That makes it part of our cultural make-up.

    You see, Nobody can live in a cultural void. My culture may be different than yours, but it is just as valid and just as important as yours.

    We've got to get over all these ideas that delineate and compartmentalize culture. THAT is part of white culture. . . everything has to be categorized and fit into some neat little box or cubbyhole where it must exist. THAT'S bullshit linear thinking. . . part of white culture that I reject.

    Embrace your culture. Look for your culture in your world. Be proud of your culture.
    If you reject your culture and deny it, it might stagnate and grow stale. . . but more likely, it will simply go on without you.

  6. Let's not forget or ignore the innumerable ways in which white culture was formed: by taking the ideas, inventions, talents of other cultures and calling it their own. That is the way in which white culture was formed. Take food culture for instance. What would you call American food? Hamburgers? Hot dogs? French fries? None of which were invented in America. The hamburger came from Hamburg Germany. The hot dog i.e. frankfurters originated in Frankfurt Germany, and french fries originated in Belgium. What forms of cultural white music and art would you refer to?

  7. May be OT but it bears pointing out: Sagacious Hillbilly appears to be naming rock music as a creation of white culture (since he named it along with chamber music). Rock is an African American creation. That's something white people also do: co-opt aspects of POC cultures -in this case, rock music- and then take credit for creating it.

    Why is it so difficult to give credit where credit is due?

  8. This is just too hard of a subject to even get into very strongly. I don't know if there is a thing as white culture the way there is with PoC's various cultures. I guess you could make an argument that white people don't have a unique culture because we integrate pieces of other races culture into what we perceive as our own.

    I don't think white people have the need to identify with our roots or find our own culture outside of what we share with everyone else. Maybe our sense of entitlement and assumption of superiority is our culture in a way. It would be difficult to claim anything American as solely white culture. Take country music for example. There have been some great black country music artists.

  9. I never had a reason to think about my whiteness till I moved from Tennessee to NYC at age 17. There I became *ultra* white next to the "other" white people who were Greek, Jewish, Italian, Polish and so on. Good post.

  10. I know this is old, but no one is seeming to consider that BEING A MAJORITY ITSELF leads to such a lack-of-identity. I'm sure someone will steal my idea and write a paper on it someday, but as a student of physics and math, I like things to be self contained and explained by natural law, and that sense is challenged greatly when people just "chaulk it up to whiteness." There must be a more satisfactory explanation, one less dependent upon arbitrary lables or histories, and I believe that answer is found in the dynamics of relations between groups. Particulary sets of minority groups interacting with the fewer sets of majority groups. Whites have no racial identity because as a majority there is no survival based imperitive for one. Meanwhile, if minority groups do are not highly conscious of their group, they risk elimination. More, they are constantly reminded of it as they watch television commercials in which actors look or act diffrerent than they do, etc. I believe this will ALWAYS happen, and is in fact as much a reflection of natural law as supply and demand is in economics. This is how human populations work. Majorities have no racial identity, and if they ever have them, it is only on the cusp of RECENTLY becoming a majority, or something approximating one (Nazi Germany was emerging from economic ruin and it was the fear of elimination that was used as justification for overly strong racial identity and nationalism, which obviously led to one of the most evil acts ever, but that is off topic- the point is that racial majorities generally lack a race based identity, and it is only during situations like economic troubles that they develop one).


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