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Whiteness in America: a state of racelessness and culturelessness?

Before the flames start flying, I want to say my answer to this question is a definite "No!" The reason I posed this question is because so many white Americans act as if they are "raceless" or "cultureless". This question first arose in my mind when I was reading the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which described an incident in which a white girl was asked what her ethnicity was, to which she replied, "I guess I'm just normal". Is "normal" an ethnicity? The white girl's statement implies she sees herself as without ethnicity, and also that "ethnic" peoples are abnormal.

I am not going to touch on whether black Americans or other non-white Americans see themselves as "normal" and people of other races as "ethnic". Personally, I don't believe they have the luxury seeing themselves as "raceless" because the white majority have chosen to define them by "race", and how you identify yourself is to a certain degree defined by how the larger society identifies you.

I prefer the term "European American" to "white". It is degrading to have one's identity reduced to skin color, but because whites have reduced other people in this manner, the inevitable effect is that others apply the same reduction to whites. "European American", on the other hand, denotes culture and ancestry, instead of a mere physical attribute. But I will use the term "white" in this article because it is commonly used and understood.

From "European" to "White" to "Human"

It is sad that so many self-styled "open-minded" white Americans subconsciously equate celebrating their European/Euro-American ethnic heritage to being a "white supremacist" or a neo-Nazi. Pride in being European/Euro-American does not have to go hand in hand with a sense of superiority towards non-Europeans/non-whites. By abandoning European/Euro-American pride and the celebration of European/Euro-American culture to the care of white supremacists, so-called "non-racist" whites are doing European heritage or white American heritage a disservice. And certainly NOT doing non-white Americans a favor. Individual whites become "raceless" when they deny that whiteness or European racial heritage is of any relevance. One would think that this "color blind" approach bodes well for interracial relations, but actually, this "racelessness" is anything but "color blindness" because many of the same whites definitely don't see people of color as raceless. A "raceless" non-identity is the basis for whites seeing themselves as the "normative" humanity free from race or ethnicity, and non-whites as abnormal humans with race and ethnicity. We set whiteness as the norm that others have to measure themselves again..

How did we end up equating whiteness to "the real, normal humanity"? I was glad to read One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, which was reviewed on your site. This book traces the origins of many of our weird modern attitudes towards race and culture back to the early history of our nation. Author Scott Malcolmson suggests that white America's rejection of race was an attempt to distance us from the history of slavery and other wrongs done against people of color. The American revolutionaries' belief in universal humanity as part of their new American identity clashed with the reality at that time - the presence of black slavery. Unwilling to deal with the issue of slavery, their response was to blame England for the existence of slavery. Malcolmson continues: "... the new white Americans felt they had nothing else for which to apologize..., the newness of their country, in terms of moral responsibility... was precisely a repudiation of the white racial past."

The following passage from One Drop of Blood further elaborates on the point:

The belief in race, then, had an enormous pressure placed on it by Revolutionary thought. White Americans reacted to this pressure by denying the relevance of their racial past, placing the blame for it on others, excluding the nonwhite physical reminders of that past from society...clinging tightly to the ideal of a humanity beyond race that was nonetheless... restricted to white people... They knew that blacks and Indians were human... In this predicament they could either sacrifice their humanity to whiteness or make their whiteness into humanity... To be at the head of humanity's march was both to be white and to be beyond race - to be fully human.

Whites are the "standard" humans against which all other humans are compared

An example of how Westerners see themselves as the norm for humanity is our usage of the term "world music" - often used to refer to music originating outside Western Europe/USA. It makes one think that Western Europe/USA is not part of the world. Western music is "default, normal" music. Other music is "world music." The use of term "international student", referring to foreign student, follows the same logic. One can only conclude that the U.S. is not part of the "international" scene, and that each foreign student belongs fully to the "international scene", not just to his/her individual country.

Another term whose common usage I find annoying is "tribe" or "tribal". A tribe is a unit of political organization - the number 1 definition for "tribe" in Webster's dictionary is "esp. among preliterate peoples, a group of persons, families, or clans believed to be descended from a common ancestor and forming a close community under a leader, or chief." In casual American conversation, the word "tribal" has little to do with political organization. You hear phrases like "tribal music", "tribal clothing" and "tribal dance", which beg the question, "which tribe?" If you look at the context in which the word "tribal" was used thus, you would find that the speakers are almost always talking about African, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander or aboriginal Australian cultures. While tribal affiliations sometimes exist, or did exist in these cultures, it must be remembered that Europeans organized themselves as tribes too. In fact, the word "tribe" originated from the 3 groups into which Romans were originally divided. The everyday use of "tribe" and "tribal" in American speech has become so tainted with the image of the primitive savage that some Americans of African descent have asked that the word "tribe" not be used in referring to African descent groups, preferring the phrase "ethnic group".

When we talk about "ethnic" food, we commonly mean non-European food, like Indian food, Mexican food and Vietnamese food. We usually don't call French food or Irish food "ethnic food". It seems like we think whites don't have ethnicity. This attitude amazes me and I have always wondered where it comes from.

One Drop of Blood proposes that since the frontier days, "racelessness" has been the prerequisite towards becoming truly American. Paradoxically, it was at the same time taken for granted that the true American can only be white. Malcolmson describes the contradiction:

... only "white" immigrants were eligible for citizenship. When Brandeis said that the United States alone "recognizes racial equality as an essential of full human liberty," he immediately followed with, "It has, therefore, given like welcome to all the peoples of Europe."... Americanizers did not, however, advocate a white America. Neither did Brandeis...Americanizers were against racial identity... Races were what European immigrants had and would go beyond... To be American was to be raceless... The people who, by general consensus, had races... were non-whites.

Seeing ourselves as "lacking", we try to "possess" someone else's culture

I heard young white American, a 5th generation immigrant from Europe, make the statement, "white Americans have no culture, or rather, very little worthwhile culture." Just how does one define "worthwhile" culture? The same individual has repeatedly made negative statements about white Americans like "white Americans are stupid, unlike Eastern Europeans or Asians". If a black person said what he said, he would be called racist. This white boy says white Americans are too boring for him to hang out with - he likes to boast about the black American or foreign friends he has. Do you think his disrespect for white Americans can really co-exist with his "high esteem" for non-whites and white non-Americans? So much for his "loving" for Asian or Eastern European people. The fact is he treats them like exotic collectibles. The foreigners whose friendships he pursued complained they felt objectified and pursued for their "non-white" or "non-American" status more than for their character or personality. Is this true respect for "diversity"?

Have you ever noticed that many whites who talk about getting a "cultural" experience are talking about attending non-Western ("Western" meaning Euro-America and Western Europe) cultural events or listening to non-Western music, etc. You often hear the phrase "going ethnic" applied to a Westerner who takes up some aspects of a non-Western lifestyle, like decorating with West African art pieces or entertaining with Chinese food. Yet a Vietnamese who, under French colonial influence, takes up French ethnic practices, like wearing European clothing and making French pastries and speaking French, is never described as "going ethnic" (which is in fact what s/he is doing). Again, the implication is that Europeans don't have "ethnicity".

Are white Europeans/Euro-Americans so poor, so deprived, and so totally lacking in culture that they have to borrow someone else's culture (or at least what we think is someone else's culture) in order to have a "cultural" experience? This attitude goes back at least to the 19th century. In One Drop of Blood, Malcolmson writes of the popularity of blackface minstrelsy among whites:

A correspondent for Putnam's Monthly, writing in 1854, pointed out that while the "attempt to establish an Italian Opera here... has resulted in bankruptcy, the Ethiopian Opera has flourished...The only places of amusement where the entertainments are indigenous are the African Opera Houses, where native American vocalists, with blackened faces, sing national songs, and utter none but native witticisms." ... Why did white American opera have to be African to be native American? One must assume that white American culture in isolation lacked the ability to entertain itself...

Today, the white desire to transplant oneself into a non-white cultural setting is exemplified by the white men who make movies about a white hero in an Oriental setting, using Oriental martial arts to battle Oriental villains and rescue Oriental women, all in all, being the center of an Oriental universe. This fantasy of vicariously living someone else's culture finds its reflection in 19th century blackface minstrelsy as described by Malcolmson:

In minstrelsy white Americans found the freedom to imagine themselves... The dream of minstrelsy was a dream of ... racial wholeness. It seems that this dream could be artistically and satisfyingly realized only by white men pretending to be black...

By all means appreciate non-European/Euro-Am cultures. We just have to be careful how we see things. The way in which we "experience" non-European cultures is often consumeristic, fetishizing and exploitative. You see this in the Western sex tourists who visit Thailand, touring temples and palaces in the day and patronizing brothels in the night; or the white missionaries in the Pacific Islands who learn the native language to "help" the native people but somehow become bigger landowners than the natives.

Between the 19th and 20th century, it appears that some whites made the transition from desiring to "transplant" themselves into another cultural experience to absorbing what they want from another's culture into their own "normative" existences as the default human. We can imitate others and assimilate parts of their culture without assimilating them. Because whites are the "default" humanity, once they assimilate an aspect of another culture, they think it becomes theirs, and they automatically become more "authentic" practitioners than the originators. Malcolmson writes:

The difference, particularly after World War I, was that white Americans were thinking not so much of making things white as of making a culture that was racelessly American... any cultural material that could be successfully integrated into American life was, by definition, either not racial at all or ceased to be racial by becoming American...Ideally, a white person could do just about anything - sing a blues, build a tepee in the back yard - and not lose his or her authenticity... The problem of white American lack of originality... appeared to be resolved through ... an assimilating imitativeness so thorough that it became authentic. However, only whites had the power to be authentic in this way. Blacks and Indians ... could be authentic, in large part, only insofar as they behaved racially and appeared, physically, to be outside the expansive confines of whiteness.

Everybody has culture. Culture is just your way of life. Culture is not necessarily related to ethnicity or race. Examples are "corporate culture", "Southern culture", "campus culture". Your culture could have started yesterday, or it could be 4000 years old. The ancestors of European Americans are just as old as anyone else's. Why do some whites act like paupers who go out of their way to seek "culture" in far away places with "exotic" people? We insult people when we view their heritage through colonialist and objectifying lenses, seeing the products of their lifestyles as objects for our consumption, picking and choosing aspects of their culture to fill our cultural void.

We who live in the West have no one to blame for our current messed-up state of mind other than ourselves. I believe we stand to gain from knowing how we have programmed ourselves into being "cultureless" and "raceless". One Drop of Blood is a well-written book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how modern white Americans got into a confused, disconnected mental state about race.

I don't believe white Americans who don't respect themselves will truly be able to respect non-white Americans. There is so much that we can draw from our past to enrich our present, without resorting to fetishizing some other culture. I don't think we can fully appreciate other cultures until we learn to appreciate our own culture on equal footing to theirs, not as the "norm" vs. an "abnormality", not as the "mainstream" vs. the "fringe", but as "a queen among many queens" to borrow a phrase from the Lord of the Rings. As long as we have this attitude that we are "lacking" in "race" and culture", we will continue to objectify other peoples and misappropriate their traditions.