White American Culture

Here’s a guy, someone I watch now and then on YouTube, complaining that White Americans have no culture. It’s hard to know what to make of this. It’s an idea generally associated with White Supremacists, but I don’t think that’s his point.

He says most white Americans lack a sense of culture and a sense of racial or ethnic identity. He says culture is not just behaviors. He’s defining culture as a shared history, shared values, and looking alike.

He sees it as a serious problem. I disagree. Strongly. Where he goes astray, I think, is that defining culture in a way that is not measurable—which is the net result of excluding behaviors. He isn’t defining culture, he’s defining ethnicity then using an undefined set of beliefs and values which are presumably the same across the entire group as a proxy for “white culture”.

But are they really? In my world, the values of my suburban cousins, my cowboy cousins, my Mormon cousins, my Episcopalian cousins, my city cousins, my rural cousins, my rich cousins, my poor cousins, all have significant differences from one another. The culture they share, defined by shared history and shared values, has nothing to do with being White. The culture they are has to do with shared participation in American subcultures. Nothing to do with being White.

Along the same lines, let’s remember that our WASP ancestors found it easy enough to feel separate from and superior to immigrants, even immigrants who are now included under the label “White.” I don’t know anyone moaning about White cultural identity who is willing to face the prejudice White Americans felt toward the Irish, Eastern Europeans, and of course Mexicans. Historically, being White didn’t get you very far if it wasn’t Anglo.

Beyond that, our friend sees consciousness of identity as an essential element of culture. “To know that you share a sense of purpose in life, the same sense of purpose in life, with millions of other people as part of a culture is a glorious thing.” Taken as a whole, he’s not saying White people have no culture. He’s saying we aren’t aware we have a culture.

That’s not my experience, and I don’t believe it was the experience of our ancestors. For the most part, we live our lives inside our culture. It’s as invisible to us as water is to a fish. We become aware of our unique cultures only when encounter different cultures. I am never so aware of myself as a city boy as when I’m visiting country cousins; never so aware of myself as a Westerner as when I’m in New York City; never so aware of myself as an American as when I’m in Europe.

When I think of invisible culture, I also think about religion. This is a connection I’ve smiled about since I was in my teens. If I can see the culture in religion then it doesn’t seem so much like religion to me. I like the cultural element in my religion to be invisible to me. When I go to services at an Episcopalian or Lutheran church, it’s just plain, ordinary church. When I read about or attend a ceremony with Buddhists or Hindus or Neopagans, it something exciting and strange and at least a little bit exotic. The spiritual element gets lost in the “tourism”.

Finally, our friend is missing the element of time. He assumes we belong to the same culture as our ancestors. This is another clue he is confusing culture with ethnicity. It’s easy enough to see we have a different material culture than our ancestors, but perhaps not so obvious that frequently we also have different values.

Very often these differences in values across time end up being enshrined in the politics of liberal versus conservative. Those who are moving on versus those who want the world to stand still. My point will get lost if I choose an example that’s too emotionally charged, so let’s say rodeo. (Not perfect. This is still going to offend people.)

I like rodeo. That surprises most people because I’m politically progressive. We went to rodeos when I was a kid. I continued to go as an adult. After I “came out” I started going to gay rodeos (IGRA). Many of the people I know think rodeo is cruel to animals. The world is changing, and in this case I’m on the cusp. In another generation there might be no rodeo for anyone. When that happens, will rodeo be part of our culture or not? The world will have changed because the values we share will have changed. (And it would be a mistake to see those values as White.)

In the end, I can’t see the argument that White Americans have no culture. First, equating culture with ethnicity is a sleight of hand from the start. Second, culture is something that would normally be invisible to its participants. And third, culture changes over time. All this fretting about the loss of “White” culture isn’t very practical. It’s not grounded in reality.

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