My (Modest) Problem with White Culture

Over the last few months and weeks, hundreds of writers and political commentators have taken to writing about the dangers, pitfalls, and blind spots of white culture. Hashtags and movements like #blacklivesmatter and #OscarsSoWhite have highlighted parts of society that I, as a white woman, forget to notice. I have the privilege of ignoring these movements if I so choose. I've chosen not to. 

In these last few months, I've felt conviction about the ways in which I perpetuate cultural whitewashing and do not seek out the voices of people of color, and so I have chosen to turn my attention to these voices that must be heard (you can read posts I wrote near the beginning of this journey here and here). Since writing those post, I've seen modern American white culture as something that I cannot help but participate in, as it is a part of my culture, even as someone from Hawai'i. However, there is an uncomfortable trend underlining certain parts of this culture that make otherwise harmless parts of stereotypical "white people things" a place in which the power structure built on slavery, imperialism, and violence can endure in small but infectious ways. There are better and older authors who can write about these bigger topics, and there are voices of color that do not need my blog post to be heard. I want to address "basic" culture (an article explaining "basic" can be found here).

My issue is not with North Face, Starbucks frappechinos, pictures of New York City,  or purebred husky puppies. My issue is not with any of the elements that make up "basic" culture. "Basic" culture is not even the issue, as everyone (and I mean everyone) participates in it in some way - it's part of being an American to participate in American culture. The issue is that these elements, that should belong to everyone, are associated with white culture specifically, and then described as "basic."

As long as the unique snowflake culture of being a WASP or a yuppie is described as the basic cultural model, all other cultures are, by definition, deviant or exotic. White culture is just as faceted as every other, but there is something problematic behind the "white as template" implication of describing these parts as basic. As long as white culture is described as the "blank canvas" culture, all other cultures will be made to look lesser-than. If white is the template, all other cultures and cultural expressions are on a sliding scale of "exotically different" to "dangerously different." 

Until we realize that our white culture is a culture, just as foreign to those outside it as everyone else's, we will continue to make our neighbors Others, and continued to be Othered by them. More than that, the idea that white culture is "default" is one of the less insidious but nonetheless powerful effects of imperialism and manifest destiny. Cultures are living and breathing, and there is no single "cultural starting point" that everyone should identify and then deviate from. The central cultural model you grew up with is dependent on class, gender, race, location, and language. I grew up in Hawai'i, and I couldn't pinpoint one central racial culture. I learned about perception of white cultural centrality in college. I learned there that what I had thought of as "basic" was mostly considered "white," at least implicitly. 

This may seem like a small point to make a big deal about, but I have found that the places that racism, sexism, and all of the other -isms can last the longest are in the cracks in the lens. By noticing the little ways that things are made into power objects, it is possible to stop creating these places. I can't end racism, not only because I am one person, but because I am white, and people of color need to be the voices we hear at this point. This is my small drop in a very big bucket that will tip over, and hopefully, will make an impact on the way we live as Americans and as people. 


Thank you Gabi and Bailey for the editing help! Check out Gabi's writing and words: @auntie_snoop on Twitter. Bailey's photography can be found on Instagram: @bayybrown.