Let’s Recognize White American Culture

September 4, 2012

White people in the United States share a common history of immigration from Europe and assimilation into United States society. As a group we share a common language, and a common understanding of normative values, aesthetic preferences, and many other things. In other words, we share a culture. Sure, individual stories and preferences differ. And there is great variety in the experiences of white Americans. But that is true of people in any culture. The larger picture is that we share a cultural experience.

You wouldn’t know it if you asked us. Most white Americans deny that white American culture exists. Instead we claim to be just plain Americans, as if our cultural experience is identical, for instance, to that of African Americans, Native Americans, or Latino Americans. Yes, we share some things, maybe many things. But there are significant differences in history, heritage, and shared values as well.

Some white Americans claim as their culture the original heritage of the European country or countries from whence their ancestors came. This makes sense for first or second generation white Americans, but the vast majority of white Americans have been here much longer. Often we’re a mix of many ancestral national origins. We can’t speak the original languages, and we have no meaningful relationships with those who remained in Europe.

More likely we have gone through generations of assimilation in the United States, and the culture of the United States gives us our language, our customs, and our values. But again, it is not simply “American” culture. Our experience has been more constricted by race, and the historic process of cultural formation has taken place along racial lines. Today this can be as obvious as the music people listen to, the movies and TV programs they watch, and the foods they eat. Yes, again, individuals make individual choices and some people prefer the cultural experience of others. There is a fair amount of fusion and cross-over activity taking place. But the larger fact remains. White Americans have a culture. We have a shared cultural experience. So why don’t we recognize that? And why is it important that we should?

Let’s be real. One important reason to recognize white American culture is because it exists. White Americans, as a group, basically control what’s going on in the United States, and so our culture sets the norms. In fact, it’s one and the same process. Those who set the norms control what goes on, and those who control what goes on set the norms. This is why we think of ourselves as “just Americans.” Our culture defines what “American” means, even though the meaning of being American differs, depending on how one has been racialized.

It’s not uncommon for a country to have a central and normative culture. People from that culture often have difficulty recognizing how their culture shapes their lives. It just works for them. They don’t think about it.

But there is more to it in the United States. White Americans have not lived here for thousands of years developing a culture organically through our indigenous presence. We are relative newcomers and our culture is a fairly new creation. As that development took place, we created conditions in which “our” country holds a significant population of people of African heritage, as well of Latino heritage and Asian heritage. Native Americans, of course, have been here all along. So our central culture is not so much a natural, organic development, but rather one significantly shaped by historical and political events of conquest and control.

It used to be that white Americans understood this. We talked openly about the “white man’s culture.” Nowadays, we take explicit recognition of white American culture as upholding the white supremacist notions of that bygone era. The irony is that failing to name and discuss white American culture upholds the latent white supremacy that continues to exist in the United States. Refraining from naming white American culture allows white Americans to feel like we are the normal, right people, and everyone else is “Other.”

When white American culture is allowed to operate unnamed, we shield it from examination and public discussion. This renders us unable to have a national discussion of things like race, racism, white privilege, and the creation of a society centered on multiracial values. Whiteness continues to remain unexamined, and supreme.

White American culture is the native culture of many people. At least some want to claim it. Today they must gravitate to white supremacist groups as their only path to acceptance, but that should not have to be the case. It’s time that white Americans learn to name and accept our own culture.

The reason we have not is because it contains a lot of baggage. As mentioned, the culture was formed in a multiracial setting through assertion of dominance and control, often by brutal means directed toward others. Nowadays it is considered impolite to continue to explicitly enforce a central culture of dominance. We’ve become a multicultural nation, or so we believe.

White American culture upholds norms of colorblindness, a philosophy that both refuses to name white American culture and assures that white American culture will remain the dominant culture in the United States. In fact, that’s the main reason white Americans are reluctant to name our own culture. Why be “white American” when being “just American” works as well, if not better? We get to assert an identity (American), protect our (white) privileges by making it taboo to discuss white American culture, and undermine people of other racial/cultural groups (playing the “race card”) when they try to discuss it. We can have our cake, and eat it too.