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Going Where Glenn Beck Wouldn't: Defining White Culture

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My facebook and twitter friend @clyde_online, a community organizer in DC, has been pestering me to define U.S. white culture. Up until now, I've demurred.

Frankly, there are other things I'd rather write about. Besides, though I'm certainly aware of the status and meaning that our civilization has managed to assign to whiteness and realize that I benefit from both, I don't personally buy into either. If it were up to me, I'd get rid of whiteness altogether.

Just so I'm clear: I like the people fine. It's their whiteness (or rather the privileges associated with it) that I'd rather do without.

Of course, this wish -- to be rid of whiteness -- is at the very core of white culture. With the occasional exception of reverse racism (more on that later), White people don't want to talk about their whiteness. Given such a cultural climate, it seems like some explication, by someone, is sorely needed.

One person clearly in need of a primer is Glenn Beck. The outspoken conservative radio and TV host is one of several conservatives to have accused Barack Obama of racism, most notably in 2009 when during a morning show discussion of Obama's reaction to the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates (see my take on that story here), Beck remarked that Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture".

The remark was predictably controversial, and a few days later Beck found himself being asked by Katie Couric to explain the "white culture" part of the statement. Here's the video from that portion of the interview.

For those that couldn't (or did not want to) watch the video, Beck resolutely refused to answer the question. Whatever thoughts he might have had on white culture, he clearly wasn't willing to share them on the air. But, again, Beck's avoidance of whiteness is one of the defining characteristic of white culture.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's consider what culture is, more generally, and then use the principles to define white culture. Wikipedia provides a good elaborate description, but for this purpose, a dictionary definition will suffice. This one is from dictionary.com

Culture. (Noun). The sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Though the definition doesn't elaborate, "the sum total of ways" is usually presumed to include language, food, dress, music, and holiday celebrations, as well as less clearly defined concepts such as values, shared points of reference, and norms regarding how we interact and relate to each other.

If this sounds a bit fuzzy, well, it is. Most of us would be hard pressed to define "American" culture, even though most of us likely identify as "Americans", at least to some degree. Part of the issue lies in the fact that we live in a global community, one where there is frequent and substantial exchange between most cultural groups. As a result, so-called American culture includes much that has been borrowed (or appropriated) from elsewhere, including the ubiquitous burger, which of course came from Germany. Similarly, the United States has seemingly exported every part of its culture, including, according to this New York Times story, its mental health problems, which, more and more, are taking on a universal (rather than cultural) expression. All this begs an important question:

Is the notion of "culture" outdated?

It certainly seems that, on a global scale, some consolidation of cultures is inevitable, but we're not there just yet. At this point, meaningful cultural differences still exist. Certainly, Americans don't enjoy wine nearly as much as the French or tea as much as the British. More importantly, Americans still, on average, lead a more hectic, faster-paced lifestyle than practically any other cultural group. No doubt we can make a long and impressive list.

Within the United States, however, the cultural consolidation is already an observable reality. Whereas there were once vibrant Irish, Italian, and German communities, they have largely dissipated into a rather undifferentiated whiteness. Other U.S. cultural groups, while more readily identifiable, are being similarly affected. Overall, the cultural differences are getting both fewer and less pronounced. Moreover, what were once culture-specific traditions and practices are now freely practiced by members of other cultural groups, even as they are rejected by some members of the cultural ingroup that developed those practices in the first place (out of a desire to let go of traditional ways and modernize or "fit in" with the mainstream).

Black culture can be viewed in this way. Its dialect, music, and fashion are easily recognizable but have all been so widely integrated into "mainstream" American culture that it's hard to know where one culture ends and the other begins. At the same time, it seems that more and more middle-class Blacks are explicitly rejecting the accouterments of blackness in an attempt to avoid (and dispel) the associated stereotypes. To wit, black culture has largely morphed into hiphop culture.

Not that there ever was a single Black culture. There is now, as there has always been, many different Black cultures. In addition to hiphop, there is also the culture of the Black middle-class, the Black church, and the Black South. Again, this is not a comprehensive list.

So, where does this leave white culture?

Appearances to the contrary, I didn't get sidetracked. A brief summary of Black culture was necessary, because though Black culture was once regarded as having been derived in opposition to the (white) mainstream, it is now white culture that is defined primarily through its distinction from Black culture. Thus, country music and heavy metal are both generally regarded as "white" -- not because the majority of white musicians (and fans) prefer them to other genres but because there are so few Black musicians and music fans who identify with this type of music. By the same logic, despite the handful of Black Republicans, both the GOP and the Tea Party fall squarely within white culture. And, of course, so do the white enclaves that Richard Benjamin christened "Whitopias".

But remember, culture is more than preference for music and politics. It also includes norms for how people interact and relate to each other. And if we are to talk honestly about white culture, then we must acknowledge that one of the ways that white people relate to each other is as beings devoid of race. Whereas other racial groups are seen and acknowledged as such, white people generally regard each other either as individuals or as fellow "Americans" but hardly ever as white people. This is most evident in how white people use racial identifiers. We talk about our BLACK friend and our ASIAN neighbor but never about our WHITE coworker. Indeed, the very thought of using racial identifiers for white people is so dreadful for many of us that Black theologian Thandeka made a game out of it. Go ahead and play. I dare ya!

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches more...)
 
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was the phrase I heard as a kid. Forty years befor... by Margaret Bassett on Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010 at 3:40:43 PM
Maybe we should remember that culture was always a... by Mark Sashine on Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010 at 3:46:48 PM
Thanks, Mark. Your approval means a lot. Yes, ther... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010 at 5:04:35 PM
when he said "Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for ... by Ernest on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 12:18:32 AM
..... seems to me to be a somewhat arrogant assump... by Natalie Oberman on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 5:36:32 AM
Of course Glenn Beck is "all about getting past al... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 11:00:03 AM
Beck and Limbaugh are racists. They are hired exac... by Mark Sashine on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 1:20:48 PM
"White conservatives don't want to talk about raci... by Natalie Oberman on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 4:02:58 PM
Dear Natalie,I respect your point of view, and of ... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 10:08:21 PM
I cannot understand the depth ofKierkegaard, but I... by Margaret Bassett on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 2:02:06 PM
I really enjoyed reading about Hayakawa, Margaret ... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 10:40:44 PM
I once spelled out the N-word followed by "lover."... by Margaret Bassett on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 11:00:47 PM
Margaret, absolutely! But let's please do the revi... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jul 29, 2010 at 11:07:18 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Mikhail. I do un... by Natalie Oberman on Friday, Jul 30, 2010 at 5:02:31 PM
EXACTLY.United.....we are formidable.....we have c... by zonie on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 9:56:24 AM
Imagine Beck was........Jackson..... or Hispanic.... by zonie on Saturday, Jul 31, 2010 at 9:39:39 AM
It probably won't surprise you that I didn't perce... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Aug 3, 2010 at 7:01:50 PM
For not knowing, you sure seem intent on confident... by Natalie Oberman on Wednesday, Aug 4, 2010 at 12:08:33 AM
I don't know what you mean by "get back at em", bu... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Wednesday, Aug 4, 2010 at 9:01:54 PM
You don't know what I mean by "get back at em"? Th... by Natalie Oberman on Friday, Aug 6, 2010 at 5:21:57 PM
Natalie,One can say plenty in 2000 characters, but... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Aug 6, 2010 at 11:23:54 PM
Mikhail,Excuse this wordy response to your excelle... by Herbert Calhoun on Monday, Aug 2, 2010 at 10:21:32 PM
I'm still digesting it. There's a lot of value her... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Monday, Aug 2, 2010 at 10:37:14 PM
My goodness, by his own admission, Obama's all abo... by Natalie Oberman on Sunday, Aug 8, 2010 at 7:08:42 PM
No, I don't get the impression that you personally... by Natalie Oberman on Sunday, Aug 8, 2010 at 7:16:28 PM