White liberals* in North America often say things like, “White people have no culture.” For the overwhelming majority of white liberals, to be white is to be boring. Some white people even claim that they are “jealous” of people who are not white, as if non-white people have “culture” that white people do not, due to the sole fact they have a higher concentration of melanin in their skin, eyes, or hair.
Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.” As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, games, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief as well as the art.
Cultural anthropologists most commonly use the term “culture” to refer to the universal human capacity and activities to classify, codify and communicate their experiences materially and symbolically.
Obviously, white people have culture. What is less obvious is why most white liberals think that they have no culture, and why most white liberals think that anybody who is non-white has culture that white people do not, even if these non-white people are living in the same society as the whites.
Most white liberals think that they have no culture, because most white people’s subconscious and vernacular definition of “culture” is what they consider foreign culture. Because most white people believe that non-white people are foreign, they assume that non-white people must therefore have foreign culture, which they refer to as just “culture”.
White culture is culture that white people consider “normal”.
For example, when white people think of “culture”, they may think of “Chinese New Year” (or “Lunar New Year”), but not “New Year’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve”. The idea of “New Year’s Day” comes from a concept of time based on the Gregorian calendar, which originated in 1582. The Gregorian calendar derived from the Julian calendar, which originated around 49 BC (or 49 BCE). The Julian calendar derived from older calendar systems from Ancient Rome. New Year’s Day itself was set on “January 1” in 153 BC (or BCE), Ancient Rome.
Today, many North Americans celebrate New Year’s Eve by not sleeping that night, counting down to midnight, partying downtown, drinking alcohol, and making New Year’s resolutions (New Year’s resolutions also date back to Ancient Rome). Many North Americans celebrate New Year’s Day with fireworks (although fireworks were invented by Chinese people) and by kissing random strangers when it would be normally taboo.
Although New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve are very much full of culture, history, and strange social conventions, most white people take the culturally-based division of time as something natural and universal, as if January 1 actually grants people new chances at renewing their lives.
Notice that the practise of setting off fireworks to celebrate the new year originated in China, but most white people do not think that the practise of setting off fireworks to celebrate the New Year is “cultural”, unless the “New Year” under discussion is Chinese New Year. That is, for most white people, if the fireworks are for “Chinese New Year”, it’s “cultural”, but the fireworks are for “New Year’s”, it’s not cultural, but normal. (Most white people think that anything Chinese is foreign, so they think that any person, place, or thing with the adjective “Chinese” is “cultural” or “ethnic”.)
White people view non-white people as foreign.
Grandpa Dinosaur at Pregnant Drug-Dealing Prostitutes eloquently explains why White Canadians think that Canadians of colour are foreign (and why Eurocentric schooling miseducates white people about reality):
It doesn’t matter if I move in and have been living there before them. I talk to a lot of white people and they treat us like we’re the foreigners paying rent on their land. They speak as though they are demanding tithings. They don’t care about their ancestors killing off the Native’s peoples and they act as if they were the first Settlers washing up upon Virgin Soil.
They truly believe they own the land because the language is English and the schools are Euro-centric and the world they perceive is White.
White people in North America receive Eurocentric education and are rarely challenged on it, so most believe that Canada and the United States are white countries founded by white people, and that non-white citizens are guests, whom the white citizens are magnanimous enough to “tolerate”. Because most white people perceive people of colour as foreigners and think from a Eurocentric perspective, these white people also think that people of colour are “exotic” and “different”, and that white people are “boring” and “ordinary”.
White antiracists have white privilege.
Sometimes, white “antiracists” even denigrate whiteness as being “boring” and “plain”, believing falsely that doing such a thing is an antiracist act. Although claiming that white people are “boring”, “plain”, and “bland” succeeds in the task of making white people feel bad about themselves, it still reinforces the Eurocentric perspective and the worldviews of those with white privilege.
Something is “boring” when there is too much of it; something is “plain” when it blends in with the background. Of course white people seem “boring” and “plain” to white people, since they are the majority in white-majority countries, and their customs are the status quo in white-majority countries. When a white person complains that whiteness is “boring” and “plain”, it is like they are complaining that the are the racial majority and that their culture is the standard. There is no reason for white people to feel a sense of loss that stems from white ubiquitousness, since having a free-floating and changeable identity is better than being pigeon-holed into a fixed and unchangeable identity with associated stereotypes.
No identity means versatility and possibility.
Stem cells are coveted for their versatility. Without a fixed identity, stem cells can become any kind of cell in the human body. A stem cell can be a stem cell, a heart cell, a brain cell, or any other cell. However, a heart cell is just a heart cell, and it cannot become a stem cell, a brain cell, or any other cell. A stem cell’s ability to become other cells is called, appropriately, its potency.
Many people, usually white, think that having a fixed identity is a good thing. However, having a fixed identity means that one does not have control over one’s identity, and it means that one cannot recreate oneself. Although a racialized person has some control over her identity, there is a part of her identity that is determined by white society instead of her own volition. Although a racialized person can recreate her racial identity somewhat, this requires public acts and disrupting society’s preconceptions.
A white person, on the other hand, is perceived as an individual by white society, and is freer to tell others not to define him, if he so chooses.
- For white people who feel that white culture has been neglected, Google launched an Ancient Rome 3D layer on Google Earth just yesterday.
* Update 2008/11/16: Nquest reminded me that many xenophobic white people know that there is a white culture and try to preserve their “way of life”. I changed “white people” to “white liberals” in some places. I’m not sure how to refer to the loosely-defined group of white people who are socially left of “centre”. Some “liberals” don’t want to be called “left”, but some people in the “left” do not consider themselves “liberals”. If there is a better term, let me know. I thought of “social progressives”, but they can be right-wing if the status quo is left.
** Update 2008/11/29: “Of course, the very definition of culture necessitates that white people have a culture” was changed to “Of course, the very definition of culture necessitates that white people have culture” because the original wording was a bit confusing. The very definition of culture necessitates that a white person has a culture, as well.