A tale of two cultures

Jeff H

African American culture is a familiar phenomenon. We have African American inspired styles of dress, personal names, cuisine, speech, music, literature and art. The black church is a well-known institution, as is the black media. Black History Month is a staple of elementary and secondary education and public TV. Names of historic African American figures have become familiar.

Back in the 1960s, from a mainstream perch it was uncommon to see such widespread African American cultural expression. It took the Civil Rights movement, and later black nationalist efforts and a heightened black political consciousness (black power, black pride, and black is beautiful), to produce the flowering we see today.

Further back in the twentieth century, African American culture was not visible at all to mainstream viewers. In fact, the prevailing thought among both lay people and the scholarly community was that African American culture did not exist. Black people had a culture, true, but the common belief was that slavery completely wiped out the influences of Africa. All the formerly enslaved had left was the white man’s culture, which they had learned, but only imperfectly, since  (according to the mainstream thinking of the time) they were simple-minded and unable to master the complexities white culture demanded.

This view held unquestioned sway until anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits challenged it in his 1941 book, The Myth of the Negro Past. Unlike previous scholars, Herskovits actually did field work in Africa and the Caribbean. He was able to trace direct connections and corollaries between African cultures and the cultures of Afro-descendants in the Americas, including specifically the United States.

Herskovits examined a full array of cultural practices, including family structure and kinship, religious beliefs, social and political patterns, and language. Regarding language, one scholar had previously written that “not a single detail of Negro pronunciation or Negro syntax can be proved to have other than an English origin.” Herskovits identified hundreds of examples to the contrary.

Eventually Herskovits’ point of view prevailed and today we acknowledge African American culture as real.

Earlier Herskovits himself failed to see African American culture. He wrote in 1925, “What there is today in Harlem [of African American culture] distinct from the white culture that surrounds it is…merely a remnant from the peasant days in the South.” At that time, early in his career, Herskovits was buying into the prevailing view that African Americans had no culture of their own but rather had assimilated to white culture, albeit poorly. In time, Herskovits’ contact with black intellectuals and his own scientific studies convinced him otherwise.

What is also interesting about Herskovits’ work, and more to the point of this essay, is that he explicitly acknowledged white culture, both in his 1925 erroneous speculations, and later in his defining work of 1941. In fact, it was commonplace to refer to white culture, or the “white man’s culture” during those times. In the early twentieth century, prevailing thought, both scholarly and mainstream, was that although African American culture did not exist as such, white American culture clearly and unquestionably did exist.

Now, early in the twenty-first century the opposite pertains. Virtually no place in the mainstream do we find talk of white American (or European American) culture while at the same time the presence of African American culture is widely accepted.

In scholarly circles there is widespread understanding of African American culture as a valid area of study. The story on European American culture is a little more mixed. Some scholars acknowledge white American culture exists, and they purport to study it. One recent example is the 2012 book, White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race, by Matthew Hughey.

More typically, reputable sources of scholarly inquiry simply ignore the possibility that white American culture exists. The University of Michigan’s Department of American Culture claims on its website to be “the top American studies department in the world.” They offer programs in African American studies, Arab American studies, Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, Latina/o studies, and Native American studies. And yes, of course, plain old American studies. Is something missing here? Surely they are not upholding that old trope of “white” equals “American,” but why else would the world’s best American studies program fail to offer European American studies?

Some scholars just flatly deny that European American culture exists. Whiteness, they say, is simply a political construct. This, more or less, is the mainstream view too. Most (white) people simply fail to see white American culture as anything real. The same white people who, generally, have no trouble acknowledging and discussing African American culture invariably draw a blank when the notion of white American culture is raised.  Typically they have no idea what to offer when their child’s class is asked to bring “something from your culture.”

African American culture and European American cultures both exist. They are outgrowths of regional value systems and shared histories. They reflect common experiences among those who share in the culture. They have retained boundaries in membership, some imposed by the cultures themselves, and some externally imposed. Think of anti-miscegenation laws, the “one-drop” rule, and Jim Crow and segregation for instance.

Herskovits performed a valuable service in opening the eyes of the scholarly community and later the mainstream to the presence of African American culture. We are better off today. Correspondingly, today’s failure to see and understand European American culture does us a disservice. It renders us unable to view the greater American experience in its proper context and leaves us implicitly with the only other alternative understanding, i.e. that “white” means “American.”

There is still one final point to be made. Despite the reversal of views between 1930 and now, one thing has remained constant. White American culture still pulls the strings. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white American culture proudly put forth its name and identity under the mantle of white supremacy. Following World War II and the rise of Civil Rights era, white supremacy retreated from its public stance and colorblindness emerged. And correspondingly, white American culture made a strategic move from the front room to the back room of American society. As everyone knows, it is often the back room where politics are played and power is held.

In today’s global world, with the emergence of the critical perspectives of people of color and the rising power of what formerly were called “Third World peoples,” the explicit naming of white American culture invites a dialogue on the role of that culture in the racial and economic makeup of America. This raises messy topics like white privilege, the “new Jim Crow,” and myriad other concerns. Better simply to not acknowledge white American culture to begin with, and let everyone try to sort out a picture of the racial landscape without it.

No wonder we so often seem lost in that landscape without a map.

White fear of Black men

Bonnie Berman Cushing

I have been devoted to a white anti-racist path for close to a dozen years, but I still stiffen with fear and a state of heightened awareness when I find myself alone on a darkened street with one or more Black men nearby.

As a dedicated student of anti-racist facts and principles I know intellectually that white people are five times more likely to be attacked by another white person than by a Black one and that two-thirds of the rapes committed in our country are by white men.  I am aware that the vast majority of corporate criminals are white and that most of our politicians who have declared war –  bringing death and destruction to millions –  also have the same skin color as I do. My own experience includes a mugging at gunpoint and a date rape – both at the hands of white men.  And yet I have never found myself anxiously responding to a white male or males on an evening walk the way I do in the presence of Black men. Why, exactly, is that?

I believe there are several reasons for this disturbing phenomenon and that it certainly isn’t limited only to me, but also to most (if not all) white folks – and many people of color as well.  History, psychology and media all play a significant role. The myth of the predatory Black man stands on the shoulders of centuries of stories and images shared from one generation to the next, sometimes directly and sometimes in coded messaging (such as admonishments to lock the car in certain neighborhoods or clutch your pocketbook closely on certain elevators and streets).  Our collective fear of the Black man has a rich and detailed history, one that by this time has practically been encoded in our national DNA.

A Black woman, writing under the name M. Gibson, expressed this truth succinctly in a comment on a blog site shortly after a police officer killed Oscar Grant in Oakland, California:

As a nation we seem to have very short memories. Fear of the black man just didn’t start overnight, and it didn’t just happen during the course of our lifetime; like any singularity it has to have a beginning. Its origin has been embedded in this nation’s consciousness since the Nat Turner revolt; a pathological fear that the oppressed will one day rise up and inflict vengeance upon the oppressor.

The fact that so many unarmed young Black men have been killed by police officers is tragic testimony to this underlying fear.  I quote another blogger, Carmel:

Why ask what Whites fear about Blacks? Why not ask what Blacks fear about Whites? More Blacks have been killed by Whites in our country than the other way around. I don’t even know the number of unarmed Black men who have been killed or attacked by police or simply just pulled over for “Driving While Black.” When was the last time you heard of an innocent White man being riddled with bullets by the police?

In a 2010 radio broadcast Rush Limbaugh, one of the voices of right-wing America, brought it more directly into present times when discussing the Obama Presidency:

It’s Payback Time. This woman’s going to find out what it was like, in Obama’s view, for other Americans to live as they did in this unfair and immoral country for the 230 years we’ve been around. In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on…”

No wonder Obama and many other Blacks who have managed to achieve prominence in our society have had to maintain a calm demeanor, even in the face of insult and aggression.  To appear as the “angry Black” is to trigger these deep seated fears in our collective consciousness and to undermine any real agency with the public at large. As Tan-nehisi Coates wrote in his September 2012 article for The Atlantic entitled “Fear of a Black President,”

So frightening is the prospect of black rage given voice and power that when Obama was a freshman senator, he was asked, on national television, to denounce the rage of Harry Belafonte. This fear continued with demands that he keep his distance from Louis Farrakhan and culminated with Reverend Wright and a presidency that must never betray any sign of rage toward its white opposition.

In addition, there is a psychological defense called projection –  when one accuses someone of having traits they refuse to acknowledge in themselves –  that also explains some of the reason white people fear the violence of Black people. Instead of acknowledging the past and present forms of violence Black people have suffered at the hands of whites, it is projected on the victims themselves.  M. Gibson gets it right when she writes of the white fear of Black sexual violence:

During those times the white man feared miscegenation above all; he feared his saintly white women being sullied by an over-sexed bestial black buck. The white man held onto this erroneous belief/fear even as he himself raped black women without fear of reprisal.

And then there are the media, which continue to broadcast images of Black men in handcuffs and behind bars on nearly a daily basis (and this is by design, not accident).  It is due to news coverage that most of us first think of Black men when we hear of drug dealers, rioters or perpetrators of domestic violence.  This is true despite the reality that white people have, and do, participate in mob and domestic violence in higher numbers, and that whites comprise more than 70% of drug abusers and dealers in our country.

Popular culture also supports and feeds on these images. Quentin Tarentino was awarded the Oscar for his script of the blockbuster hit, D’jango Unchained, which tells the story of a freed slave enacting revenge on slaveholders and their kin.  The vision of D’jango, wielding a bullwhip, guns and a bomb against his enemies speaks directly and powerfully to our subconscious (and in many cases, conscious) fear of Black revenge for past atrocities.  Apparently it pays artistically, monetarily and politically to exploit these fears – and until the costs outweigh the benefits, the media will continue to reinforce them to the detriment of us all.

I understand I will have to check my racist assumptions and continue to unlearn the lessons I have inherited about Black men for the rest of my life.  I will always need to remind myself I have been socialized to collectivize the violence of Black individuals and individualize the violence of whites. I will need to intentionally counteract that socialization.  This is part of my legacy as a privileged white woman in the United States, and I take it on both sadly and gladly.

I will end by quoting another inspirational blog entry, by abagond, from a site that asked why whites fear blacks:

Moral blindness.  Every single black person in the eyes of white people is the sign of a terrible crime from their ugly past, a reminder that their life is a fraud, that they are pretty much nothing more than armed robbers. But it is hard for them to simply own up to their past and make it right. Instead they deny, shift blame, lie, twist facts and make black people into these creatures that they look down on, laugh at and yet, oddly, fear. It is a failed attempt to be at peace with themselves. This is why whites need to give reparations more than blacks need to receive it.


Let’s recognize white American culture

Jeff H

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.