This statement is harmful – but not in the way you expect.
Have you ever heard this statement? It may be in a well-intentioned, lightly mocking way by a non-white friend. Or, it could even by a self-deprecating white person who thinks that stating as such makes them seem “woke” and supportive of non-white communities.
Ah, yes. We all know the stereotypes.
Bland food, bad dancing, preppy outfits — and often a good helping of Karenesque entitlement for good measure. This stereotype of “white people” — essentially stemming from the “WASP” middle to upper-class white Americans — is now a trope known globally.
“White people have no culture.” — Yes, they do. But since it was enforced through centuries of colonialism, this culture is regarded as the default.
Even here in Europe — where the melting pot of “white” cultures is undeniable — in the more multicultural countries such as the UK or Germany, we are somewhat also subscribing to this idea that white equates to a cultureless blank slate… only then “coloured” by the ethnic minority communities.
But, here, there, and everywhere, white people themselves may joke about their apparent lack of culture, as they admire their Indian friend’s lunch or their black friend’s box braids. Sure, it may be said in good faith, as just a bit of fun. To ease that awkward tension so many white people experience when the topic of race or cultures they find unfamiliar come up.
“White culture” is boring. Or simply equates to a lack of culture, many people from all different backgrounds may be led to believe.
And I can certainly see why a white person who has grown up in an overwhelmingly white environment, watching mainly white people on the TV and reading books only by white people and about white people, may think such a thing when being presented with a culture so unfamiliar, exciting, or exotic for the first time. It is a lot better than condemning or insulting other cultures, after all.
However, as put spectacularly by Mona Chalabi in The Guardian:
That kid you were imagining in books like Roald Dahl’s was white, unless you were told otherwise (which you never were). The men paraded on the TV show Crimewatch were described as black when they were black, and short or tall or thin or fat when they were white.
It is for this line of thinking — that white is the default — that I propose that the suggestion that white people have no culture greatly offensive.
Culture versus. A Culture
First of all — what is culture?
Here’s where it gets very interesting… The Oxford dictionary actually has two definitions (okay, three if you count reference to bacterial culture, which I evidently won’t be doing in this case):
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. “20th century popular culture”
2. The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. “Afro-Caribbean culture”
What do we gather from this? That culture can either mean European intellectualism — think theatre, baroque paintings, Shakespeare, and Sartre.
Or, it can mean “customs” and “social behaviour”… basically equating to any “behaviour” that deviates away from this Eurocentric norm. Think henna tattoos and saris. Cornrows and spicy food.
This is where the problem starts. We see white culture as a whole category in itself, and then every other culture on this earth is put into another category. If you describe someone or something as “cultured” — something along the lines of this first definition comes to mind. The adjective “cultural,” however, reflects something else — better reflected in the second definition.
Notice how even the examples that are given by each definition even reflect this double-meaning:
“20th century pop culture” — so, the culture that ended up colonizing the world, and so still remains the dominant narrative and the culture that everyone needs to know about to be considered intelligent or even educated. Knowing about this particular culture is what makes you “cultured.”
And then, “Afro-Caribbean culture” — just one of these “other” cultures that exist on the side-lines. They’re fun to acknowledge or appropriate when the occasion calls for it. You can even learn about them if you feel particularly generous— but knowledge of these cultures is not required to be considered intelligent or educated. They aren’t the core subjects, but the electives.
We may have Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month — but it’s always white history month…
But of course, this issue goes beyond the dictionary definitions. This basic idea that culture is either white and intellectual, or neither of those things, dictates a lot of how society views non-white people and cultures to this day. And it links to your white friend’s seemingly self-deprecating comment that “white people have no culture.”
Yes, they do. But since it was enforced through centuries of colonialism, this culture is regarded as the default. The blank slate.
We are so used to “white culture” that it is not viewed as “a culture,” but rather “the culture,” — with any others simply being novelty add-ons.
Nowadays, these “niches” like “Hispanic culture,” “African American culture,” or “Arab culture” may get our attention from time to time. We may have Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month — but it’s always white history month…
As Mona Chalabi continues:
“White” still feels like an absence: an absence of color, an absence of food that is “different” and an absence of a mum who pronounces your name differently from the way your friends do.
And I must add that as a result of this association with “white” as a blank slate. An absence. Rather than undermining European-derived culture that most certainly is the core of so-called “white” culture today on either side of the Atlantic, the main problem is that it makes white the norm, and everything else the other.
It may not even be intended to insult these “other” cultures — it could even involve admiring or complimenting them. But the point is, although these efforts to recognize and celebrate non-white cultures is great — the fact that they are still viewed as novelties to only be thought about on specific days of the year, is not.
Is this the most pressing racism-related issue right now? No. But I believe that this mindset is actually at the core of our ongoing inequalities and prejudices. It plays into the idea that “culture” means “white culture” — unless an adjective used beforehand states otherwise. “People” actually means “white people”— likewise, unless specifically stated otherwise.
And of course, that lives matter — unless a particular adjective placed beforehand insidiously suggests otherwise.
We need to stop this misleading idea that white people have no culture — that culture is either about Eurocentric literature and philosophy, or about all the other more exotic, colourful, and spicy stuff…
White people do have a culture. But it has become so all-consuming that even they don’t see it anymore.
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