584: Weekly Position Paper #6: Why Do White People Claim They Have No Culture?

In Chapter 4 of The Ethics of Identity, Appiah notes that while the United States has never been less culturally diverse, there have never been more celebrations of, or demands for, cultural diversity. He questions the values of both culture and diversity as good things, arguing that cultural change is commonplace and that a lack of diversity is not always a bad thing. Appiah ultimately argues that fears about homogeneity are actually concerns about the loss of autonomy, and that we should not value diversity simpliciter, but instead should value autonomy.

I want to argue (though tentatively) that perhaps when white middle class people proclaim they “have no culture,” what they are really lamenting is a lack of autonomy. (I also want to make clear that “culture” is also often a codeword for race, and the claim is part of making whiteness invisible.) I have heard a number of white middle class people complain that they have no culture and express their envy of Others who are “more diverse.”1 This proclamation that “I have no culture,” cannot be true, for surely white people have “knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tyler, qtd. in Appiah 119-120).

I think this look toward a “diverse” other (such as African-American culture or Jewish culture) as a model of culture is a concern about homogeneity — that white people fear seeing themselves as being the same as one another. Appiah writes that “often when we worry about homogeneity […] it’s because we take it to be evidence of a previous crime against autonomy” (153). If my suspicion about white homogeneity is correct, then the claim that “I have no culture” might actually be a claim about autonomy — that white folks are lamenting their autonomy having been taken away. Here’s my reasoning: the culture industry has eliminated many choices, and I think white people (as a generality), who probably most identify with the cultural industry, have lost their autonomy (at least partially) to the domination of the cultural industry, to draw on T.W. Adorno’s critique. Perhaps this “lack of culture” also has to do with an alienation from others that leaves one without a “community.”2

What is your take on why some white people claim “I have no culture”?

1 I put “more diverse” in scare quotes because I doubt the ability of an individual to be “more diverse” than another individual; I think “more diverse” is code here for “not mainstream,” “other,” or “exotic.”

2I want to admit my limits epistemologically: I am assuming that this is a phenomenon of white people because I have never heard a person of color make the claim that he or she has no culture.

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4 Responses to 584: Weekly Position Paper #6: Why Do White People Claim They Have No Culture?

  1. Lisa Ede says:

    Thank you so much for posting some of the writing you’re doing for your classes, Michael. I really enjoyed reading all of this.

    Now I need to get back to writing those letters of rec, planning my winter term syllabus, etc.

  2. sara jameson says:

    Michael –
    I, too, am baffled that anyone could say they have no culture. Weird. First does “white people” = European ancestry. So, what about their heritage culture? Look at the St. Patrick’s parade, Oktoberfest, etc. Lots of celebration of culture. OK, American culture – what about 4th of July or Veteran’s Day or whatever it is that we celebrate about being American. What about southern (redneck?) culture or New England Ivy League culture? Or Mid West farmer culture? Pennsylvania Dutch? Really, can you say more. I am truly astonished that anyone would say this.

  3. KV Fitz says:

    @ sara jameson,

    If you’re truly astonished that a person of mixed European extraction feels she has no culture, then you probably don’t have many white friends. Or if you do, they’re from the enclaves of well-preserved culture you’ve listed: Pennsylvania, New England, etc.

    In California, which is the only place I can speak to, having lived here 99% of my life, the feeling of “having no culture” is pervasive among light-skinned people of mixed European ancestry – people you would call “white.” My ancestors are variously: Irish, English, German, Italian, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, and Dutch. And that’s just the ones I can account for. Many others were adopted, or had their names changed on Ellis Island, becoming effectively untraceable beyond their point of entry.

    These people all entered the US in the late 19th/early 20th century. All of them were poor. Many still are. I’m the first in my family to attend university.

    In the part of the country where I grew up (Los Angeles, CA) – diversity is practically a fetish. Schoolchildren, certainly, are bombarded with celebrations of various cultures – only none of them have ever been mine. And while latino children, raised in spanish-speaking households with parents or grandparents directly from, say, mexico can enjoy (por exemplo) cinco de mayo or dia de los muertos because they observe these holidays at home – I am in no way situated to observe St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest. I have never known a familiy member who knew a family member from Ireland or Germany. I have never been there. I don’t identify with these nations. It’s not my culture. If anything, I identify more with Aztlan/Mexican culture, having been raised in LA. But as white, minority children are constantly reminded – that’s not our culture either.

    Looking at grade school holiday celebrations is a very shallow example. But the larger picture is this: while many immigrants, and of course african americans, are raised in homes with traditions of language, religion and national heritage that are cultivated by and are alive in their parents and grandparents – many “white” people never have this experience.

    Moreover, children are taught that “white” people (and specifically, Americans) are responsible for all of the worst incidents of genocide and human rights abuses in history. While this may be true, none of my ancestors were slave owners. By all accounts, they were migrants, factory workers, and ignorant of English when they got here. But even if they came on the Mayflower – who in their right mind would want to celebrate those crimes against humanity, anyway? “White” kids are taught that tolerance and equality are of paramount importance, yet we are met with resentment and hostility for our assumed privilege.

    While I have no doubt that white privilege thrives in many, if not most parts of the US – the effect is muted in California (which, again, is the only region I am qualified to address at length, and is the backdrop against which I compare my visits to highly polarized cities like Chicago and Washington DC). As a “white” person, I am a minority in my city. My inability to speak spanish fluently makes me a less desirable candidate for many jobs. My neighbors are suspicious of me. Do I feel like a victim? No. Do I resent the assumption that because I am “white” I am therefore the beneficiary of some phantom network of wealth and privilege? Yes.

    The effect is one of isolation and disconnection. We feel as though we must build our worldview piecemeal from neighboring cultures that influence us via proximity. But these are never “ours.” They are on loan.

    Hence, the sentiment “white people have no culture”, except that which we scavenge from others.

    My intent isn’t to minimize the experience of racism or ignorance that many people of color have dealt with.
    What I would like to get across is this: If you are a person of color, chances are your parents and grandparents have done the heavy lifting, getting people of all persuasions to approach you as an individual – not to assume that you are (dirty, stupid, lazy, whatever). We are totally clear, dude. At least in this corner of the world, the heavy lifting worked.

    Now, please do me the favor of not assuming I’m a rich, spoiled, racist who gets extra cookies because my eyes are blue. If anything, I’m getting extra cookies because of the C-cups. But that’s a whole other Oprah.

    (BTW: if you have the phone number for the phantom network of wealth and influence, could you pass it along? I would like 600 thousand dollars and a pony)

  4. Max Spiegel says:

    Music teacher pushes for policy after drag-show clips cost her job – http://mudc.at/Hb1730

    I feel this homogeneity obsession today has turned into a caricature lately of one of civilizations not-at-all-good-but-always-and-forever qualities. It has been usurped by modern politicos from the good ol’ fashioned haters, that we know are just gonna keep on hatin’.

    It’s now just smoke and mirrors, a classic magician’s trick. While we’re expressing outrage at the idiot atrocities they shake in their left hand as public policy, they are actually already fingering us with their right.

    Social norms are indeed becoming oppressive, even the good guys gotta watch out. I blame the 24hour News Cycle/Internet Age Apathy and computer mediated human interaction class chasm. I’ll wrap as I join this into another subject to contend that anonymity is not the problem on the internet, it is the solution. I cannot be myself if I am tethered to my identity.

    Wow… that’s profound.. that just kind of popped out, now I gotta go ponder that some more… when my angry ranting becomes poetic I get excited that I may NOT have to “write the manifesto” after all…

    I do believe we (pop-society) have gone so far that we’ve circled back and not acknowledging that everything is upside down. As proof, this lefty finds today’s wisdom from the Godfather of The Right, no less. Sage man, dude is sage…

    Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free. ~Ronald Reagan

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