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 â€œhave no culture,â€ what they are really lamenting is a lack of autonomy. (I also want to make clear that â€œcultureâ€ 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 â€œmore diverse.â€1 This proclamation that â€œI have no culture,â€ cannot be true, for surely white people have â€œknowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of societyâ€ (Tyler, qtd. in Appiah 119-120).
I think this look toward a â€œdiverseâ€ other (such as African-American culture or Jewish culture) as a model of culture is a concern about homogeneity â€” that white people fear seeing themselves as being the same as one another. Appiah writes that â€œoften when we worry about homogeneity […] it’s because we take it to be evidence of a previous crime against autonomyâ€ (153). If my suspicion about white homogeneity is correct, then the claim that â€œI have no cultureâ€ might actually be a claim about autonomy â€” 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 â€œlack of cultureâ€ also has to do with an alienation from others that leaves one without a â€œcommunity.â€2
What is your take on why some white people claim â€œI have no cultureâ€?
1 I put â€œmore diverseâ€ in scare quotes because I doubt the ability of an individual to be â€œmore diverseâ€ than another individual; I think â€œmore diverseâ€ is code here for â€œnot mainstream,â€ â€œother,â€ or â€œexotic.â€
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.