Sunday, April 06, 2008

Whiteness In America

Twice in one day I heard two different people refer to the notion that the white narrative we have become accustomed to in our popular culture does not equal "America". These fine intellectuals - no surprise - were not white, one being Michael Eric Dyson and the other a second generation Asian-American, Eric Liu. With me being a middle aged white man I can't really formulate a counter other than to try to understand why "we whites" see whiteness as being the face of normalcy in America.

Culturally it seems OK to believe that blacks or second generation immigrants have been uniquely shaped by their experiences growing up in America, but the white experience was somehow inauthentic. I don't mean this as a slam or a refutation of the bitter experiences some have had. My point is that we only knew what we were exposed to. If we were the beneficiaries of the dominant culture we did not know it - because we knew nothing else. This should not be thrown in our faces as if we conspired to deny any one else these so-called advantages. Just being white in America is not the criteria for being labeled a racist.

For one, in the middle class suburb in the northern United States where I grew up there were very few blacks or immigrants. The people who didn't look exactly like me still acted like me and sounded like me. Whether or not they felt like they were treated differently because of their skin color did not enter into my conscious because I didn't treat them differently.

Yes, we saw inner city riots on TV and knew of the "ghetto", but it may as well have been on another planet for the effect it had on our lives. Having had so few experiences with non-whites our notions of what they were like came from listening to an older generation that grew up when institutional racism allowed them to deny basic human dignity to blacks and immigrants. So, when a black family did rise out of poverty and attained a lifestyle that equaled our own we didn't think of them as selling out or acting white - they were acting normally - and good for them.

In the north we knew nothing of a black or immigrant sub cultures the way folks would have in the deep south or the California coast. So when the elements of these sub cultures began to permeate "white America" it looked to us as if American culture was being chipped away. It really didn't sink in until it seemed to become culturally unacceptable for minorities to slip into "whitey's world". Those that did had somehow become traitors. Suddenly, the culture we saw as perfectly normal had become tainted and inexplicably offensive. To further confuse the issue we saw highly accomplished minorities like Thomas Sowell, Bill Cosby, Larry Elder, Walter Williams and Clarence Thomas (none of whom despised whitey's world) become labeled sell outs or Uncle Toms.

It has gotten so that today our popular culture in music, movies and many sports is dominated by a sub culture mentality. Anything that smacks of Leave it to Beaver white is totally uncool. It has become a culture that instead of lifting up those who have been treated poorly it's better to tear everyone and everything else down. To devalue all that came before, the good along with the bad, as if "white" culture is and always has been invalid. Hmm... American whiteness is arrogant and self centered...

As for this so-called American arrogance, again it's a label foisted on us by the intellectually lazy. Frankly I have grown weary of hearing that Americans of my generation are ignorant, self centered and arrogant. We are as much a product of our place and time in history as any enlightened European or Canadian. Who we became was dictated by the idiosyncrasies of our respective environments. We had a mono-lingual, myopic view of the world because for thousands of miles in every direction there was only one language spoken and a common cultural experience shared by 85% of the people. Why we would we bother with bilingualism or multiculturalism?

People in Europe commingle with people from dozens of countries and dozens of languages on a daily basis. For us exotic meant one of your friends parents was hosting a foreign exchange student. So, for Europeans to act smug and superior to Americans because we are still largely a mono-lingual and provincial is the epitome of arrogance. The clashing of cultures and languages has always been a recipe for conflict, violence and war. This truth is no different on the streets of Paris or the streets of Detroit.

Diversity being simply a fact and not necessarily something that needs to be celebrated doesn't mean that it is inherently superior to a homogeneous culture. For those in America who find themselves in a culture that is not their own they can choose to allow themselves to become part of the melting pot or forever live on the outside all the while complaining and whining. Yes diversity makes the potpourri of American culture richer and more enlightened, but it doesn't make the "whiteness" in our culture any less valid. If we all were to embrace true patriotism as Americans like Eric Liu encourages us to do in his book "True Patriots" instead of focusing on what makes us different we will go a long way toward healing our culture.

Easier said than done...