the circular runner

do white people have culture?

In observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on May 21, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Last night, one of my students asked this in class.  She didn’t mean to be offensive.  I don’t think she knows about the disputes that college faculties have over the Canon and its reliance on dead white men, but in a way, her question is still valid.  As a class (they are almost all people of color with the one ostensibly white woman denying that she’s white for some reason) the only answers that came to mind when “white culture” came up were “stuck-up, fancy restaurants, country music, and golf.”  Sure, there’s Shakespeare and Plato and Hemingway, but those are book-people.  For many of my kids, I think culture equals heritage.  So they don’t see any equivalents to quiceaneras or Vietnamese coffee shops, or Budhist festivals, or long meals together with family members.  They see white people as being products of products–stuck up people who listen to country, eat at fancy restaurants, and play golf.

Next week, I’m going to push them a little more on this.  I at least want to challenge their notions of what white people are and bring up other ways to look at culture.  But in the meantime, you white people out there, please get back to me about your culture.  What do you think your culture entails?  Besides books, what are some white traditions?

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  1. I am always stunned when I hear otherwise educated and progressive people make the comment that “white people have no culture.” I am personally offended to be included in that illusory and indistinct throng. I will start my explanation with a fact that should be obvious…there is no such ethnic category as “white people.” To say that the only “culture” white people have is “stuck up, country music and fancy restaurants and golf…” is shockingly ethnocentric and bigoted.

    The first, and most important point about “ white culture” is that there is really no such thing. It is offensive to say that all “white people” are the same despite the thousands of ethnic groups “white people” represent. It is akin to the equally offensive idea that there is such a thing as “Native American Culture.” Today there are 564 Federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States. Far from forming a single ethnic group, Native Americans are divided into several hundred ethno-linguistic groups. To illustrate my point about heterogeneity among Native Americans, if you ask a member of the both the S’Klallam and Iroquois tribes about their most sacred celebrations, you will receive two distinctly separate answers.

    Similarly, American “white people” are a heterogeneous group of lighter skinned individuals with a myriad of cultural and ethnic heritages. A common , although erroneous, definition of a “white person” is an individul of primarily, or wholly, European ancestry. However, “white people” are broadly defined as Caucasoid which includes people with ancestry from the Middle East, North Africa, Greater Iran, South Asia, and parts of Central Asia, who share certain physiological characteristics and genetics with Europeans including skin color. The United States Census Bureau identifies “ white people” as individuals having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.

    For purposes of our discussion, I will use the U.S. Census Bureau’s rather narrow definition of light skinned people originating primarily in European, Middle eastern and North African nations. I will refer to these nations as Caucasoid nations to simplify matters

    There are 52 predominately European nations and 13 territories. Europe is the ancestral home of predominately fair skinned people, however, there is not one culture that defines the region. There are diverse religious beliefs that include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Neo-Paganism, Hinduism. Historically, Europe was considered to be a primarily Christian region, however, in the 21st century is decidedly secular. France, which was once a stronghold of Christianity, has 33% of the population that identifies themselves as atheistic. There are approximately 3,000 indigenous cultures in Europe today – including the Basque in Spain, who are one of the most ancient indigenous groups in Europe, and the Adyghe in the Caucasus in Russia.
    There are 28 nations that comprise what is commonly termed North Africa and the Middle East, however, Turkey is often included in both lists of Europe and lists of the Middle East. The nations of the Middle East are known as the Arab League, a group with does not include North Africa. Like Europe, it is a highly heterogeneous region with broad populations of indigenous peoples who share only a shallow similarities with one another. There are 28 ethnic subdivisions within the Middle East, the largest of which are the Arabs. The Arab League is predominately Muslim, but there are many religions that exist in the region including Christianity, Judaism, Bahá’í, Yazdânism, Zoroastrianism. North Africa is separated from the rest of the African Continent by the Sahara desert. There are many ethnic groups in North Africa, Berbers, Bedouin, Taureg are a few. The primary religion in North Africa is Islam, although there is a very, very small minority of Coptic Christians and Jews.

    Except for American Indians (as a descendant of indigenous persons I prefer the term American Indian to Native American, which describes all persons who are native to America) ALL persons currently residing in the North American region identified as the United States are either descendants of immigrants or are themselves immigrants from every nation on earth, of which there are 196. Each Caucasoid nation has a unique culture and customs that celebrate their own diverse history, demography, geography, music, sports, dance, religious observance and epicurean tastes. The United States has innumerable Caucasoid cultural celebrations that are held in every state and in every season. Some of the most well known are Oktoberfest (German), Mardi-Gras ( French Arcadian and Creole), Italian Feast Days (Italy), Tulip Festivals (Netherlands), Highland Games (Ireland and Scotland) Hibernian Days (Scotland), Dyngus Day (Poland), Greek Festival, Hungarian Festival, Little Italy Festival, Portugal Day. There are entire communities in America that have large ethnic populations and celebrate culture. Just spend a day in Pella, Iowa ; Amsterdam, Montana or Holland, Michigan (Dutch); Look at the bi-lingual signs in North Dakota and South Dakota (German); Chicago (Polish); New York (Italians); Texas and Omaha, NE (Germans).

    I have a disparate lineage that includes Europeans, American Indians, Celtic People, and Middle Eastern peoples. My European ancestors have been in America for 12 generations, since 1610. As a family we celebrate American cultural traditions such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4th, organized sports and entertainments such as camping. Our national culture –American culture—contributes to the way all Americans think, eat and pray in the United States and is separate from our ethnic traditions. We have always been conflicted in America about our drive for individualism and our identity as a culture.

    Our family is not stuck up, nor do we listen to just to country music or go out to eat at fancy restaurants. I listen to a lot of different music, mostly classic rock but I also like classical, country, jazz, gospel and big band. We are a family who beleive people are more important than things, and put our money and time where our mouth is. Although my husband was laid off from his job almost a year ago, we still contribute our time to assisting kids in foster care. He was a volunteer firefighter for 15 years but blew several discs in his back in an auto accident, so now he works with families in crisis and gives his time at the Gospel Mission to support the homeless. Although we have very little extra money these days, we also donate almost $600 per month to various charities: we sponsor 4 homeless orphan kids in India, for the past 2 years we have anonymously given $100 per month to a family in our community who have had a lot of medical difficulties and we donate an additional $350 to church organizations. I have read about fancy restaurants but I have never been to a truly “fancy restaurant” (with $100 main course and $10 for a coke!) because we can’t afford it. Our idea of a night out for dinner, which almost always includes our kids, is KFC or Wendy’s. Rarely we will go out for Mexican or Greek. We wait until movies come out on DVD because we just can’t stretch our dollars far enough to pay for the whole family at the theater. I don’t get manicures or pedicures and my hairdresser costs a whopping $20 (with tip). We buy our clothes and our kids’ clothes at the Goodwill store – which also furnished our home. No one race or ethnic group have a corner on humility, decency or compassion. Oh, and I’ve never played golf – and, ironically, the best golfer in the world is an African American man.

    We do have customs and traditions that reference many of our ancestors, all of which have distinct cultures. The primary cultural influences in my life were those of my parents and grandparents, because they were the people I knew and loved. However, I have no doubt that the many hundreds of years and dozens of cultures represented in my genealogy also color our traditions.
    My mother was “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a designation given to pre 1800 German Immigrants. She cooked Pennsylvania Dutch foods, some of which most people are familiar with: pickles, chicken pot pies, coleslaw, pretzels, bologna, home made root beer and sugar cookies. We sang German Christmas carols such as O Christmas Tree and Silent Night. We also left cookies for Santa,(who came to America with the Dutch as Sinterklaas) which is a custom taught her by her English grandfather who called Santa Claus “Father Christmas.”

    I am ¼ quantum Irish, which means my grandfather was 100% Irish. Like most Irish families we were large, outspoken and fiercely loyal. We planned expansive meals and held gatherings to celebrate each other. As 3rd generation Irish American I have always had a sense of my heritage – and of the persecution that my Irish ancestors have suffered since the English, under Strongbow, invaded Ireland in 1170. My great-grandfather came to America in 1870 to escape persecution and starvation in his home land, and when he came to America he faced discrimination because of his catholic faith. As a child our family went to Highland Games that celebrated the heritage of our Irish and Scottish Clans – we love to watch the dancers do the jig, reel and step dances and listen to the bagpipes as well as watch the athletic competitions. I still take my kids to Highland Games today. Our clans are represented by tartans, which are ancient textiles that were adopted by clans in the 16th and 17th centuries. Our family also go to Pow Wows, mostly of the western coastal tribes since my tribe, The Lenape, are back east.

    My husband is a 100% descendant of Germans from Russia known as the Volga Germans. They are a unique cultural group who emigrated to the Volga region of Russia, primarily in Georgia (Russia) from the Palatinate and Germany during the reign of Catherine the Great in the 1762-3. Many Volga Germans came to the northwestern United States in the early 20th century during a period of unrest in Russia following the ascension of Nicholas II. His family came to America in 1904. The villages that the Volga-Germans had built throughout western Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great were destroyed in 1941 by Joseph Stalin. The people who didn’t flee to Germany were sent to work camps in Siberia, called gulags, until after World War II. Many of them died in the camps. They are a unique cultural group that celebrates their heritage with food, music, dance, and religious observance. His Volga German ancestors were descended from men and women who were Swiss, Belgian, German and English – but the culture they knew and that he grew up in and still knows is the Volga German culture. His parents and grandparents spoke Low German as their primary language, and ate primarily German foods such as Kuchen, Kase Maultashcen, Borscht, Grebbel, Rivelkugen and Flish Mouldash. Wikipedia describes the Volga Germans like this:

    “Negatively influenced by the violation of their rights and cultural persecution by the Tsar, the Germans from Russia who settled in the northern Midwest saw themselves a downtrodden ethnic group separate from Russian Americans and having an entirely different experience from the German Americans who had immigrated from German lands; they settled in tight-knit communities that retained their German language and culture. They raised large families, built German-style churches, buried their dead in distinctive cemeteries using cast iron grave markers, and created choir groups that sang German church hymns. Many farmers specialized in sugar beets—still a major crop in the upper Great Plains. During World War I their identity was challenged by anti-German sentiment. By the end of the Second World War the German language, which had always been used with English for public and official matters, was in serious decline. Today German is preserved mainly through singing groups and recipes, with the Germans from Russia in the northern Great Plains states speaking predominantly English. German remains the second most spoken language in North and South Dakota, and Germans from Russia often use loanwords, such as Kuchen for cake. Despite the loss of their language, the ethnic group remains distinct and has left a lasting impression on the American West.”

    To say that “white people” don’t have culture is a tragic lack of knowledge about your countrymen and women. To make the same statement about people of color would be to invite a well deserved upbraiding about narrow-mindedness. Remember –a bigot is someone who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ. It doesn’t matter if someone makes disparaging remarks without meaning to offend. To judge and degrade anyone based on their differences is deplorable regardless of the race, color or creed of the individual who makes the comment.

    • Dear Ellen,

      Your comments are interesting and valid. It sounds as if the post offended you, and I hope if that’s the case, that you’ll consider one thing: my students, by and large, have not been exposed to much that is different from themselves. This is not an excuse. It’s just a fact. Aside from race, we have dealt with gender, class, religion, and on a weekly basis, they make comments like the one I posted. I know from the outside their questions sound offensive, but they come out of a genuine feeling–right or wrong. As an educator, I don’t want to crush their ideas, so I try and listen and then challenge them to think outside of their own narrow experiences. That said, I posted what I did because as people of color, they genuinely were confused and it’s a question I’ve heard from other students in their position, so I think it was worthwhile as a way to start a dialogue. People only learn about each other if they ask questions–even if those questions are not as artful or educated as they could be. A post like yours could be a great learning tool, and I’d like to share it with my class, if you are ok with this.

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