“I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.”

Some of you may recognize this as a quote from food personality Alison Roman, after she was taken to task for failing to acknowledge the cultural influence, if not appropriation, of her coconut milk, chickpea, turmeric curry that she calls a “Stew.”

But probably you won’t.

Because SOOOO Many White People Have Said This.

Time for a little Whitesplaining.

I grew up in a small, fractured family. Until my mid-20s when we found a lost sister and people started having kids, I could count all my relatives on 2 hands. We had no religion, we had no rituals, we didn’t play musical instruments, we tied no meaning or history to food, we had no community, we didn’t hang out with other families, we barely knew our neighbors, and we lived quite anonymously in one of the largest cities in the US. As far as I was concerned, and as far as I understood culture, I had none.

Culture to me was Black churches and Mexican food and the Italian family in Moonstruck, who yelled and drank together and played classical music and loved loudly and plinked sugar cubes in their champagne flutes. Culture was delicious and fun and noticeable.

How do you notice something when it is ubiquitous?

One of the few times I was praised in primary school science classes (they were terrible; I’m still bitter) was when a teacher told us that the earth is constantly spinning, at 1000 miles/hour, and asked why we didn’t notice it.

Because we have nothing to compare it to! I intuited, loudly.

When you are “vaguely European,” White culture looks like Oxygen. It looks like non-culture, and it looks like that because the primary goal of its creators and perpetrators is normalization through saturation. If White culture is normal, so normal that it isn’t even recognized as culture, then the White race becomes normal, so normal that it’s not even recognized as a race.

It’s just “human”

Which means that every other race is something abnormal and inhuman

I feel this miseducation in my very bones now, but I sympathize with Alison Roman and other ignorant White folks on this point. I spent much of my life not only blind to my own culture, but was jealous of others’. I wanted something to claim as my own, not recognizing that the whole world was more or less my own, as a White, healthy, neurotypical, currently abled, cis-gendered heterosexual, with just my gender and some psychological issues holding me back. One of those issues was shame, which kept me from embracing White America (I mean, can you blame me?) and drew me into other cultures like the smell of roasted garlic, but stopped me at the door because I knew I didn’t belong.

Have you taken the IDI? It’s both ridiculous and revealing. Mine basically showed that I rank very high on inclusion and recognizing and welcoming difference and all that good stuff, but I’m kind of a mess when it comes to recognizing my own culture. As if I didn’t already know that. When pressed on my culture, my specific family/community culture, by the IDI interpreter at work, the best I could come up with was liberalism, intellectualism, and urbanism.

The questions I struggled with in the IDI were things like “Do you feel your culture is represented/welcomed in casual conversations at work?” Well, as a White, middle-class woman, yes. But depending on the conversation, as an atheist? No. As childless by choice? No. As an anti-capitalist? No. Does this have a significant impact on my work life? Of course not. But as someone with a culture of liberalism and intellectualism, I’m not going to ignore those details when I’m asked that question. Is this my failure? Or is it the IDI’s?

Well, it’s the IDI’s, of course. I mean, come on.

The IDI is fine and dandy at doing what it seeks to do: showing individuals where they are on a broad spectrum of racial and cultural recognition and inclusion. It’s very nice and organizations love it because there are no wrong answers. But is this really what we need? Haven’t we done enough infantilizing of White people? Hasn’t this infantilizing left otherwise smart, perceptive White folks thinking they don’t have a culture, that they aren’t swaddled in an accommodating environment? That they aren’t skipping through a hall of mirrors that continually reflects them back to themselves as normal, as ideal?

Of course, the IDI is supposed to be a first step. An assessment of where you are so you know how to move forward, but in my organization and many others, there is no step 2. In addition to or even in place of the Intercultural Development Inventory, non-BIPOC folks need a Whiteness Inventory, an assessment of our recognition of the Whiteness we’ve been swimming in our whole lives. To recognize our White art, music, literature, food, education, philosophies, economies, physicality as a way of being, so that we can finally see that is it A way of being, and deconstruct the Whiteness that our country has forced upon us. (BIPOC would benefit from it, too, since the normalizing of whiteness is a Petri dish for devastating shame.)

This is water,” the much quoted parable that David Foster Wallace expounded upon in the commencement speech that went viral after he died, is probably of Eastern origin. But I can’t find the source, so I’ll give him credit he at least partially deserves for popularizing the idea that life is better for everyone when you are conscious of it. As a meditator and philosophical Buddhist, I love this idea – the simplicity and the struggle of continually bringing yourself back to consciousness – and quote it often. I think White folks would do well to reframe this as a regular reality-check of culture. What we see and hear and know is always contextualized, and we can only assess the value if we see the context.

This is Whiteness. This is Whiteness.

One thought on ““I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.”

  1. Cherie Acierno

    I remember becoming suddenly aware of the culture of whiteness when Richard Pryor imitated a White guy in his act.

    Like

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