White Culture and the Hard Conversation of Racism


October 18, 2015

US racism—the oppression of American Indians and People of Color—is one of the hardest conversations a US person will ever have. For while most folk born in the US learn (from people) and develop a mindset that resists racist values, they also live in a systemic culture that invites them to maintain and practice these same values.

I use the term White culture for this systemic culture that has all folk, White, People of Color (POC), and American Indians, taking problematic stances that support systemic racism (while hating it). Some may use the term American culture, but this does not work for me for two reasons. One, the systemic culture I speak of benefits White people, not American people, and White culture speaks to this privilege, up front. Second, this systemic culture is not American but US. This distinction matters for it calls people to soil based honesty.

For example, when Columbus Day rolls around each year it has become acceptable to say Christopher Columbus did not land in America. What folk really mean is he did not land in the landscape now known as the United States. However, he did land on South and Central American soil. It takes a mindset of US exceptionalism to think an arbitrary boundary between the US and Mexico is continental separation. Taking exceptionalism off the table recognizes the soil of the Americas intimately ties all American landscapes together, so, sure enough Columbus landed in America(s). Therefore, I argue that rather than using language like “American culture” to describe a US system of White privilege, we are better off using the term “White culture.”

Thinking in this way is helpful for it not only recognizes there is an arbitrary culture in the US that benefits White folk, but that the supporters of this culture are both White and non-White folk. To acknowledge such is very hard, for acknowledgement admits all US people (White and non-White) live out at least two cultures: the culture of heritage and White culture.

An article that came my way after last weeks End Government Days of False Honor and Reclaim Soil’s Family entry gives an example or two of White Culture normalization in the mindset(s) of US folk.

On the 13th, Crosscut.com ran Jennifer Karami’s article Local indigenous peoples gather to reconcile history on Columbus Day. Her article opens with, “the Seattle City Council…unanimously pass[ed] a resolution acknowledging the city’s role in the deep psychological damage inflicted on Native Americans, particularly in relation to United States Boarding School Policy.” It goes on to note an American Indian storyteller observing the resolution as, “more than symbolic…The myth that’s been told for 500 years in America is not true.” He nails it on the myth, but the resolution is purely symbolic. As Karami notes, “The city’s resolution doesn’t require the city to provide funds or act in any tangible way.” A resolution for American Indian justice that does not include monies (or action) to engage systemic change does little more than allow the City of Seattle to look good while it goes on oppressing American Indians.

The normative White culture continues as Karami tells the story of an American Indian woman whose father grew up in boarding school system. She recognizes the evil of her “identity [being] stolen because of” the boarding of her father. However, White culture is voiced when she says, “I think the next step would be having indigenous people work with their elders on identity development, really pushing policies for people to be able to access their culture, and be able to access indigenous forms of knowledge that they’ve been deprived of in the school system.” In a general context, she is right on. Elders and non-elders should be in close conversation to know, enhance, and retain identity. In the context of the Seattle City Council resolution though (let us just acknowledge for a moment her words might have been taken out of context…), she lets the city and its White power structure off the hook by placing the responsibility of change on indigenous people.

Accepting White culture as a systemic reality, of which we are all educated into, makes the racism conversation harder but maybe a little clearer. Harder because it speaks to how each of us supports this existing racist system we live within, even when we are resisting it, even when we are working to change it, even when it is hurting us. Perhaps it is a little clearer, for when we know systemic racism is complicated and aspects of it are normalized in our mindset(s), we better understand our and our neighbors resistance to change.

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