Last Sunday, sitting on the steps next to my container garden outside my Long Beach apartment, I heard a group of people singing in the next building. I thought of the seder I’d had a couple of nights before; my friends and I had sung the Ma Nishtana, which I only learned a few years ago and forget every year. Only two of the guests remembered the melody at first, but it only took a line or two for it to come back to the rest of us. I wondered if the neighbors could hear us. I’ve never had an anti-Semitic incident in this neighborhood, so I thought it’d be kind of cool if on the other side of our open windows, people were listening to us sing.
I watched families walking in and out of apartments, carrying children, greeting relatives. I smiled as I listened to the singing. Then I realized it wasn’t a hymn or some other Easter song – they were all singing a pop song. Blink 182 or something.
Oh. Well, it was still nice to hear singing. Yellow jackets buzzed around my bacopas. My bean seedlings were just starting to twine around the railing, and my lavender was blooming like the world was going to end.
According to the Slingshot Collective, “the modern world is the ugliest, saddest, dirtiest, and most stressful and dangerous place humans have ever created.” I don’t know if it’s the ugliest, the saddest, or the est of any of those other things, but many parts of it certainly are ugly and sad. I was thinking about that quote, along with various discussions I’ve witnessed about the “lack” of white American culture – whiteness as negative space – and white Americans’ need to appropriate more exotic cultures, when I tested a theory out on my husband: that the United States has one of the shallowest national cultures on the planet. Even as I said it, I knew that it was reductive, a gross exaggeration. I knew the situation isn’t even historically or globally anomalous. But it was the only way I could articulate my thoughts on white kids with kanji tattoos, white kids faking accents at renaissance fairs, white kids fetishizing dream catchers and kokopellis. I thought, for example, of the history lessons I remember from elementary school: the (heavily romanticized) Native Americans, the pilgrims, the colonists, the Founding Fathers. Even then, I think I had a vague awareness that none of my ancestors were involved in any of that. Most branches of my family didn’t arrive until the 1920s. But we didn’t study that in school. The closest we got was lessons like this one: a video about a young Middle Eastern girl who, required to make a pilgrim doll for a Thanksgiving diorama, fashions a tiny headscarf. Get it? Her family made a pilgrimage to America, too. In a way, the video winked, aren’t we all pilgrims to this very holy place?
I was thinking, also, of the graduation ceremony at Henry Ford’s Ford English School in the early 1900s, in which immigrants, dressed in culturally specific clothes, walked into a huge pot and emerged wearing business suits and waving American flags. Becoming American, according to white popular mythology, necessitates shedding and forgetting. Becoming American is learning to enact an identity that has no source. Ethnic groups have been forced to do it because of discrimination and violence (including Jews, despite the anti-Semitic myth that we sneakily worked the system to satisfy our raging hunger for wealth), but of course there was a carrot along with the stick. How many of us have had relatives with a strong distaste for all that “old” stuff? The stuff associated with poverty and coarseness and humiliation?
My point is that so many of us spend our childhoods learning about someone else’s history, someone else’s identity. I’m sure there were descendants of the original colonists in my classroom – good for them. But the rest of us learned not that our own histories didn’t matter, but that our histories didn’t even exist. The story of the nation-state in which we happened to live trumped the stories of us, its peoples.
Okay, this is old news. But there’s a connection between the distortions we’re fed by nationalism and white people’s longing for something more authentic – a genuine longing which so often expresses itself in careless appropriation, even obsession. In college, I dated a textbook Japanophile – anime, manga, language classes, exchange programs, the works. There were long stretches of time when he refused to speak English. His family’s house was filled with Japanese and Chinese brush paintings and books on pop Taoism (The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Physics, The Tao of Meow). He claimed he’d been a Samurai in a past life. He also claimed that he didn’t care what he did for a living – even a convenience store clerk would be fine – as long as it was in Japan. (The classism of such a claim was lost on me at the time.) Eventually, he did indeed move to Japan and marry a Japanese woman; I can only hope (and doubt) he sees her as a full human being.
That was an extreme case, but it was an example of something that all of us, to a certain extent, were doing. Even if you learn to look for culture outside of racist appropriation and consumerism, it’s hard not to feel the pull towards the exotic. But why is “exotic” so often seen as synonymous with “authentic?”
Last week, my mother made reservations for Easter brunch at a fancy restaurant in Anaheim. That’s what you do on Easter in Orange County: you put on your heels and go eat prime rib. Or you go to the gospel show at Downtown Disney. Or you attend a televised mass at the Crystal Cathedral.
I spent eighteen years of my life waiting to escape Orange County. I’ll be frank: when Slingshot talks about the ugliness of the modern world, they’re partly talking about places like Yorba Linda, Anaheim, and Irvine (in addition, of course, to places more ravaged by globalization). Strip malls and fast food. Neighborhoods in which you can’t name a single neighbor. Boulevards without sidewalks, roads as wide as rivers, more gated communities than accessible parks. You do not sing: you are sung to. You do not cook: you open a package. You do not make: you buy. White Orange County isn’t just conservative Christian; it’s hyper-conservative, hyper-evangelical, hyper-fundamentalist. If you look un-Christian in white Orange County, you walk around with the understanding that you may be stopped on the street and reprimanded. The warnings of hellfire and damnation and et cetera are so pervasive that, after a few years of them, you develop a constant, nagging doubt: What if I’m wrong? What if it’s real? What if my perception of logic and morality is useless? The rich exegesis of Christianity, all those texts and myths and symbols, is absent there; a two-thousand-year-old religion has been collapsed into scary pamphlets and anti-choice bumper stickers.
The guy I dated had grown up in the sprawl of Memphis. We exchanged stories of megachurches and militant prayer groups. Interesting, that none of the things Memphis is famous for seemed to be part of his life.
Why do white people so often reject the cultures surrounding them? Fuck, why wouldn’t they? When so many of us come from cultures so paranoid and mean?
And how do we heal ourselves?
I’ve been trying, for a long time, to reconcile my Jewish half with my Northern European half, but damn if it isn’t tough. At the restaurant I was reminded of everything I hated about where I grew up. My mom and my husband and I sat at a booth surrounded by people we’d never seen before and would probably never see again – “community” is basically a meaningless concept in places like this. I stood in line for my food with the type of people among whom I’d grown up, but with whom I’d never felt comfortable. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to dredge up any actual traditions from my NE half, aside from some very basic ones (Christmas tree in winter, Easter eggs in spring, corned beef and cabbage when Uncle Butch visited from New York). We never did anything specific to where we were living.
(“I don’t think that’s true everywhere,” my husband said. “I think it was probably really different for you in Orange County.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, and hated Orange County even more. My husband had grown up in Berkeley.)
Lately, he and I have been discussing the possibility of having a baby – not making decisions, but tossing around ideas for when it might happen. The problem, though, is that it feels almost impossible to have a child in our circumstances, considering health care, child care, income, job security, and community support. When you don’t know your neighbors, exchanging child care is basically out. When you teach community college, you never know when you’ll lose your job, and you don’t have real health insurance anyway. When you and other members of your race and class have been taught that children are nothing but expensive time-sucks – when you’ve been taught that having a child means you’ve given up on your career, and believe me, people will talk, whether they’re friends or employers – then wanting a family becomes a source of shame, something to be kept secret. Without community, having a child seems almost impossible.
I want to eat fresh, healthy food, but that’s almost impossible. I want to unyoke my writing from hierarchies and careerism, but that’s almost impossible. I want to create culture with the people around me, not by spending money but by making and cooking and singing – but mainstream culture makes it almost impossible. It seems like anything that could conceivably be good for a person is almost impossible to obtain.
And I know that there are many white American cultures, and most of them are perfectly authentic, thanks very much. But then I think of my Japanophile ex-boyfriend, the way my hometown makes my skin crawl. Gospel at Downtown Disney? Really? From the faux Tuscan villas in Newport Beach to the burbling brooks in the malls to the Matterhorn in Anaheim, everything in white Orange County is an imitation of something else.
I often wonder how extensively Orange County molded me when I was growing up. I don’t think I’d be a different person if we’d lived somewhere else – but I do think I’d be a stronger one.
In the car, my mom asked how my seder went, and then asked why my father didn’t come. “Then you’d actually have a Jew there,” she said.
Why in the world would she assume that none of the guests were Jewish? My husband and I rushed to correct her. Actually, we said, almost everyone was Jewish. My husband was the only goy (his words) there.
My mom laughed. “Well, I hate to say it,” she started, even though she was clearly loving it. And then I understood what she’d been leading up to. “Julie isn’t really Jewish,” she said. “I mean, let’s face it.”
Let’s face it. It: the truth I’d supposedly been avoiding. The secret at the core of this game I’d been playing. Actually, it’s a game she likes to play – tell me, when I’m a kid, that I’m a Jew, but then reverse herself when I get older. Give me a Jewish calendar and then ask if I’m going to shave my head. Tell me I’m Jewish because my father’s Jewish, then tell me I’m not because she’s not.
In The Colors of Jews, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz writes about the anxiety, in Jewish communities, about who counts as a “real” Jew. “The theme of Jewish authenticity or visibility resonates from every corner of the room,” she says, describing a Jewish multicultural event in New York City. “Who is Jewish enough? Who is more Jewish? Even white Reform Jews with two Jewish parents wonder about their authenticity. For Jews of color, Jews who don’t look Ashkenazi, the pressure is much greater.” At a shabbes dinner I attended a couple of weeks ago, I overheard a conversation about who makes the cut. “My mom converted,” one guy said. “I’m not the real deal.”
“Why not?” a non-Jew asked.
“You’re only a real Jew if you’re ethnically Jewish,” he explained.
Except that I, an ethnic Ashknenazi, am not “real” either, because I’m ethnic on the wrong side. I would only “really” be Jewish, I’ve been told, if I converted.
Except that if I converted (into something I already am – how exactly is that a conversion?), I suspect I still wouldn’t be Jewish enough. People would still find a way to lord it over me. Like the ex-boyfriend, for instance – he was half-Jewish himself, but on the “correct” side, and was always searching for ways to remind me that I wasn’t pure enough to do Jewishness with him. When I say “people would lord it over me,” what I mean is “people like him.” Because the criteria for Jewishness switch wildly and arbitrarily, depending on who needs to be let in, who needs to be kept out. Half-Jews, secular Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, converts, Jews of color, non-Ashkenazi Jews, queer Jews, Jews who have intermarried, trans Jews, and women are just a few of the types of Jews that have excluded from various forms of Jewishness. Once we finish all the purging, who in the world is left?
I entered the discussion. “You know,” I said, “if only ethnic Jews were real Jews, then none of us would be white.” A few people laughed appreciatively. I felt proud.
(In another Kaye/Kantrowitz book, The Issue is Power: a reminder that many Ashkenazi Jews acquired European features through the rape of Jewish women, coupled with the desirability of women with prettier – ie, more European – features. Jews tend to look like the gentiles around them, in any part of the world. The law of matrilineal descent is based on very dubious readings of ambiguous Torah verses. What’s the real rationale behind it?)
My mother is a good person, but even good people screw up. The point of her comment, whether she realized it or not, was to hurt, invalidate, and control. No matter what my response was, she would win. If I told her she shouldn’t have said it, then I would be defensive, oversensitive. If I was defiant or brushed it off, I would be delusional. Either way, she knew how to play into one of my deepest fears: that my identification with my Yiddish side really is a game, as false as the kids with kanji tattoos.
Why do I fear this? Because a) I’ve been trained to dismiss all “marked” aspects of my family, melting pot style; b) if you pass for plain white Christian, then plain white Christian is the correct, most natural identity for you, and anything else cannot possibly feel natural; and c) growing up, I learned that everything is an imitation of something else, and no matter how much white Americans imitate other things, they will always be, at their core, unmarked white Americans.
Even if they’re something else.
I kind of wanted some prime rib, but by the time I got to the heat lamp with the hunk of meat under it, I’d already loaded my plate with cheaper foods. “That’s how they get you,” my mom said. The phrase is something I’ll no doubt repeat to my kids. An American idiom. Part of the reason, I think, why I connect with my Jewish side and not my NE side is that no one in my mom’s family knows much about their ancestry, save for names and dates. (I also think part of the reason my mom doesn’t like my Jewishness is because of the divorce, but that’s another issue.) And yet – one thing my mom remembers from her childhood is an aunt who would say “go to bed” in Swedish whenever my mom walked into the room. After decades, the phrase had decayed into “galignu.” I met a Swedish guy in Europe and told him about it; the sounds had strayed so far from the actual Swedish that he had to start with the English and translate it back before he could figure out what words it actually consisted of. Spelled phonetically, it’s something like “Go-ach-leg-deh-nu.” But I’m sure it’s already decaying again.
A few days ago, appalled that my Yiddish class spent eight weeks on the alef-beys (we only meet once a week – but hey, we got some vocab, too), my dad taught me how to count in Yiddish. “Eyn, tsvey, dray, fir, finf, zeks, zibn, akht, nayn, tsen,” he said, then sat back, a little surprised. “I haven’t said that out loud in fifty years.”
His tsvey rhymed with dray. My father speaks the Poylish dialect, although he didn’t know it.
I’ll tell my kids the “galignu” story. And I like that I was able to add a chapter to it.
Writing this essay, it struck me that even bemoaning white Americans’ sense of exceptionalism was, in a way, reinforcing white American exceptionalism – as in, white Americans are the only ones who think we’re exceptional. That realization was followed by an even more disconcerting one – that those of us who rebel against the mainstream cultures in which we grew up most likely have a hand in creating them. If a large part of white America’s mythology revolves around individuality (SWPL‘s tagline “the unique taste of millions” comes to mind), then searching for “authentic” identities is just playing into the system. And to do so, we need an unmarked state against which we can mark ourselves. But now I’m just playing into those fears of inauthenticity again. Even after rejecting the melting pot mentality, I feel like I have no right to my own family history.
While I was sitting on the steps next to my garden, a family arrived at an apartment next door with a toddler. I watched her navigate the steps. She grabbed a rosemary branch to steady herself, and then paused to remark on the event of a kitty going bye-bye.
I’m excited about having a child, whenever it happens. I think about teachable moments. “This is rosemary,” I’ll say. “This is called the shamash – I didn’t learn that word until after college, but you get to learn it now. Here’s how you dye an Easter egg. Look, this is called yeast – smell it, it smells like bread. See those stringy things in the dough? That’s the gluten. We’re going to a march – do you remember what a march is? Yup, it’s about justice.”
Indeed. Really, at the core, it’s all about justice. I can’t go to a march and then celebrate holidays by buying things. That’s not justice – not for all the people these systems oppress, not for all the people whose histories are erased. But sometimes working for justice is like to trying to push the ocean away from the beach. Everyone around you, it seems, is pushing back. It gets so tiring. Same with making culture – in that same passage in The Colors of Jews, Korean-Ashkenazi rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (half Jewish on the wrong side, like me, but with the added weight of being a woman of color) says that “in response to Jews who denied her Jewishness, [I] once cried to [my] mother, ‘I want to stop being Jewish.'” Damn, did that hit home. Sometimes you get so exhausted you just want to quit. Put away the Yiddish worksheets, order take-out, and watch TV. Turn half of yourself off and just keep passing. After all, passing enables passivity, and passivity demands passing.
It’s about justice. But then you eat Easter brunch in Orange County and listen to people tell you what a fake you are. You want a child but your culture forbids it. Doing good things feels like pushing against the ocean. You just get so tired.
(Cross-posted at Modern Mitzvot.)
Are you sure this was a Middle Eastern girl? Because this sounds exactly like the plot of Molly’s Pilgrim, which was about a young Russian-Jewish girl. (The original book took place in the early 1900s, but the movie was set in the late 1980s.) We had to watch that at Hebrew school, many times.
Ohhh. Maybe. I remembered her as being Middle Eastern, but it might be the same video. (And interesting that I would have completely forgotten that she was Jewish.)
I don’t have anything constructive to add right now; I just wanted to say that this is a really incredible post. Thank you for writing it.
Also: like Ruchama, I remember the book that movie was based on, or anyway a book with the exact same plot (Molly’s Pilgrim). (I didn’t know there was a movie, but I remember reading the book in school.) I recall the girl being Jewish, too.
Well, the girl in the video did have pretty dark coloring, and the doll she made did have a scarf, but it was a Russian-style babushka sort of scarf. (There was some packaged curriculum for Hebrew schools that had videos with discussion questions for afterwards, and nobody at our Hebrew school ever bothered to keep track of which classes had seen which videos, so we ended up doing the Molly’s Pilgrim unit at least three times.)
Like Daisy, I don’t have much to add, but wow. What a great, heartfelt post.
Yes, I forgot to say that in my other comments — fabulous, thoughtful post.
I didn’t really encounter the phenomenon of white people without culture until I went to college. White people in East Texas definitely had a culture, one that mixed the tropes of both Texanness and Southernness. One of my dad’s good friends, who is white and belongs to a family that had lived in this town for generations, loves to tell the story about the first time he brought his fiancee home to meet his parents. His mom pulled him aside and said, “You didn’t tell us she’s a Yankee!” When this story gets told, his wife’s smile is thin; I don’t think she got along with Mama H.
My high school classmates were named for Robert E. Lee and would take a day off school for the beginning of deer season; the ones who were well-off did things like attending the North-South debutante ball; the ones who weren’t as well-off might be missing a joint on a finger from getting stepped on by a cow. It was not a place where I fit in well (we weren’t Baptist, my dad hadn’t gone to A&M or UT, we didn’t own guns, we weren’t allowed to date), but it definitely was a “real” place with history, traditions, accent, aesthetic, etc. In history class we could visit Caddo burial mounds; the Stone Fort where some guys tried to start the Texas Revolution too soon and all got killed for their troubles; the cemetery where some of the more minor heroes of the successful Revolution were buried; go down to Houston to see where Santa Ana surrendered.
When I went to college, though, I met white people who had no particular culture. They were vaguely Christian or Jewish but didn’t go to religious services twice a week (Sunday morning and Wednesday evening); their accents sounded like those of people on TV (they teased me about saying “y’all”); some of their fathers had been in the military or foreign service so they’d lived all over with no great attachment to any particular place. This all seemed kind of attractive to me. None of my friends were poseurs or exoticizers; they dwelt pretty contentedly in the mainstream of America. Perhaps because they were disproportionately interested in American history, they didn’t feel the lack of culture so much; there’s that old time civic religion of patriotism, comfortable belief in America’s essential righteousness and progress, to fill in the holes.
I didn’t really confront the culturelessness of some white people as a problem until I was getting married and my husband was … angsty? … about feeling overwhelmed by my family and culture in the process. I couldn’t figure out how to deal with this because I was happy to incorporate his culture as well. I’d gone to an interracial wedding where this seemed to work out fine; a Jain ceremony in the morning, a Baptist ceremony in the afternoon. But his family isn’t religious — I don’t think he’s even been baptized — and he didn’t have a specific tradition he wanted to draw upon. He half-jokingly asked if we could have a Shinto ceremony (he’s a bit of a Japanophile, although probably more informedly so than Julie’s ex), and I pointed out that he would be the only person in attendance for whom it might have any meaning, and even then the meaning would be dubious since he didn’t actually subscribe to that religion. We ended up having the second ceremony be a non-religious one officiated by a friend who’s a judge, with vows we had written (based off the template offered in British Columbia for same-sex domestic partners ;-).
Anyway, I wonder if it’s actually the increased presence of diverse peoples in the U.S. that has made cultureless white people feel self-conscious about it. There was a bit of that already in the 20th century, when adventurous white folks would go to Harlem to find some “soul,” but I think the influx of immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America has exacerbated awareness that hey, some folks seem to have a really encompassing culture, and we don’t!
I still haven’t gotten over my sense that this culturelessness has its benefits, though. Isn’t it nice to have the wedding ceremony you want instead of one mumbled in a dead language and taking three hours? Isn’t it nice that all your grandparents speak English and can drive themselves? Isn’t it nice that no one expects you to have an allegiance to any place except where you live? I feel like that blank slate leaves more space to write yourself without any lines already set down for you.
Beautiful, thoughtful, powerful post.
Thanks, all. :)
I agree with you here. For example, I and others really hate the anonymity of suburbia – yet I take the privacy it gives me for granted.
I used to think that my whiteish mishmash American heritage meant I had no authentic culture when compared to some other people. Then I had the revelation – I wouldn’t stand for letting other people tell me my gender identity wasn’t authentic, or that I wasn’t an authentic artist because of x, y, or z, or that I wasn’t an authentic resident of the town or state I lived in because I wasn’t born there, and so forth, and so on – and I said “My culture is as authentic as anyone else’s and being American means I get to add or subtract whatever I want, and it’s still as authentic as when I started, and SO THERE.” Do you like it? Does it make you happy? Is it done with respect and care? Authentic! American!
I feel like that blank slate leaves more space to write yourself without any lines already set down for you.
But there are lines set down for you — “cultureless” white Americans do have a culture, it’s just a culture that a lot of people (white Americans) find to be shallow and meaningless. But it’s still a culture, and it’s just as confining as any other.
This supposed non-culture has behavioral norms, patterns of speech, values and ideas, customs and conventions, (commercialized) holidays and (processed) food… It feels like a non-culture because it totally fails to do most the things cultures are supposed to do for people (provide a sense of place and meaning, a sense of connectedness to past and future, useful rituals for dealing with major events, etc.), but it’s still a culture. How else can we explain the numerous cultural differences between, say, my family (Jews, recent immigrants) and my girlfriend’s family (nonreligious American WASPs)? Her family is not a blank slate. Speaking quietly is not neutral; generally avoiding debate and confrontation is not neutral; meat and potatoes are not neutral; Thanksgiving is not neutral; secular Christmas is not neutral. Even though they might think they don’t, they have a culture.
I wish I had soething insightful to say.
Good point — I was speaking of culturelessness in the sense that being white is racelessness; i.e. is unmarked and the default. I suppose I feel like some of what you describe as whiteness is expected of all middle class Americans, though. My family also celebrates Thanksgiving and secular Christmas, and generally speaks quietly (though some of us have more trouble with this than others, and those who have trouble with it tend to be those who don’t avoid debate and confrontation :-P). And my husband’s family doesn’t avoid debate and confrontation; I’ve been having a running Facebook argument with my brother-in-law about whether corporations’ being forced out of their tax shelters will lead to layoffs that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. (I hadn’t been reading about the effect of EPS and shareholder activism on forced CEO departures since I left school, so it was good to catch up on the research.)
The lack of useful rituals is a really good point. Someone wrote a book recently about “traditionalesque” weddings, with invented traditions to fill the place of family rituals the couple doesn’t really have.
First – very interesting post. I have to say that from what I saw in my vast experience of two weeks in Japan I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that guy’s wife being any different from any of the other Japanese wives. Forget Christianity or the U.S. – if you want to experience a patriarchial society, go to Japan.
So – do people in America seek out aspects of other cultures because they have none of their own? Or is it just that they do so because they can? Because so many people from so many different cultures have come here that you can experience, not just read or listen or see on TV, other cultures by in some cases literally walking across the street?
My wife’s relatives are Polish Catholics. I’ve learned how to make Polish sausage to the great delight of the family, who were used to eating homemade sausage when my wife’s grandfather was alive but hadn’t done so for 20 years since he had died. I learned how because I liked it and because the local store put too much fat in what they made. “It tastes just like Grandpa made!” – no food critic has ever offered higher praise. So am I appropriating someone else’s culture to make up for a lack of my own? Or am I doing it because I like Polish sausage and because it delights my wife’s family?
I think the perspective in here is influenced in part by where you were brought up. I’ll guess that places like Orange County are sucked dry of culture because of the homogenization and transience of the people there; Frank Zappa wrote more than one song about it. Come to Chicago and drive around the city. Plenty of people of all kinds of nationalities and cultures live and celebrate their cultures, even while pursuing the American dream full force.
And there are (as pointed out by PG) quite vibrant cultures outside the urban areas as well in the US. I was brought up in what was then semi-rural but not really suburban New England in the 50’s and 60’s and there was a very specific culture there. In fact, I had a lot of problems adjusting to even the way people spoke when I moved to the Chicago area. When my daughter moved from here to New England she also noted a very specfic culture and had to adjust to the way people spoke.
There are places in the U.S. that seem to be cultural deserts. I’m betting that they are mostly in suburbia, the most homogenized and transient parts of the country. And people’s attitudes towards that surprises me.
The Chicago Tribune once did a survey of people who live in the Chicago suburbs. It turned out that even though they live right next to one of the world’s biggest and most famous cities with just enormous cultural amenities, few of them (not counting commuting trips) actually go into the city to check out the neighborhoods, restaurants, museums, beaches, art, etc., etc. Inconvenience, expense, and the fear of underprivileged youth divesting them of their material possessions seemed to be the big issues. Of course, to the suburban mind “inconvenience” means that they couldn’t expect to drive from their front door to the front door of wherever they wanted to go and park for free. Having to walk more than 50 feet from your car to get where you want to go seems to be an issue. The concept that NOT having a car actually could be more free is not an easy one to sell in suburbia. Some seemed proud that they never went into the city.
I think your post regarding your upbringing and living in such an area is quite valid and worth reading. But I’d be careful to extend it so broadly to characterize all Americans of a given race.
This was a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you for making me re-appreciate how much my family and my education have given me.
“Forget Christianity or the U.S. – if you want to experience a patriarchial society, go to Japan.”
Forget the “patriarchial” elements of American society when you can conveniently place the blame on those nasty Asian men and their passive Asian women!
This is an interesting narrative by Julie. It doesn’t take the myth of white culturelessness at face value, which I like.
However, I think it skips over one important problem. How does white “culturelessness” differ from any kind of specifically urban and suburban alienation? White people are not the only people in the world who can feel rootless and adrift. Whenever and wherever the extended family breaks down, and people lose their roots in the land or the tribe, you’re going to get this kind of alienation. I don’t think it’s really that different from, say, a Burmese family split apart and living in a refuge camp in Thailand, or a migrant worker from Africa living in Spain, and on and on… these people, and white suburban northeastern Americans, have vastly different levels of privilege, but they share the experience of alienation and rootlessness.
White culturelessness is a fiction… and it also obscures the psychological complexity of what people of color experience.
Are you actually disputing that Japan is a more patriarchal society than that of the U.S., or did you mistake RonF’s use of the phrase “Forget X…” (normally used to mean “this is way more so than what you’re talking about,” as in “Forget the Paris Metro, the New York subway is much grosser”) as meaning that he literally wants you to forget about the problem of patriarchy in American society?
@PG: I really don’t care. Either way, it’s a cheap shot at Japan, and fuel for bigotry.
I have never felt that I lacked a culture. I have never felt like I didn’t belong where I do. I live 30 miles from where I was born. I live 20 from where my parents live and where my sister lives. I have three aunts and they all live within 15 miles of me. I know my neighbors. I know my parents’ neighbors!
My father’s side of the family has been in the state where I live for generations. They were politicians and farmers and lawyers and they had important roles in the history of where I live. They were all in here by the mid 1800’s. That side of the family has been in North American since the early 1600’s with one branch coming from Quebec and the other landing in Massachusetts shortly after the Mayflower. I have a common ancestor from that branch with George W. Bush although it is so far back on the old family tree that I feel ok about it ;)
My mother’s side is pure immigrant and retains a lot of the culture from “the old country” which is Russia near Poland or Poland near Russia depending on who you ask. Although both of my grandparents on that side were born in the USA, they were each raised in families where the only language spoken at home was Russian in an eastern Pennsylvania community were half of the people were also Russian speaking. My great grandparents on that side *never* learned to speak English which is something I think about whenever someone starts spouting off about how immigrants who refuse to learn the language can never *really* be Americans. That side of the family is full of non main stream culture. Russians are different: Something I’ll be thinking of this Sunday when I sit down to Easter dinner with all kinds of traditional Russian food. We’ll have kielbasa that probably tastes something like the stuff RonF makes (and if you make your kielbasa the right way, you are a frigging GEM to your family…not that you wouldnt be otherwise but seriously, good kielbasa is hard to find. ). And I have to say, although I am not religious myself, there is NOTHING like a Russian Orthodox church ceremony.
So I don’t really understand the feeling of being adrift without a culture to hang on to.
Very interesting post and discussion.
What disturbs me about it (as a trained anthropologist), though, is the apparently unexamined idea by most that culture can somehow be “shallow” or not exist. Who determines what is “depth” in a culture? Who determines what is or is not culture?
For me, personally, also, I have found that white American culture (at least, mine – I firmly believe that there isn’t just one) is predicated on flexibility. If you don’t have ceremonies to mark important events, you make them up, or you use bits and pieces of an old version of it plus whatever you decide to use to fill in the gaps to create the whole picture. If you don’t feel any connection to the past, you go looking for it, “authenticity” be damned. Of course, this means that we get some pretty bastardized (wish I could think a word without such negative connotations!) versions of things, but those versions are authentically white American.
I guess part of the problem I have with this idea of culture possibly being without depth is that all culture is shallow to some extent. There is a curious idea that seems to be underlying all of this discussion that there are cultures that are already formed and unchanging, and that somehow those cultures are the “authentic”, meaningful ones. But every culture is in constant flux, pushed and pulled like a lump of dough being worked by a million hands. We may hold tightly to things like counting in our ancestor’s language (I do it too – the Swedish phrase is “Gå och leg dig nu” (literally “Go and lay yourself now”) which I know because I cling to the parts of my Swedish heritage that I’ve been able to preserve and dig up) but that doesn’t mean we are hanging on to an authentic version of that culture and it doesn’t invalidate that as part of our own culture either.
Finally, it is easy to see one’s own culture as lacking because we are so used to it; we usually notice difference, rarely sameness. That’s why anthropologists traveled the world looking for culture but only recently started looking in our own lives for it, because for a long time anthropologists didn’t think there was any other way to be than the way they were and so we were blind to the ways in which we were different from the people we were studying. Just like it’s a lot easier to point fingers at other people when looking for someone to blame, it’s a lot easier to grasp for another person’s culture when looking for culture of some kind.
But when, for instance, someone like RonF says that American suburbs have no culture, he’s perhaps only revealing the culture that he is most comfortable in (even if he rejects it now). The culture is that dependence on cars; it is the expectation of a particular version of convenience; it is that fear of the city and that pride at rarely or never entering it. It may not be fulfilling for you and me but I would feel just as out-of-place in a national culture that I didn’t identify with as I feel in suburbia. It doesn’t mean there is no culture; it just means we’re not comfortable in it.
Daisy and Ron said some of what I was going to say about culture in white America. Living in Arizona, it’s interesting to contrast Phoenix and Tucson. Phoenix is modern and new and homogenous, seemingly sprung from nowhere overnight. Tucson is old, founded before the United States was even a country, on a site that has been settled for thousands of years. And it has a distinct border culture that blends Anglo and Mexican and native elements. The rocks on the mountains around here are dotted with petroglyphs. Christmas is red chile tamales and green corn tamales and the Three Kings. There is a massive Day of the Dead procession here that blends modern American DIY participatory street theater and old Mexican and Catholic traditions. There are a lot of families that have been here many, many generations. There’s also that weird “your great-great-grandfather massacred my great-great-grandfather and I know that and you know that but we have to live with each other now” kind of dynamic.
But I do think that a lot of white, middle-class culture is very … I am really searching for a word here … particular, perhaps. There are symbols and rituals within one subculture (SWLP vs. megachurch/shopping mall) that don’t extend to another, or within one generation that don’t extend to another. I often feel that my husband and I and our friends and our siblings have a different culture that we share together but don’t share with any of our parents. I don’t know if anyone gets what I mean there. I’m not sure I’m articulating it very well.
I think that’s part of what drives this searching or reaching for other cultural expressions. The desire to see yourself as part of something that has existed for a long time, the desire to be part of moving it forward into the next generation. My father is Jewish. My mother converted, but is not ethnically Jewish. I grew up secular, strongly culturally identified, but more of a theoretical Jew than a practical Jew. My father’s mother hates to cook. I learned most of my Jewish recipes off the Internet. I feel somewhat suspended in space. It’s “tradition” but it’s not passed directly from parent to child, but packaged and available for anyone with an Internet connection. On the one hand, it’s easier, especially because of where I live and the types of resources available to me. If I had to search out somebody to teach me these things, I don’t know if I would have learned them by now. But if I had to search out somebody, well, I’d know somebody. I’d be connected to that tradition through another person.
I think PG’s perspective is an important one, in part because I suspect many, many immigrants and their children have shared it, and it’s one reason we have the sort of American culture that we do. Culture can be binding and oppressive. There is something to be said for writing your own life on a blank slate. Those of us who are reaching back, trying to find a foundation for our identities, are doing it from a position of freedom, to take what works for us and discard what doesn’t. That’s why we’ll never be truly “authentic.” But I’d rather be inauthentic than live in the shtetl. Or as my great-grandmother said when her son, my grandfather, took a civilian job with the Army that took him to Germany, “Why do you want to go there? We’ve been there! Here is better!” (And yes, that should be read with a Yiddish-inflected New York accent.)
It would be easier not to bother, and yet I keep bothering. Sometimes I feel like it will never be enough, and yet I keep bothering. And it is my son who makes me feel a little less suspended, a little more connected. I know when I go home tonight, my son is going to be excited about lighting the candles and saying kiddush and eating challah. He’s going to be excited because it’s Shabbat. There’s nothing inauthentic about that. It’s been part of the rhythm of his life for as long as he can remember. It still startles me sometimes how good that feels to me.
Yes, amazingly, I wrote that opus and I still have more to say. This will be shorter.
For example, I and others really hate the anonymity of suburbia – yet I take the privacy it gives me for granted.
In the Peace Corps, I lived the kind of village life where everyone is up in your business. You can’t make love with or fight with your partner without the neighbors knowing about it. Any misstep is fuel for gossip for months. I thought I would really enjoy having my privacy back when I back Stateside. Instead, I nearly had a panic attack walking down a neighborhood street. All those houses, people in every single one of them, and I had no idea who any of them where. How can people live like this? I wondered.
I actually am not sure there is a happy medium. I’m pretty sure it’s trade-offs all around, and part of culture is that you’re more comfortable, at the end of the day, with the trade-off your culture has made than with the ones other cultures have made.
My high school classmates were named for Robert E. Lee and would take a day off school for the beginning of deer season
In the part of Pennsylvania I went to high school in, the schools actually closed for the beginning of hunting season. I think it’s a rural thing, not a southern thing.
Acknowledging that sexism is more accepted in one society than another is “fuel for bigotry”?
I definitely agree that assuming a particular incident is due to someone’s having a different culture than oneself is fuel for bigotry. Heck, I recently got tossed from commenting on a feminist blog when I said that there’s no indication that the man who beheaded his wife in Buffalo had sexist views springing from his religion, whereas there was plenty of evidence that he suffered from mental illness and why were people assuming that if he was Muslim, domestic violence must be due to his religion. And when people take the attitude of “I will show these benighted foreigners the way to enlightenment,” I get annoyed too.
But it seems like a pointless relativism to pretend that there isn’t a higher level of sex discrimination in Japan than in the U.S. It’s getting to the point that even the low birthrate is blamed on sexism: because it’s so unacceptable to be a working mother, women delay having children until they’ve had at least some chance at a career.
One of my classmates loved Japan and considered it a superior society to the U.S. in many ways (he insisted that their single-payer health care couldn’t translate here because our civil servants aren’t held to as high a standard as theirs). But even he thought there was more acceptance of sexism (and racism) in Japan than in the U.S. Being a conservative, he thought sometimes people were excessively quick to see racism and sexism in the U.S., but he thought they were insufficiently alarmed about it in Japan.
Why is it inherently “fuel for bigotry” against the Japanese to say, “Hey, you should make it easier for women to participate in society, and maybe give ethnically Korean people full citizenship too?”
Because the topic was not about the role of women in Japan. And when sexism in Japan gets brought up in settings like this, it’s usually by people who don’t give a damn about women in Japan, or improving the status of women in Japan, they just want to make Americans look good. Specifically, they want to make white American men look good. So Japanese women get exploited as a rhetorical tool to prop up some white guy’s superiority complex, and the passive Asian woman stereotype gets reinforced.
I’m a Japanese-American woman… so sexism in Japan doesn’t affect me directly. I will support any real Japanese feminist analysis; I will not, however, support throwaway generalizations by amateur Orientalists. These type of generalizations do directly affect me and lead to me being stereotyped as a passive sexual object in need of rescuing by white men.
I’m not interested in derailing this thread but I can’t let something like that go unchallenged.
I see why you’re raising this, but I still think it’s a bit unfair to RonF for two reasons, and I’m stopping to note this because sometimes RonF gets a bit piled-on as the resident conservative and it’s worth noting when he doesn’t necessarily deserve it:
1) Japanese women were mentioned in the original post and RonF was responding to the Eventually, he did indeed move to Japan and marry a Japanese woman; I can only hope (and doubt) he sees her as a full human being. He didn’t derail the thread to talk about it; he had two sentences at the beginning of his comment.
2) RonF was not saying that Japanese women enjoy being treated this way or that white American men can save them from it. On the contrary, he said that Julie’s ex-boyfriend (a white American) probably treated his Japanese wife with no less of a patriarchal attitude than she would encounter from Japanese men.
You have good reason to be sensitive about this, but I don’t think misconstruing RonF’s comment as calling Asian men “nasty” really helps.
Beautiful post, Julie.
I have long wished to find a context to speak about my own pseudo-Jewishness. I’m only a quarter, and on the “wrong” side x 2. I wasn’t even told the story of the Jewish part of my family coming to the US and my grandfather converting to marry his Roman Catholic sweetheart until I was 14. Everyone just thought my funny last name was some kind of German. But when I learned about it and wanted to understand more, I felt like an imposter.
I once described it like this in a story: years ago, my Jewish ancestors sent clay tablets across the sea, so that they would find a place where no one wanted to smash them. But the tablets rocked back and forth in the waves and rubbed against each other. By the time they came to the shores of North America, they were only fragments, so precious and rare that people would take them and hide them under the bricks in the back of the fireplace or in the bottom of planters where roots held them in place. By the time it was my turn to carry the tablets, all that was left was a pebble, and the only place I could carry it was in my shoe, under my tow, where every now and then it nudges me and reminds me that it exists.
Hope that makes sense.
As a fellow Californian, I wonder if part of the feeling you are describing is a result of the history of NE immigration to this place. At least in the case of my family and the family of most of my partner’s ancestors, we came here in order to get away from things, including the cultural norms of places back east, and so it was natural that we develop a sense of disconnectedness and forgetting. I have described that aspect of my Jewish ancestors’ story as a type of inter-generational refugee mentality. In my mother’s case, it was a long process of trying to forget her experience of deep shame and guilt over being a white girl in the segregated south (and yes, that desire to forget and the idea that CA is the place to do it in is a deeply problematic idea on many levels, not trying to justify).
Just some musings. Good posts make my brain happy :)
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Maybe it’s because my mother is the Jewish one, but I’ve almost never gotten shit from Jews about being not Jewish. It’s always non-Jews, it feels like.
Although now that I say this, I can remember being rejected by a Jewish friend. I’d just been named art editor of my college Jewish paper, and she said something like, “So what? Why are YOU doing that?”
I think it was the last time I ever spoke to her, actually.
This post–which is wonderful and wonderfully written–makes me think of an essay by June Jordan that I read a long time ago (I wish I could remember which book), in which she tells about the older white woman, a student in one of Jordan’s classes, who comes to Jordan’s office to talk about I forget what. Anyway, during the meeting the white woman looks at Jordan–and I remember Jordan writing that the woman got all misty-eyed, but I am not sure if that’s accurate–and tells Jordan how lucky she is because she has a cause to fight for, a fight for justice that gives meaning to her life. (Jordan, if you don’t know her or her work, was an African-American poet and activist.) The woman’s life, on the other hand, at least in the woman’s eyes, was empty of any such meaning, and the essay says that is was clear in context that the woman felt her life to be empty of such meaning, in part at least, because she was white and therefore had nothing to fight for. I often wonder how much of the cultural appropriation/cooptation that goes on among white people–which is, in my experience, usually the co-opting of the culture(s) of people of color–is rooted guilt
Julie, this is an incredible post. You sound very resilient, and the feeling I got while reading it was that you’re “finding your way home.”
chingona says: I often feel that my husband and I and our friends and our siblings have a different culture that we share together but don’t share with any of our parents. I don’t know if anyone gets what I mean there. I’m not sure I’m articulating it very well.
And I think that hits on something very deep. What is culture, if it isn’t something shared by people? I think that sense of anomie is that disconnect with other people. That’s what’s shallow, to answer waxghost’s question on “who determines depth?” Isn’t the function of culture to connect people? I mean, “culture” isn’t just something that exists in the background like air. It’s a collective enterprise. When it is no longer serving that purpose, it isn’t inaccurate for the people whom that “culture” does not serve (say, the way Orange County’s culture affects Julie) to state that it’s shallow. Culture is belonging. It’s not just continuity with history, it’s continuity with other people—right now.
Even after rejecting the melting pot mentality, I feel like I have no right to my own family history.
Julie…..that just breaks my heart. You always have a right to your history, no matter who or how many people try to take that away.
I don’t have anything original to offer on this.
Ahem. Seriously, though, I’m not at all religious, my household is not a place of religious practice (just as well, I’m outnumbered), but as you can probably guess, I’m not abandoning my Jewish cultural identity, unlikely as it is that my namesake for my nom de guerre would even have perceived me as Jewish—living in Boro Park, I’m very conscious of that.
I suspect that’s upbringing. I’d be surprised if my 11-year-old stepdaughter thinks of herself as Italian-American in the way I thought of myself as Jewish when I was her age (or, rather, a year or two older). I don’t know that in 20 years she’ll be signing blog comments with the names of Italian (or French or Irish) tricksters.
I suppose I feel like some of what you describe as whiteness is expected of all middle class Americans, though.
True — I think this is a result of the melting pot/assimilation thing. It bothers me.
The lack of useful rituals is a really good point. Someone wrote a book recently about “traditionalesque” weddings, with invented traditions to fill the place of family rituals the couple doesn’t really have.
Thanks for the link! That’s really interesting.
I’m with atlasien – this is an offensive statement. (And let me be clear that the guy I talked about in the post is the one with the problem, not his wife.)
All – there’s a lot to process in this thread, thank you.
This is a wonderful post, it explains a little of how I feel about being Scottish. I have Scottish ancestry, on my Californian Mother’s side, but I was also born and raised in Edinburgh. My husband is Pennsylvanian, with a Scottish name, and remembers his grandfather using words he has since learned to be Scots. Sometimes my (English) father is really patronizing about my husband owning a kilt, or about my self-identity as Scottish. Growing up in a classroom where we celebrated Burns Night, learned folk songs and sea shanties, were taught about the fishing industry and crofters, Dr Lister and Charles Rennie Mackintosh…how can I not be at least a LITTLE Scottish?
I’m finding the discussion of culture and community very interesting too. I live in a condo complex in SoCal, the culture of my neighbors is pretty different from mine and my husband’s, but we both value the little community here, people share meals and watch each others kids, there’s an Easter Egg Hunt, and a St Pattie’s Day BBQ, and a lot of the families attend the same church, so they have occasional bible study meetings in the quad. They know we’re not christian, my husband’s pentagram leg tattoo got a few stares, but they accept him as the local “alternative” guy – with the utility kilt and suggestions of adding solar panels to the roof.
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There is a way that whiteness (or Americanness, because the two get conflated) is something you have to emulate or achieve, so people you would think would be *totally* comfortable in the role of White Person have struggles with it – I’m sure there’s a lot of it for people of color, given the ongoing defense of their American identity in the face of racism that insists people of color must be foreign.
But for whites there’s the extra tension that there’s a possibility you or your history might just be fake. There’s certainly a motive for people to erase the nonwhite parts of their families if they can. Every hole in the records *could* be an inconvenient person of color who was excised by their kids or grandkids.
Worse, your family history *could* be white, and have used that privilege to get to where they are, which means you have inherited ill-gotten gains and unearned privilege.
I was raised with this Laura Ingalls Wilder family history where Swedes and Danes and Germans were unhappy at home or maybe just greedy. They heard there was beautiful EMPTY land in America, so they endured hardships to get to the land and improve it. They built farms and towns on a blank empty slate.
Except the land wasn’t empty. The Indian wars were still going on when most of my ancestors got here. So what were those immigrants thinking, that made what they did all right?
It’s a lot easier to go touristing in other people’s cultures than to explore *that*, for sure.
My mother’s side is pure immigrant and retains a lot of the culture from “the old country” which is Russia near Poland or Poland near Russia depending on who you ask.
It’s also a function of when you’re talking about. My wife’s relatives are from the area of Poland nearest Germany and there were some years when that piece of land was in Germany (or it’s predecessor states) and some years when it was in Poland.
We’ll have kielbasa that probably tastes something like the stuff RonF makes (and if you make your kielbasa the right way, you are a frigging GEM to your family…not that you wouldnt be otherwise but seriously, good kielbasa is hard to find. ).
5 lbs. pork shoulder, 90% lean, ground coarse
4 tsp. salt
2 tsp mustard seed
1 scant tsp. caraway seed
5 buds garlic, crushed
2 tsp black pepper
3 tbsp water
Tell the butcher you’re making sausage. Make sure you get casings with it that will allow you to make sausage at least 1″ in diameter – 1.25″ to 1.5″ is better. Rinse them inside and out with running water to get the salt out. Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl, by hand. Load it in a stuffer and stuff the casings. Let the sausage sit overnight, but I wouldn’t let it sit more than 24 hours without cooking it.
Boil the sausage in water for 30 minutes (or beer with a bunch of coarse onions cut up in it). Brown it over the grill or in the oven for just a few minutes, you don’t want to dry it out or cook out all the fat, it’s pretty lean already. Serve it up hot with mustard and horseradish.
1 lb. = 454 gm
1 tsp = 5 ml
1 tbsp = 15 ml
1″ = 1 inch = 2.54 cm.
My reference to “Forget Christianity …” etc. is an American colloquialism that means that one is less than another when placed in comparison to each other. As with many other expressions in various languages it’s not meant to be taken literally. There were a few things that I saw in Japan that I found shocking. Prime examples – when we were in the presence of both men and women, the men did all the talking. Even if the man present was not very good at speaking English and a woman present was a much better English speaker and we were having communications issues, she did not speak and did not assist with translation. We remarked on this in a couple of meetings, but things didn’t change. Also, our group had 2 male and 4 female leaders. During a large group session with various things going on at once, the Japanese leaders invited the other male leader and I to go to a separate room. I asked why and was told it was to take a group picture of the leaders. I had to stop them and go get our 4 female leaders to be included in the picture – the Japanese leaders hadn’t invited them. I also noted that at no point did I ever see a woman in authority over men. I could go on. Every hour of the day the status of women in Japan slammed me in the face. Women’s roles that I observed seems VERY circumscribed, and I think that my proposition that an American guy who goes to Japan looking for a woman who fits into standard Japanese cultural roles will treat her within the norms of Japanese culture is pretty reasonable.
But for whites there’s the extra tension that there’s a possibility you or your history might just be fake. There’s certainly a motive for people to erase the nonwhite parts of their families if they can. Every hole in the records *could* be an inconvenient person of color who was excised by their kids or grandkids.
My mother has told me for years that I have an Iroqois Native American in my ancestry about 4 generations ago. I was discussing this online with someone from the South and she said, “Oh, yes, I have a ‘Cherokee’ ancestor.” I asked why she put the word Cherokee in quotes. She told me that at least in the South it was not uncommon for people with blacks in their ancestry to tell people that they were in fact Native Americans. I don’t know if that’s the situation in my case – if so I’m sure my mother is not aware. Apparently in an act of anger my grandmother a number of years ago destroyed some family records, so I’m wondering if my grandmother – gone now – might have had a hand in some deceit.
I think that’s really common. It shows up as a common myth in Black families too, if you can judge by the African American Lives series.
I’m from far enough south of Minneapolis that there were white girls in my high school who had children with Black fathers that their white families claimed were half Native – and it wasn’t considered polite to challenge them. (this is in the late ’80s/early ’90s, in Northwest Iowa). I don’t know if it happens up here, since there’s so much anti-Indian racism.
La Lubu, I think you’ve answered the question a little strangely here. Yes, chingona says that s/he doesn’t feel connection with people from outside his/her generation, but s/he also admits to a connection within generation that you seem to have passed over. To me, that’s the same as looking at another culture with less Victorian-inspired sexual mores than 21st Century Americans and saying that they don’t have any culture at all because they don’t have the same ideas about sex as we do. There is connection there. It may not be what you think it should be or what it could be ideally, but it is there.
And frankly, you are playing out another aspect of white American culture when you leave gaps like that. A big part of white American culture is denying that we even have a culture, or claiming that our culture is somehow “meaningless”, “bankrupt”, etc. But value judgments about culture are what is truly meaningless; it seems to confuse the two different meanings of “culture” that we have right now – one being a value judgment associated with richness and the arts (e.g. opera, painting, etc.) and one being a basic delineation of parallel social norms.
This kind of misunderstanding or underestimating of what culture is, in my opinion, is what leads to white people being able to say that we have no culture and thus appropriating others. If we’re going to talk about the complexities of a white culture that is obsessed with impossible authenticity and other people’s cultures, we need to take a serious look at our own skewed ideas of what culture is first.
I think La Lubu’s response seems a lot less strange if you take in context of my entire comment at 21, which, obviously, she couldn’t quote in its entirety. My next sentence was: I think that’s part of what drives this searching or reaching for other cultural expressions. The desire to see yourself as part of something that has existed for a long time, the desire to be part of moving it forward into the next generation.
As the person to whom she was responding, I actually didn’t find her response strange at all.
I could be misreading her, and she can certainly speak for herself, but I’m not sure you’re reading her correctly. She doesn’t say white people have no culture or that our culture is “meaningless” or “bankrupt.” She suggests a reason we perceive our culture as “shallow” and why we find it unsatisfying. In fact, I feel like she very much is addressing the issue you raise.
I’m certainly aware, on a personal level, that suburban white middle class people have culture. Nothing makes your culture more visible to you than living and working in another one for a few years. That experience certainly made me appreciate some things I had previously taken for granted and gave me a lot of food for thought, but the mere awareness that I have culture and some sense of what ways of being and thinking constitute that culture don’t magically make it satisfying and fulfilling.
You are correct that I am connected to people right now. I am. And I would even say that I have always felt culturally Jewish in that I absorbed a distinctly Jewish secular, liberal outlook on the world from my father and in that I have always felt distinctly “not Christian,” not what the other people around me were. What I feel that I lack is, for lack of a better word, the tangible trappings of culture. No recipes passed down. No holiday traditions. And so on. Why that bothers me is a difficult question, one that gets at a lot of the issues Julie raises in her essay, but I think La Lubu is right that at least one reason is that it makes me feel disconnected. And if I look at who I’m connected to and who I’m not, I guess one of the things that bothers me is that I am very much connected to people who are like me in nearly every way – musical tastes, political outlook, education level, age, etc. – but not very connected to people are not like me in those ways.
One more thing to throw out there: There seems to be a certain agreement that appropriating other people’s culture as a way to fill what is lacking is wrong, problematic, etc. I saw Julie asking whether it’s so different to be trying to fill what is lacking within your own cultural lineage (and I’m sure there are terms in anthropology for everything I’m talking about, but I don’t know what they are, so bear with me here) when you have lost the direct link. I think she thinks it is. I think it is, too. But I’m not sure I can really articulate why, which leads to asking whether we are really “authentic” in our claiming of that cultural tradition.
I’m not sure a lot of white people look at their borrowed cultures as appropriations. I think they do it because of a genuine interest or a genuine need that isn’t filled by the culture they grew up in. Perhaps it is naive, but I remember feeling that emptiness as a teen that I had no culture. I’ve noted before here that I come from central Texas and went to a mostly Hispanic high school where whites were a minority. I was surrounded by rich Hispanic culture, from the quick switches in language for speaking to family in Spanish, to the cadence of the accents in English, to even the way the girls drew their lips with brown eyeliner before putting on their lipstick. It affected me profoundly, in ways that I probably don’t begin to understand. I was, in their terms, an honorary Mexican – I status that I still take as a term of endearment and am proud of. It hurts me that many people would see that as an appropriation of a culture I didn’t have a right to participate in (from both sides of that culture line). Isn’t diversity about accepting others – period?
To further emphasize my sense of having no culture, we had Black History Month and Cesar Chavez day – days which are to draw attention to people and events in cultures that might go unnoticed by those not bound to them. It’s a good idea, but it seems to reinforce the inequality of it all – why is it not taught everyday? So the rest of the history/art/science in class gets labelled as defacto white – perhaps justifiably. But that was everyone’s history, right or wrongly decided. We all had to know George Washington crossed the Potomac, that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address – it mattered that they were history that we needed to know in order to understand our country. Everyone had Abe and George; everyone had hamburgers, everyone had The Simpsons – what singled me out and made me special? I didn’t have tamales or Univision, chitlins and BET. When I went home, we didn’t have traditions associated with being white – they were always some other orientation like religious, or Texan. Perhaps “whiteness” has been the appropriated culture, so mainstream that to have it meant only the distasteful quirks (who wants the KKK? racism? Jim Crow laws?)
Perhaps that’s the common ground between Julie’s post and my comment – it hurts to be told you’re not enough of something to be included in a culture you love. That white emptiness, though, is real and not necessarily unjustified.
chingona, you’re right. I did misunderstand. My apologies to you and La Lubu.
No problem. And I appreciate the larger point you’re making. I think it’s an important one.
On a completely tangential note, the Swedish connection is a little funny to me because my husband’s family is Swedish (well, only on his father’s side, but 100 percent on that side). Christmas Eve dinner is smorgasbord with potatis korv, meatballs, limpa, pickled herring and hardtack, with rice pudding with lingonberries for desert. My husband is the holder of all the family recipes for his generation, but he hates the herring and so do all of his siblings. And I love it. It’s me and my father-in-law, crowded over the jar of herring with our little piles of hardtack. It might be the only thing we have in common.
waxghost, thank you.
(sorry for the late response. my computer at home bit the dust, and it will be several more days before I can get back online on a regular basis. on the upside, I’ll finally be getting broadband service—no more dial-up!)
chingona, I would really love to hear you elaborate on that disconnect with your parents that you describe more as a culture gap than a generation gap. I’m really fascinated by that description, and while I think I get the gist of it, I’d like to hear more. Both of my grandmothers are still alive; in fact, one of them just turned 90 in February. Our lives have been strikingly different in many respects, but I have always felt we share the same culture. I think sharing the same culture lessens the “generation gap” in a way I can’t quite articulate right now. Maybe an anthropologist would say that I don’t share the same culture as my grandmothers, although I think that would be a hard illusion to keep if zie saw us (me and my grandmothers) in the same room, talking to and interacting with one another.
waxghost, it’s quite possible that some of my thoughts on culture are skewed. Let me back up a bit and explain where I’m coming from. The first experience I had with this idea that a culture could be “meaningless” or “bankrupt”—-was from reading the book “God Is Red” by Vine Deloria. Then, I got online around 1998-1999 and discovered bulletin boards. And then, blogs. Really, all my experience with the culture that Julie describes in this post (or that RonF describes as fitting much of the “collar counties” of Chicago)—has been through pop culture references (film, television) and from reading online descriptions from people who lived in and/or grew up in that culture. It really struck me that all of the descriptions I read about online—especially in conversations about cultural appropriation—-that people spoke of what they felt to be an emptiness in their culture, and a longing for something to replace the lack they felt.
I’m an urban, midwestern, working-class Sicilian-American who grew up with the extended-family, two-language household (I’m not bilingual myself, except with curse words! I understand more than I can speak. Have a great accent though—-which people born and raised in Sicily mistake for fluency on my part), Catholic (both post Vatican II and Latin Masses—-not all parishes stopped doing the Latin Mass back in the day, especially those that had older parishioners, though that kinda fell off in the seventies)—-you probably get the idea. And yeah, I fit a lot of stereotypes that may come to mind. I’ve never felt that anomie that Julie speaks of. And I don’t think it’s a matter of “nyah, nyah, my culture’s better than yours.”
I think it mostly comes down to the reciprocity I feel with my culture. I feel a part of it because I feel I co-create it. I have an influence in it—I haven’t just absorbed it or passively viewed it—-I participate in it. So, while my grandmothers and I didn’t have the same experiences or upbringing, the culture evolved in such a way to encompass the generations—and I think through that unconscious, collaborative participation. We were both shaped by and shape what we would consider “our culture”, even as we are influenced by and surrounded by what we would consider the “outside” (mainstream) U.S. culture.
My views on what a culture is and what a culture is supposed to provide are this: that sense of reciprocity/community/collaboration/belonging; a vehicle for both self and community creativity/expression/imagination; answers to the “big questions” of who are we?/where did we come from?/where are we going?/what is our place in this existance/universe/life?; a sense of continuity—the culture will evolve, but still provide a connection; and a way of relating to the world—a way of knowing in understanding.
I suspect that the disconnect some people feel with what they describe as a meaningless culture, or an “empty” (whitewashed?) culture is the direct result of the myth of the melting pot and the conscious removal of cultural foundations that once lent support—-without adequate replacements. I suspect the desciption of Orange County, and what other commenters describe as the ubiquitous commericalized culture of transient, commuter suburbia—-represents an extreme of this condition. A homogenization designed to provide a temporary “home” of sorts for folks who won’t be staying—-kind of the cultural equivalent of a motel. It doesn’t surprise me that people aren’t satisfied with this.
This raised a lot of interesting questions for me. My family is close enough to the “old country” on both sides that early American history doesn’t really speak to us, but, on the other hand, all the various origins are still Northern European and with the exception of unpronounceably ethnic names now and again, we were neatly assimilated in 2 generations or less.
My father tells the story of how his mother was absolutely *mortified* that her mother-in-law would sit out on the front lawn of their suburban Massachusetts home and boil ash for soap, wearing full mourning, and curse people out in Gaelic. Ten years later they moved from the “city” and high living (electricity! a car!) out to West Bumblesticks so my grandfather could become a “gentleman farmer”- he taught at the high school, and the farm was either for subsistence after losing money in the Depression or a hobby he’d always wanted to take up, depending on which sibling you ask and how they want the family to be seen.
My father complains constantly and bitterly about his yuppie (assimilated) relatives and is now a self-styled Druid and a published poet, something he pursued in line with his Irishness, TM. And I want to say to him, look, that’s no more authentic than moving to Holyoke and being a cop would be… it’s something that I’ve been uneasy with ever since I heard of cultural appropriation in college.
At the same time, I feel like an outlier in suburbia despite rejecting both the irish-as-cultural-heritage and the french-canadian-as-cultural heritage (although I do still remember the infinite variants on bon soir that sent us up the stairs to bed when I was a child- my mother having learned French in middle school, because that’s what college track kids did.) There’s definitely something here that I feel a need to set myself apart from, but so many of the clashes I have with mainstream culture are on things that are a choice.
I think that’s what makes me uneasy- how dare I claim outlier status because I choose to eat a largely vegetarian diet and dye my hair strange colors and reject a lot of traditional gender bullshit, when there are people who can’t choose to be assimilated?
Five years ago, I had a rainbow flag tattooed on my arm to, in essence, prevent myself from “passing” completely- I was a bi, mechanically-inclined tomboy and hippie who was a stay at home mom in a “good” district, and the inside didn’t jibe with the outside one bit in ways that were making me miserable. The tattoo was meant as an irrevocable stamp to stop people from assuming I was one of them. I still struggle with the guilt at knowing that I can, and most times superficially do, pass, but at the same time I can’t bring myself to scream difference from the roof when it’s something that I could walk away from. I think that’s what drives a lot of this reaching out for vague cultural ties- I can’t stop being Irish, even if that means practically nothing to most of my family beyond an inclination to be Catholic (my sister is, I’m not) and the fact that funerals and drunkenness seem like a natural combination.
RonF and PG,
There’s a Japanese-American woman in this thread saying, quite explicitly, that RonF’s statement was offensive to Japanese women. Just apologize and move on, okay?
I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to apologize to another commenter for saying that she may have mistaken what a third party was saying, possibly through unfamiliarity with a particular turn of phrase he had used and thus taking an idiom literally when it is not normally used in a literal way. I do apologize to the extent that my doing so made atlasien feel in any way silenced or unwelcome.
If you’d prefer that I not comment on this thread, I’ll certainly abide by your wishes.