Saturday, July 31, 2010

What “White Culture” means to black-white families

If you have the right "friends," there's no place like Facebook for being exposed to new ideas, new blogs and new writers who have fresh and interesting takes on some of the concepts that we, here in the trenches of race relations, deal with on a daily basis. That was the case for me today, when I signed in to FB and saw a note from one of my cyber-friends in an interracial relationship, directing us all to a blog at Psychology The post, by Mikhail Lyubanksy is entitled "Going Where Glenn Beck Wouldn't: Defining White Culture" and it makes an attempt to outline the basics of what it means to be a white American. I confess, I'm not well-versed in the whole Glenn Beck controversy over this issue since Beck seems to be to go out of his way to make inflammatory, baiting and controversial remarks. Beck strikes me as theater of the absurd; I just don't pay him much mind. But the blog did an excellent job of explaining the context in which the concerns about attacks "white culture" arose—and then defining it. Check out the full post here.

I had never read Lyubansky before, but I found his observations on whiteness to be honest and accurate. While acknowledging that "black culture"—like white culture, or any other culture for that matter-- can be as different as the individuals who belong to it, he rightly states that black culture, in many ways, has become (for good or ill) synonymous with hip-hop culture. And he points out that cultural assimilation seems to be accepted more readily by other non-black groups—even when there are non-white physical traits. "White culture", according to Lyubansky, means three fundamental things that reach across differences in traditions, country of origin or religion. I've set them out below with my embellishments in parentheses:

1. distinction from Black culture, (defining "others" is part and parcel of whiteness);

2. avoidance of self-racialization, (in other words, "he's black, she's Asian, and he's Latino—but I'm just a person") and

3. privilege (which I define simply as getting the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to having to prove oneself NOT to be a stereotype).

I think these are excellent starting points for multi-racial families to explore the realities of whiteness. For the white members of the household, acknowledging the existence of a "white culture"—and a white culture that defines who is not white, while accepting the benefits and privileges of not having to define itself-- it is an important tool in dismantling the kinds of closed-minded, blind and unrealistic racial expectations that some white people engage it. Discussing both "whiteness" and "blackness"—and their perceived advantages and disadvantages strikes me as useful enterprise for helping kids to find words and ways for reaching beyond race in their interactions in the wider world. It would also be a useful place for explaining some of the different reactions and experiences they might have as they leave the safety of their multi-cultural worlds and begin to relate to people who identify with a certain cultural set of beliefs.

In other words, I think it's just as important to have a vocabulary about what it means to be white, as it is to have a vocabulary about what it means to be black. To ignore whiteness—to fail to break it down to some common definition is to do exactly what Mikhail Lyubansky challenges in this piece: it would elevate whiteness as being something that needs no explanation. It makes whiteness the standard, and everything else "other".

We need to think as much about whiteness as blackness, to explain it and understand it. Talking about it minimizes it, takes away its power. In discussing white culture openly and honestly, I believe we can get closer to the place where neither black nor white are necessary concepts for identifying or explaining people.


  1. Karyn--This is an excellent post. You have hit the nail on the head when it comes to talking about whiteness. Privilege is a concept that is extremely hard for many of my white and/or upper middle class students in the classes I teach to understand. White students always tend to think of themselves as individuals and not as a member of a group. By remaining invisible, whiteness remains the unmarked standard by which all other races are judged. Often, my students fail to understand that talking about whiteness means that you are also inherently talking about blackness. Things in our society are defined in relationship to what they are not.Talking about whiteness can difficult but also important, especially when it comes to the complexities of privilege and race. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.--Afua

    P.S.--New blog post at

  2. Thanks, Afua! Whiteness and blackness (or whitness and NON-whiteness) are two sides of the same coin-- absolutely inseparable! And confronting privilege is a very painful and courageous thing to do: not everyone is willing to acknowledge it, especially those who feel that they aren't "benefitting" in any way. There's an interesting discussion going on my Facebook page over this post. Are we friends? I'm "Karyn Folan": send me a request if we're not friends already.

    Gonna check out your new blog post right now :-)

  3. Greetings Karen. This is a great post and is exactly the point I was trying to make in a discussion that you and I had on The Lamont Carey Show (BlogTalkRadio) a few months ago with regard to white privilege and its impact on interracial relationships whether they be romantic or not. At the end of the day, even though all men are created equal. it is the perception of others that, so far any way, determines the actualization of equality in this country.

  4. @Integraltalk-- I remember. And I would say (as I think I did when we talked back then) that there are a couple of levels: outside the family and inside. Outside the family unit, there most definitely are perceptioins that rank some individual members as "more" than others-- or who receive different treatment because of their racial status. Inside the family, however, it has been my experience that those dynamics don't operate. Inter-racial family members see each other so much, they stop seeing color at all-- and in the process disentangle some of these notions of privilege. That's why it's so important to discuss these things in the home, because when we leave our environment of equality, we're "reminded" by society of the way some people still see color and privilege.

    In my family, I think it just makes us more committed to helping bring about social change. I hope my girls will feel that way about it as they grow older, too.

  5. Interesting...white culture being identified by its inherent need for no identity. What troubles me is the visualization of black culture being synonymous with hip hop. Hip hop has become the modern day minstrel show, except the black paint doesn't rub off. If that's what black identity has been reduced to, then it's time to turn in my race card.

  6. this has a significance that shouldn't just be "limited" to black-white families - especially this part:

    "a white culture that defines who is not white, while accepting the benefits and privileges of not having to define itself"

    it brings to mind the "justice" system where the onus is not to prove innocence but to defend against charges of guiltiness. it sounds like the same thing (or close enough to it to not make a difference) but there's a hairline fracture of a difference. anyway, i'm going on and on - that shows i was inspired.

  7. @contrabandmarriage-- welcome! I'm glad you were inspired!