White people are pretty effed up sometimes. White people often think say things like, “White people have no culture,” and think that there is nothing racist about that statement. Macon D posted another messed up post at Stuff White People Do, quoting a White American named Shelly Tochluk who feels a “sense of loss” because she is white. Tolchuk writes:
However, many of us find ourselves looking at other groups and longing for the connection we imagine they feel with their roots, their homeland, their culture. Many white folks can be heard saying, “We don’t have culture. They have culture.”
Tolchuk is careful enough to write, “the connection we imagine they feel with their roots, their homeland, their culture,” instead of “the connection they feel with their roots, their homeland, their culture.” She also attributes in quotation marks, “We don’t have culture. They have culture,” as the sentiment of white folks, instead of making it her own claim about reality. However, the rest of the excerpt goes on to assume that these white folks’ assumptions about the cultures of people of colour are accurate.
Normally, I would write a more organized, structured, and formal post about how white people have faulty worldviews, but then I realized that explaining in explicit language why “We don’t have culture. They have culture,” is full of white privilege is a lot more complicated than I originally thought. Hence, I will post an unstructured rant instead, and hopefully, it will help me organize my thoughts so that I might create a better, structured post later on.
I know that I am not alone. I hear the same sentiments too much from other white people. If anything, this is one of the truest hallmarks of whiteness that I have yet encountered. There is a hole within many of us, created when our families gave up our culture in order to be successful in the United States.
Guess what, Ms. Tolchuk? People of colour do not have the option to become white even if we wanted to. Being white is a choice for you; it is not for people who have dark skin or non-Caucasian facial features. Don’t you think that of the millions of people of colour in North America, many would give up anything in order to become successful? Many of us have already lost our culture, yet no matter how white we act and how severed we are from our roots, we can’t pass as white.
What people of colour have that white people don’t is not culture. What people of colour have that white people don’t is racialization. How can you speak about “my culture” when you don’t even know what “my culture” is? How can you speak about “my homeland” when you don’t even know what “my homeland” is? If you’re a typical white person and I tell you my ethnicity, you would assume that my culture is “Chinese” and my homeland is “China”. This is incorrect. My homeland is Canada, and my culture is Canadian. I have never been to China, and I don’t know what Chinese culture consists of. If you’re a typical white person, you would tell me, “But that’s not your culture.” If you’re typical white person, you would believe that you know better than me about what my culture is and where my homeland is located. You would feel “jealous” that you don’t have a connection to a foreign country, assuming it’s something that I have because I can’t pass as white.
Your worldview is based on the faulty assumption that we don’t pass as white because we didn’t give up our culture:
The first, classic and new assimilation model sees immigrants and native-born people following a “straight-line” or a convergence. This theory sees immigrants becoming more similar over time in norms, values, behaviors, and characteristics. This theory also expects those immigrants residing the longest in the host population, as well as the members of later generations, to show greater similarities with the majority group than immigrants who have spent less time in the host society.
The old model of assimilation was based on the historical assimilation of European immigrants, and the model still works for modern European immigrants because they are white. Although not all white Europeans today were considered white historically, they became white because the definition of whiteness changed to include them. This model also doesn’t take into account the fact that similarity judgements by white people factor in race. Visible people of colour cannot be “assimilated” like white Europeans not because we choose to retain our cultures, but because the current definition of whiteness excludes us and makes us appear dissimilar. Notice how a second-generation white German American can become white in one generation, but a seventh-generation Asian American can never become white no matter what she does, besides gaining white Caucasian physical features.
It’s not culture; it’s racialization. This is what I have that you don’t have. It’s nothing to feel a sense of loss over, and the very fact that you think I have culture that you don’t have because I’m not white is an example of how you otherize me and think of me as a perpetual foreigner.
Here is an excerpt from Rita Rico, MA, C.Phil, that recognizes and articulates the conceptual errors of most assimilation models. She uses the example of Latin@s.
Immigrant Groups Assimilation theories maintain that migrants who arrive in the US shed most of their ethnic and cultural backgrounds to become incorporated into mainstream American life (Alba and Nee 2006: 125).
In this section, I argue that assimilation theories 1) attempt to fit Latinos into a model created to understand the incorporation of European immigrants, one that allows for the eventual disappearance of ethnic markers and subsequent easy entry into the host society. 2) This often leads assimilationists to describe Latinos as a grouping of ethnicities, rather than a racial group. Doing so allows Latinos to be seen as neo-European immigrants who have not assimilated because of their own cultural deficiencies and not because of the host society’s treatment of them. Finally, 3) assimilationists do not question panethnic sentiments as all Latino groups are seen as essentially the same as immigrants. Further, assimilationists are unable to understand the difference in the treatment of Latinos from European immigrants because their analysis does not account for racialization.
Assimilation theories assumed that European immigrants would eventually form a unified part of the white racial identity. Gordon’s notion of acculturation, as the minority group’s adoption of cultural patterns of the host society and structural assimilation into Anglo-American society, as well as Gans straight-line assimilation of progressive generational adjustment and incorporation represent the diversity of mechanisms by which assimilation is thought to occur (Alba and Nee 2006: 127). In addition, segmented assimilation attempts to recognize that discrimination may taint the assimilation progression of immigrants, but still largely accepts the normative and conceptual premise of assimilation that immigrants should choose upward mobility by attaining American cultural fluency (Bean and Stevens 2003: 101). Despite Alba and Nee’s attempt to restore the notion of assimilation as complimentary to ethnicity and imperative for children of immigrants to avoid the temptation to drop out of school and join the inner-city underclass, (2003: 129) assimilation theories remain rooted in white hegemonic perspectives that cannot account for processes of racialization towards non-European immigrants. The majority of early European immigrants enjoyed phenotypic privilege, or light skin, and thus had less difficulty proving their whiteness than other groups with darker skin tones. Nevertheless, assimilationist theories have been unproblematically applied to Latino ethnic groups. 6
Therefore, assimilation theories approach Latino groups as ethnic groups rather than racial ones that would align them with African-American identities to maintain both the conceptual segregation of blacks and whites, as well as the normative assumption that Latinos are capable of achieving whiteness. Nevertheless, US-born Latinos and Latino immigrants experience racialization in a way that distinguishes them from whites and European immigrants. Rocco argues that Latinos are consistently perceived as perpetual foreigners despite their longstanding history in the US (2004: 21). Assimilationists almost always place the impetus of belonging as the responsibility of the migrant, and do not recognize xenophobia and racialization as factors negatively influencing incorporation (Waldinger 1999, 2007, Alba and Nee 2007). Thus, assimilation theories do not take into account the institutional limitations to full membership and citizenship.
Like many white people, Tochluk confuses race with culture, and racism with cultural difference. White people can give up their cultural heritage and become white, but visible people of colour cannot, not because we can’t give up our cultural heritage, but because cultural heritage and non-whiteness are two different things. It doesn’t work, because we have already tried it; I have tried it. Takao Ozawa tried it in 1922, and it didn’t work. Bhagat Singh Thind tried it in 1923, and it didn’t work. We are still considered “ethnics”, as it’s not up to us. For white people, to be “ethnic” entails having a “culture”, so that’s why white people think that non-white people automatically have culture that white people don’t.
Everyone has culture, and non-white people don’t have more of it than white people. Obviously, there’s no such thing as a cultural practise that white people have exclusively that non-white people never participate in (except perhaps white privilege). Similarly, however, there’s no such cultural practise that non-white people have exclusively that white people never participate in (except perhaps lacking white privilege). The point is that when white people assume there is such a thing as “non-white culture”, they are unconsciously labelling every cultural practise that is not in that category “white culture”. For example, according to white people, chopsticks are “non-white culture” and in opposition to forks, which are considered standard. This taxonomy implies that forks are “white culture”. This doesn’t mean that as a non-white person, I don’t use forks. It means that white people are unconsciously dividing up cultural practises into “white” and “non-white”, and “white” means “normal”, and “non-white” means weird, foreign, exotic, or other. White people don’t consciously and explicitly label forks “white culture”, because they assume that forks are culturally-neutral, which is actually an indication of ethnocentrism. White people don’t normally even use the term “non-white”, but they mean that when they say “ethnic” or “cultural”. White people don’t say that forks are “ethnic”, but they may say that about chopsticks. White people don’t think of forks as a “cultural tradition”, but they may think that about chopsticks.
When I say that “white culture” is everywhere, I call it “white” because I’m still speaking in terms of the subconscious “white”/”non-white” dichotomy that I consider illegitimate. I communicate in English, and it’s hard to use the English language with all its “white” framing to criticize the “white” framing of the English language without using the same language and “white” framing. “White” is a social construct, and when I refer to “white culture”, I am still referring to the social construct, not something outside of this construct.
To summarize, Shelly Tochluk has white privilege and feels a “sense of loss” because she thinks that (only) white people have no culture. By even making such a claim, even if implicit, Tolchuk otherizes people of colour and views us as unassimilable perpetual foreigners that have foreign loyalties and different mindsets. Her assumptions are based on no evidence, but on speculation and on the unanimousness of white opinion, at least within the sample of white people she has talked with. Tolchuk thinks that a person’s culture can determined from a person’s racial features, but what she assumes to be culture is actually racialization and being considered exotic. White people have “white culture”, but “white culture” is not about the race of the person practising it, but about how it’s considered “normal” instead of foreign, exotic, and other. The vernacular concept of “culture” is racialized, although technically, all human beings have and participate in culture.