3/14/2006

White Culture with a Side of Fries

When faced with issues of race and gender, I try to remember a moment in the Fall of 2000 when I realized I had lived my life, up until that moment, as a white man.

I was sitting in the backseat of a car tooling its way around Vancouver Harbor from the UBC where I had attended the first day of an International Women of Color conference. Driving the car was my mentor's husband and next to him was my mentor, Rosanne Kanhai for whom I was a TA for her postcolonial literatures class. I watched the grey afternoon melt in it's distinctly NW fashion from day to night, wet, cold and familiar, and thought about all the women I had seen at the conference. All brown faces of varying hues from cream tinted coffee to deep espresso. I heard speakers from the Gabriela Network for the first time and found myself stunned and awed by the number of academics in attendence. PhDs and MAs, MDs and JDs, all women of color.

And then it hit me. I'm a woman of color too. At the time I was in grad school for my MA in English. Within a few months I would also be a woman of color with an advanced degree. In my own extended family which numbers easily in the 100s I would be the first, and once my cousin received her law degree, there would be only two of us to date. Then I turned the observation into a question back to myself as my mentor had taught us to do. I asked myself "Why don't you see yourself as a woman of color?" to which I answered "I went to mostly white schools in the 'burbs and to be considered a success, I set myself in competition with the white boys in class. If I could do as they did, then I knew I could succeed."

The melting process was a matter of perspective. I only saw white kids. They were my friends and my competitors. There were kids of color in my classes, but never my friends. The kids of color never seemed very interested in me and I never saw myself as part of them. The white kids weren't white to me, they were Mary, Scott, Tom, Ginger, Stephanie. Some were faster on the playground or more clever in the arts, but I could outstrip most in math and science. And when it came to math and science, it was all about white men in white coats doing work in white labs. Clean rooms. I was aware of women scientists but they were historic anomolies when it came to the science books. The men did the real work. Carl Sagan was on TV.

So as we passed those tree lined streets and the afternoon mist turned to rain, I thought, the colonization process is complete in me. I had fully adopted the dominant paradigm as my own. I had come to a point where I realized that I had completely 'Othered' myself. Racism was about what my parents had experienced - racist remarks and actions toward myself were just misunderstandings. Misogyny was about other women, mail order brides, rape victims, low paid workers, sexually harassed employees - misogynist remarks and actionst toward myself were just my own oversensitivity.

Since that Fall (Fall from Eden in a sense?) I've tried to reframe myself as a woman of color, to open my eyes to the racism and misogyny suffered by other women of color and myself, to search out spaces of activism and change. It's a long, ongoing process that has touched on everything from motherhood to faith to writing.

Recently Gene Tagaban, a Tlingit Filipino storyteller, challenged me to not only continue honoring the self that is a Woman of Color, a Pinay, but to also honor the White Man Within, to see how Being White helped make me who I am today. It would not be the first time I was challenged to integrate my experience, to bring all of myself forward to the moment, and not compromise anything that has made me who I am today.

I've been struck, then by the appearance of White Culture in my life, conversations or offhand comments. Gura recently wrote about her fascination with White Culture and when I mentioned this to a white friend, she replied "But there is no White Culture. We have no culture." To which I blinked and reassured her. "Yes, you do have culture." And I don't mean the stuff we see on TV or the groups we fear as White Supremacist. These are distilled cultural moments and movements, separated from reality.

Gura wrote: White people disassociate easily being white - When you ask a white person, "what's up with white people?" They will readily answer, "Don't ask me. I'm not a typical white person.". And I wondered, is it a disassociation with the culture or with the markers of the Dominant Paradigm, ie. White Priviledge?

In my postcolonial lit class, on the first day, I had them list the markers of the Dominant Paradigm in the US - that is, who carries the power and who are the ones being targeted in marketing. The list would run something like: Male, mid-thirties, bachelor degree, middle income, Christian, heterosexual, moderate debt ratio, married, 1-2 children, fair to good health, employed in a white collar job. I would then look around the room and ask "Who here is a member of this paradigm?" and "Have you ever felt disenfranchised by this image of the Dominant?" To which usually all the young white men and women would look very confused and realize, much like I did back in Vancouver, that they were not who they thought they were. They were not in 'power' and for a moment, they glimpsed the possibility that if they didn't fit the ideal then for every 'difference' a minority possessed dropped them further and further away from the power structures that were shaping their environment.

We'd have to practice this several times during the quarter before they got that what they knew as Dominant was simply a structure, that White Priviledge, though powerful and pervasive, was not reality. It had real consequences, but was a construction. And all that is constructed can be changed.

I wouldn't wish alignment with White Priviledge on anyone. It's an ideal that no one, not even the "Male, mid-thirties, bachelor degree, middle income, Christian, heterosexual, moderate debt ratio, married, 1-2 children, fair to good health, employed in a white collar job" could live up to. I think that's why 'they' all seem crazy. But it is a paradigm that structures our media and advertising, so we're constantly bombarded with images of who we are not, whether EuroAmerican, AfricanAmerican, AsianAmerican, or NativeAmerican.

White Culture, though, is something to be looked for, something to be identified for the sheer fact that perhaps then, 'they' would stop needing 'our' culture to have culture. We need to hear the stories of Irish slavers and Euro immigrants forced to give up name and language at the shores of Ellis Island. We need to see beyond the simple rituals of St. Patricks day or Fat Tuesday or March Madness to a deeper sense of cultural significance, to be unsatisfied with the culture handed to us with a side of fries and a coke. What do these things mean? Why are they markers at all?

I also think that White Culture is more about time than space - generational differences seem to mark better than regional, but that may be because of the movement of US EuroAmericans across the country. We move easily without conscious sense of diaspora within the States. We're more likely to hear about the good old days rather than about the Alabama gal who is completely lost East LA. Although given the lament that you can't get good BBQ outside (fill in favorite southern state) there's argument otherwise.

Gura also noted: And I wonder how many people started studying their own culture, because a white person asked them about it.

White folk are no different. Ask about their stories. See what they know of themselves. That's when we can create kapwa, a sense of community while reinforcing a sense of loob, a sense self-worth. This is a powerful, healing gift that can change the world.

1 comment:

Okir said...

Sorry, I made a stupid typo, and removed it.

Rebecca -- this is a wonderful post that sees and through and clarifies so many of the layers of discombobulating "identity" we encounter in the U.S. Thanks.