What Is "White Culture"?

When Martin Luther King Jr called for a world in which people were not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, he didn’t mean that we wouldn’t see the color of their skin – or that we’d pretend not to. I’m not sure he knew all the details of how it would work, but I don’t think he’d have wanted people’s identities erased, who they are rendered invisible.

His primary task up until he died 50 years ago last April was addressing overt racism. Today we know we must also address subtle cultural matters. It may once have counted as progress to treat minority cultures the same. But we must do more than that. We must respect and honor and stand ready to adapt to the ways cultures are different. And for those of us in the dominant white culture, that means recognizing our own culture, recognizing that it, too, has its place in the family of things – alongside, not arching over, all other cultures.

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The four heroes of the TV show the good place are a multicultural lot. Eleanor is a white woman from a dysfunctional lower-class family in Arizona. Tahani is an Asian British woman from a dysfunctional upper-class family. Chidi is a native-French-speaking black man, born in Nigeria, raised in Senegal, who became a moral philosophy professor in Australia. Jason is a Hispanic young man from the youth, drug, petty-crime, and dance culture of Jacksonville, Florida.

A few episodes ago on “The Good Place,” our four heroes find themselves in a place called Janet’s void, one of the features of which is that they all find themselves in identical Janet bodies – all played by the actress D’arcy Carden.
Chidi-Janet: "This is nuts. We’re in a void, in the body of a white lady."
[The other characters remind him that Janet is not a lady. Janet appears female – and the pronoun “she” is used for her, but she is actually an unsexed humanoid machine.]
Jason-Janet: "But we are white, though. Let’s all say white people things. Billy Joel. I found it on etsy. There was nowhere to park. Did you refill the Brita?"
I mention this because sometimes, for those of us who are white, our white culture is invisible to us. We notice other people’s culture, but we tend to think of ourselves as not having one. Other people are shaped in one way or another by their culture, while WE are left free to live our lives by pure common sense.

We also think of ourselves as not speaking with an accent. For instance, if someone sounds to your ear as if American English is their first language, and they tell you that English is their second language, you might be tempted say, “Your English is great. You have no accent.” I could have very easily said that 15 years ago – and maybe I did. But I’ve since learned that there’s no such thing as having no accent. If I felt a need to comment on it at all, it would be better to say, “Your accent sounds to me just like mine.”

There is no unaccented English. You could train yourself in another accent, but you would not so much be “dropping your accent” as trading one accent for a different one. We all have an accent. We notice other people’s accents, but we don’t notice our own.

It’s the same with culture. Noticing and remembering our own culture is a crucial step in recognizing just how deep culture goes for all humans. It’s especially hard for white people to see their white culture because white is the dominant culture. Nonhispanic whites are currently 61% of the US population – a clear majority. Moreover, for much of the last century or so, the nonhispanic white population has been much more dominant. From 1900 until 1950, the percent of the US population that was nonhispanic whites stayed level at 87%.

Whiteness remains the majority, and we have a long history of it being an even higher majority – and that history as well as the current majority ensconces whiteness as the US norm. So white folk see themselves not as a culture, but simply as “normal.”

The very fact that we call ourselves “white” – as in blank, without color – reinforces the impression. Colorlessness implicitly connotes culturelessness. But, of course, whiteness is not cultureless.

The other challenge to recognizing our white culture is that it really is pretty amorphous. Attempts to identify white culture often point to features that are, indeed, more common among whites than among nonwhites – but that fail to characterize even a majority of whites. For instance, the Jason character mentioned Billy Joel, etsy, and Britas. Most of the fans at a Billy Joel concert, perhaps, are white – (I guess, I haven’t been to one) but most whites have never been to one. Users of etsy and Britas may be mostly white, but most whites don’t use etsy, and most don’t use Britas.

White people eat more vegetables and dairy. US Department of Agriculture data indicates that white Americans eat 16 pounds more vegetables at home per year than nonwhite Americans, and that for every pound of dairy consumed by the average black American at home, White Americans eat 1.75 pounds.

Whites are higher on alcohol consumption. Almost a third of nonhispanic whites had a heavy-drinking day in the last year. Only 24% of Hispanics did, and only 16% of black Americans did.

There are still lots of whites who don’t eat very many vegetables, and two-thirds of whites did not have a heavy-drinking day in the last year.

According to the American Time Use Survey, white people average over 3.5 hours per year attending museums or the performing arts – well above non-white averages. A report from the National Endowment of the Arts found that white Americans were twice as likely as black or Hispanic Americans to have done at least one arts activity in the past year – including “jazz, classical music, opera, musical and non-musical plays, ballet, and visits to an art museum or gallery.” So if you go to a Pat Matheny concert, that’s an arts activity, because that’s jazz. But if you go to a Tina Turner concert – or, for that matter, a Billy Joel concert -- that’s not within the NEA definition of an arts activity.

So, these are things that nonhispanic whites do more than blacks or Asians or Hispanics – but even so they tend to characterize less than half of white people. Most whites haven’t been to the opera, or had a heavy drinking day in the last year, or regularly consume kale. A disproportionate percentage of golfers are white, but most white people haven’t been out on the links in the last year.
To make the point at the extreme, it turns out that the whitest surname in the US is Yoder. 98.1 percent of all people named Yoder are white. Though the overwhelming majority of Yoders (over 98 percent!) are white  – the overwhelming majority of whites (well over 98 percent) are not Yoders. So identifying things that are more common among whites than nonwhites doesn’t tell us about white culture generally.

If our own culture seems invisible to us, this is partly because whiteness is the majority, we have a long history of it being a greater majority, it’s dominant, and because humans are built to notice other people’s accents and cultures while overlooking our own. But it’s also because white culture really is amorphous. One of the side effects of the amorphousness of white culture is what we might call the Rachel Dolezal effect. Having a more clear and definite culture to identify with can start to look attractive. Rachel Dolezal a few years ago became famous for her attempts to pass as black. Back in the 1930s, jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow declared himself a voluntary negro after marrying a black woman and selling marijuana. What Rachel Dolezal did was unusual because of her age and professional and leadership status. It’s fairly normal for white adolescents to “take on what they perceived to be the characteristics of another race while exploring their identities.” Anita Thomas, professor of counseling psychology, says,
“For white [American] youth, who are disconnected from European heritage or legacy, it often feels like whiteness as a concept is empty.”
I can see that.

Last summer I sent away a saliva sample for DNA testing. I was not surprised with the results that my ancestry is almost entirely British and Swiss-German – but, yeah, I was a little disappointed. I know that’s kinda laughable – this spectacle of middle-aged white guys hoping they have some portion of nonwhite ethnicity in their DNA – and being so proud of it if they do. There’s a part of us that wants to belong, and white isn’t just invisible because it’s dominant, and the majority, and because we aren’t self-aware – it’s also invisible because it is amorphous. Amorphousness is weak on belonging.

Rachel Dolezal and Mezz Mezzrow represent one response to the urge to belong to a more definite cultural identity. At the opposite extreme are the white nationalists, trying to make whiteness a more definite thing, worthy of defending and promoting against perceived and largely fabricated threats.

Mona Chalabi writes, “If the 'somethingness' of white culture is never quite pinned down, it remains both 'nothing, really' and 'well, everything'.”

Psychologist Mikhail Lyubansky suggests that “this wish – to be rid of whiteness – is at the very core of white culture.” People with a strong cultural identity will typically be happy to talk about it at the slightest encouragement. However, Lyubansky notes, “White people don’t want to talk about their whiteness.”

In some ways there are certainly multiple white cultures – just as there are multiple black cultures and multiple Asian cultures and multiple Hispanic cultures and multiple indigenous cultures. If you cut it particularly fine, in some sense, each of us is a culture of one. So it would be tempting to abandon the idea of trying to say anything about white culture at all.

But we can learn something from the ways that our institutional cultures have been frustrating to people of minority cultures. Consider these cultural differences in the way businesses and governments and organizations at all levels function, make decisions, and allocate and protect power. On each of the 13 spectra below, the left end of the spectrum represents "white culture" -- not because all whites prefer those cultural practices but because (a) the left-end cultural practices tend to sustain the power of powerful groups; (b) members of powerful groups learn to be good at these cultural practices that sustain their power; and (c) in particular, historically, the left sides of the spectra have preserved the power, control, and privilege of people of European descent.

1. Perfectionism------------------------Appreciation

  • little appreciation expressed for the work that others are doing;
  • appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate -- or to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them;
  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them;
  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
  • little time, energy, or money is put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice -- little or no learning from mistakes;
  • tendency to identify what’s wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what’s right
  • taking time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;
  • expecting that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;
  • recognizing that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;
  • separating the person from the mistake;
  • speaking to the things that went well before offering criticism;
  • asking people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism
2. Greater Urgency------------------------Less Urgency

Greater Urgency
  • chronic sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, think long-term, or consider consequences;
  • sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results – often sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community);
  • funding proposals promise, and funders who expect, too much work for too little money;
Less Urgency
  • realistic workplans;
  • leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects;
  • discussion and planning for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time;
  • learn from past experience how long things take;
  • write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames;
  • clarity about identifying and responding to pressures of urgency when they arise
3. Defensiveness------------------------Nondefensiveness

  • the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person or to clarify who has power and how they are expected to use it
  • because of either/or thinking (see below), criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude)
  • people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas
  • a lot of energy in the organization is spent trying to make sure that people’s feelings aren’t getting hurt or working around defensive people
  • the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture
  • understanding that structure cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse;
  • understanding the link between defensiveness and fear (of losing power, losing face, losing comfort, losing privilege);
  • naming defensiveness as a problem when it is one;
  • giving people credit for being able to handle more than one thought;
  • discussing ways defensiveness or resistance to new ideas gets in the way of the mission
4. Quantity Over Quality------------------------Quality over Quantity

  • all resources of organization are directed toward producing measurable goals
  • things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot: numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict;
  • little or no value is attached to process; if it can't be measured, it has no value
  • there is discomfort with emotion and feeling;
  • there is no understanding that when there is a conflict between content (the agenda of the meeting) and process (people’s need to be heard or engaged), process will prevail – otherwise, the decisions made at the meeting will be undermined and/or disregarded.
  • process or quality goals are included in planning;
  • the organization has a values statement expressing its valuation of diverse work styles;
  • the values statement is used and referenced in day-to-day work;
  • ways to measure process goals (such as inclusivity) are sought;
  • there is recognition of times when one needs to get off the agenda in order to address concerns of process or feelings.
5. Fixation on Written Word------------------------Less Dependence on Written Word

Fixation on Written Word
  • if it’s not in a memo, it doesn't exist;
  • the organization does not value other ways information gets shared
  • those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission
  • Unwillingness to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information or to reflect carefully on which things truly need to be written down
  • the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it – and if they don’t, there is something wrong with them
Less Dependence on Written Word
  • work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization – such as the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission
  • accept that there are many ways to get to the same goal;
  • work on developing the ability to notice when people do things differently and how those different ways might improve your approach;
  • look for the tendency for a group or a person to keep pushing the same point over and over out of a belief that there is only one right way and then name it;
  • when working with communities from a different culture than yours or your organization’s, be clear that you have some learning to do about the community; never assume that you or your organization know what’s best for the community in isolation from meaningful relationships with that community
6. Paternalism------------------------Inclusion

  • decision-making is unclear to those without power – though they know well the impact of those decisions;
  • those with power make decisions for and in the interests of those without power -- often without steps to understand their viewpoint or experience;
  • everyone knows and understands who makes what decisions in the organization;
  • everyone knows and understands their level of responsibility and authority in the organization;
  • people who are affected by decisions are included in the decision-making
7. Either/Or Thinking------------------------Both/And Thinking

  • things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us;
  • closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict
  • complex realities are oversimplified (e.g., “Poverty is simply a result of poor education”)
  • time and encouragement to consider alternatives is denied -- particularly alternatives that may require more time or resources
  • notice when people use “either/or” language and push to come up with more than two alternatives;
  • notice when people are simplifying complex issues, particularly when the stakes seem high or an urgent decision needs to be made;
  • slow it down and encourage people to deeper analysis;
  • when people are faced with an urgent decision, take a break and give people some breathing room to think creatively;
  • avoid making decisions under extreme pressure.
8. Power Hoarding------------------------Power Sharing

Power Hoarding
  • little, if any, value around sharing power;
  • power seen as limited: only so much to go around;
  • those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done in the organization, feel suggestions for change are a reflection on their leadership;
  • those with power don't see themselves as hoarding power or as feeling threatened
  • those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced
Power Sharing
  • include power sharing in your organization’s values statement;
  • discuss what good leadership looks like and make sure people understand that a good leader develops the power and skills of others;
  • understand that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive;
  • make sure the organization is focused on the mission
9. Conflict Fear------------------------Conflict Appreciation

Fear of Conflict
  • people in power fear conflict and try to ignore it or run from it;
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue;
  • emphasis on being polite; equation of raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line
Appreciation of Conflict
  • role play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens;
  • distinguish between being impolite and raising hard issues;
  • don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in “acceptable ways,” especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised;
  • once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently
10. Individualism------------------------Collaboration

  • little experience or comfort working as part of a team;
  • people in organization believe they are responsible for solving problems alone;
  • accountability, if any, goes up and down, not sideways to peers or to clients/customers.
  • desire for individual recognition and credit leads to isolation;
  • little time or resources devoted to developing cooperation skills;
  • valuation on getting things done on one’s own leads to lack of accountability;
  • little or no ability to delegate work to others
  • Values statement affirms value of teamwork;
  • the organization works toward shared goals and people understand that working together improves performance;
  • evaluations emphasize ability to work in a team, and delegate to others;
  • credit is given to all those who participate in an effort, not just the leaders;
  • groups rather than individuals are held accountable;
  • create a culture where people bring problems to the group;
  • use staff meetings as a place to solve problems, not just a place to report activities.
11. Goals blinkered and short-term------------------------Goals include process and long-term

Goals Blinkered and Short-Term
  • conception of “progress” focused on expansion (more staff, larger budgets, more customers/clients)
  • focus on size rather than how well people are served – or whether the people served are the people that most need it
Goals Include Process and Long-Term
  • create Seventh Generation thinking by asking how the actions of the group now will affect people seven generations from now;
  • cost/benefit analyses includes all the costs – including costs in morale, costs in credibility, costs in the use of resources;
  • planning should include process goals, goals about how one wants to work, not just what one wants to do.
12. Objectivity------------------------Shifting Consensus

  • the belief that there is such a thing as being objective, and that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or group process;
  • invalidating people who show emotion;
  • requiring people to think in a linear fashion and ignoring or invalidating those who think in other ways;
  • impatience with any thinking that does not appear “logical” to those with power.
Shifting Consensus
  • realize that everybody has a world view that affects the way they understand things – including you;
  • push yourself to sit with discomfort when people are expressing themselves in ways not familiar to you;
  • assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand what that point is
13. Right to Comfort------------------------Appreciation of Discomfort

Right to Comfort
  • those with power assume a right to emotional and psychological comfort;
  • those who cause discomfort are scapegoated;
  • individual acts of unfairness against white people are equated with systemic racism which daily targets people of color
Appreciation of Discomfort
  • welcome discomfort as the root of all growth and learning; deepen political analysis of racism and oppression so you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into a larger picture
  • don't take anything personally
Adapted from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, "Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups" (2001) -- HERE


  1. What a nice, White sermon.
    Where do I get off, to say such an offensive thing?
    I am only the daughter, of many generations; you do not get this!
    Of Aaron and Sara Burcell, who took these preposterously White names, because they feared they would not survive the next massacre.
    I survived. And yet, I am not White, as they wished I would be.

  2. I am sorry to miss sunday. Good things are happen at uu