Driving through Oxford County, Maine, over the weekend, my daughters and I were talking about how fascinating and puzzling it is for us to imagine being a family whose idea of fun would be hanging out in an RV in the parking lot of the Oxford Plains Speedway and going to the races. We talk quite a bit about racism and whiteness, as well as socioeconomic differences and similarities among people here in Maine. I got to thinking about the question: What exactly is white culture? I have my own ideas, but surely scholars have studied this, right? (They have.)
I have some ideas about what I think “white culture” means, but that’s informed by my own background. What are the qualities that make whiteness, the culture? Maybe something about being restrained and tight in communications? I don’t actually know. I’m curious. I want to know more. What is white culture? What do I think about this essay describing white culture? What are the traits that make someone “seem white,” and how are our children taught those qualities in school and in life?
And that’s when I realized what I’d like for young children to learn today. I’d like there to be lessons about white culture and whiteness. I’d like for us (especially white people) to examine how we learn how to be white; what are whiteness’ expectations for social and economic success? As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” “Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” She’s not the only voice of knowledge sharing this concept—we white people need to understand whiteness, how we learn it and perpetuate it and expect it wherever we go. (Again, my curiosity runs away with me here…those of us white people from financially comfortable backgrounds probably expect everyone to be like us even more than white people who come from poverty; how is that taught? How can we unlearn it?)
I’ve been imagining what it might be like if young children learned about whiteness: that it is one culture out of many. Perhaps then it wouldn’t be assumed that the default is whiteness. Children could go through their schooling with a critical eye. I’m confident they would catch many of the ways whiteness seeps into every facet of their lives if they were taught early about the ways we’re steeped in the expectations of whiteness. The teachers and children could still continue with their studies, but they’d bring with them an awareness that most lessons are taught with an assumption that whiteness is the default. They could take apart everything they learn as they go.
And, because there are few spaces that are 100-percent white, I’d want these lessons to be shared with the understanding that almost everyone in the United States learns how to be white—to survive, most people of color must learn to code switch—but to be sure to bring in Black and brown racial justice experts to guide the lessons, making sure Black- and brown-bodied children aren’t harmed by the study of whiteness.
It turns out (remember, Google is always our friend!) there are tools to help teachers as they are teaching while white, including a “build a learning plan” tool. Even in just a few Google searches I can see that the study of white culture is definitely already a thing (here’s one example); I just haven’t studied it myself, yet.
So, alongside the valuable lessons children in many schools are learning about “different cultures” (e.g. music from Indonesia, cultural studies of South American countries, fundraising for Puerto Rico, attending performances of theater groups like Maine Inside Out, etc.), students might learn about white culture as just one of the many “different” cultures. And, instead of those “other” cultures seeming to be exceptions to the whiteness-rule, the children could know that whiteness as default is a lie kept in place by power-hungry, greedy, selfish people who don’t know how to share. (Children recognize how not-sharing is problematic!)
Perhaps if generations of children learn about whiteness and white culture, we might have a better chance at dismantling white supremacy. As I’ve mentioned before, a white friend of mine pointed out that white supremacy wants to keep us apart. Understanding whiteness can shed light into those spaces we’ve been tricked into ignoring. Let’s walk together in the light.
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