Learning about white culture to unlearn it as the default

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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9 thoughts on “Learning about white culture to unlearn it as the default”

  1. In my experience, Black people do sleepovers at friends and family member’s homes. Friends’ homes if they know the family extremely that is. White families not so much because of the racism factor. As Kathryn said, just because your kid likes my kid does not mean he won’t be subjected to racism at your house. My granddaughter was friends with an Asian girl at school but was told they couldn’t do sleepovers because her family was racist.

  2. Kathryn – thanks so much for this! It makes total sense and thanks for sharing. It could be that my friends of color have the same reasons but were afraid to voice them to me. Good points to tell my child too. We talk a lot about race at home. I’m trying to make sure he’ll have his friend’s backs when needed. And I do also see that my son has tremendous freedom in the city that his friends do not. I think he realizes this…another point to discuss with him.

    • You’re welcome, Kacy. Thanks for teaching your child, my son has already been in situations where boys got in trouble and being the only black kid in the group he was immediately blamed. This is what we have to teach our kids…you will be blamed because you’re black. I personally am much more comfortable when my son is with his black friends because they have each other’s backs. White people get offended by this but they need to be raising their kids better and be better themselves before we will ever feel that our children are safe at their houses.

      I do know I’m white but in my family and circle of close friends I’m the minority. I’m 57 years old and throughout my entire life, if I’m in majority white spaces there are ALWAYS racists present. Those are not my people. Thank you for being a white mom who talks about racism with her child. It matters.

  3. Kacy, interesting comment about sleepovers. As the white mom of a mixed race son who is seen as black, I’m not a fan of the sleepover and most of my black mom friends feel the same. My problem with sleepovers is that I don’t trust white parents to have my black child’s safety in mind because they let their kids do things that we never let our boy do because of safety. An example is those airsoft guns. His white friends have those guns and my kid is not allowed to play with them. Plus the racism factor. Just because your kid likes my kid doesn’t mean he won’t be subjected to racism at your house. We only let our son stay overnight at my black neighbors because they’re our friends and she’s like a second mom to my son.

    Generally I see the same thing with my black friends. We don’t let our kids do sleepovers because we want them home at night, safe. White parents don’t seem to have the same concerns.

  4. Love this post and I think about this ALL the time! Amazing idea that kids should study white culture in school like they do others. Growing up I was always troubled by the activities where we had to “bring a dish to represent our culture” to a school potluck. I didn’t know what to do. I have an English/Scottish background but we didn’t eat or do anything I would associate with those cultures. To me we were just American. I was an adult before I started to see “white” as a culture. I think it was after taking a cultural anthropology course. The characteristics of white supremacy culture I’ve been seeing everywhere since I read that article a few years ago. I think white is “non-western” but indigenous American’s are “western” so that’s an exception. Our sense of community vs individual, sense of time, criteria for achievement…. I have so many thoughts about this rambling through my head! My son (12) recently said to me “I think people of color don’t do sleepovers except for their families” and continued by naming all the friends of color he had asked to sleep over who had declined vs white ones who all accepted. Not really a scientific study but when I asked my friends of color about that they said that sleepovers are not something they’re comfortable with in general though there are exceptions but they’re not sure where that comes from. I think a lot about “white culture” in terms of my workplace as well. Is the culture too white, and not appealing to employees of color…something I’m working to understand and change. Thanks for letting me ramble!

  5. But just like their are ” black” cultures, too their are “white” cultures. You can not compare the learned behavior of the repressed Puritan or WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) found particularly in southern New England to the more open “white” culture found along the mid- Atlantic coast. You can not compare the learned behavior of the “black” African Asunte cohort that is now coming into the State of Maine with the learned behavior of the mixed black/white child growing up in the upper South or that child’s “black” grandparents who learned that to survive meant adapting to the overt /covert Jim Crow Laws that they found throughout the north, south, east or/ and western areas of the United States.

    • Hi Viola!

      What I’m most interested in is the “dominant culture” in the United States. The one we usually assume as the default. What are the qualities that make someone fit the ways of communicating, of being in the world, that are considered least problematic or most revered by the institutions around us? What are the qualities of a person who goes to see a doctor and knows the doctor will provide them good quality care vs. someone who goes to the doctor knowing it’s likely they’ll be seen as complaining or drug-seeking or some other negative view?

      I’m very full of questions. I know you have a lot of information about different kinds of cultures people learn. I’m curious to know why you are using quotation marks around “white” and “black?”

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