It’s important for us to understand the mental and emotional place that people are in before we attempt to change their hearts or minds. When someone is openly hostile, it’s easy to operate knowing that they have a definite and set view point. But some people don’t believe that they have a problem or issue, and it may only surface as discomfort in certain circumstances. It takes more finesse and diplomacy to help someone see that they have bias if they don’t believe it is there. Most American white people do not think they are racist or bigoted. But they may feel uncomfortable or act defensive when they are interacting with people from cultures not their own.
Some of the many reasons that white people remain untrusting of people of color is because they are different. But white people are not just frightened because something is different though, it isn’t just a matter of fear that they’re not the same. Part of the issue they have with someone not being the same as themselves is the rhetoric they’ve been told around different-ness. Many white Americans do not believe they have a culture, and do not make any connection between themselves and ancient people of any kind. They’ve come to believe that they have transcended culture, and that they simply exist, and the things they do they deem to be universal and modern. It’s why when they’re asked demographic questions like what is your race, gender or sexual orientation, they answer with terms like “regular” “normal” or “American”.
Because people of color participate in aspects of white American culture, whites are often lulled into thinking that white culture is simply reality, and that other cultures are a subset or splinter, an offshoot or variation. They personally identify with this reality. Their identity is closely tied to their values and beliefs, and they don’t realize those are the core tenets of culture. And culture is complicated – there is white culture, American culture, and white American culture. Those alone hold differences that many people are typically unaware of. When they have such a tenuous connection to cultural identity and what it means, it’s hard to help them understand cultural differences, let alone similarities. It’s even harder if they don’t have much knowledge about a group or culture to help them understand where that other person is coming from.
When a person is engaging in cultural behavior unfamiliar to the white person in question, the white person will often respond defensively. The defense is often taken as offensive behavior when it is probably not intended that way. Whites are defending that they feel is their identity and since their self-worth is tied to their identity it’s highly charged for them to feel threatened in this regard. Largely, feeling wrong or bad about this has a lot to do with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. They don’t like to admit that they don’t know what other cultures are like or how they operate, because it makes them feel inferior.
If someone else is behaving in a radically different way than what the white person considers to be real, normal, and correct, they can feel that the other person is inherently telling them that they consider the white person’s behavior to be incorrect. This triggers defensive behavior; no one wants to feel wrong or bad, so they defend themselves from that by making sure everyone knows that they feel they are right. Also, when someone is engaging in cultural behavior that the white person is not involved in, and the white person doesn’t have the cultural knowledge to understand the context, it can make the white person feel excluded. E.g., when someone speaks a language other than English in public. People don’t like feeling excluded in general, but American whites have also been told that they magnanimously allow all cultures to enter their space – they feel ownership in American-ness even if they don’t see it as a culture. As a result, being excluded when they feel that they are in their own space stirs up feelings of ownership and they attempt to enforce what they consider to be appropriate.
Not knowing about other cultures only becomes disruptive when the person still forms opinions and takes actions while being uninformed. Many people of color assume that whites purposefully remain uneducated. There may be some that are way, but many are open to new knowledge and new experiences. Unfortunately, the white person who is open but does not take the initiative to self-educate often turns to the person of color for insight. It can be frustrating for this person who now must educate someone who could be doing independent research to gather the same knowledge. It also relies on the person of color to not only be accurate, but may be asking them to speak for groups with which they are not affiliated. It also asks that the person of color use their personal time to educate, and be emotionally available during that education process. It’s a lot to ask someone who suffers disadvantage due to their cultural affiliation.
There is a twisted version of inclusion taught in the US that leads the white person to believe that they are accepting and accomodating when what they are doing is more like allowing or tolerating instead. This is tied to the American view that upon arrival in the US people need to shed a majority of their cultural heritage to be replaced by contemporary culture. The white person expects the person of color to shed their cultural identity as the white person has already done themself. If the person participates in capitalism, pop culture and “progress” the person is American enough not to be treated differently. However, if a person wishes to remain in America and retain their cultural heritage entirely, the average white American is not ok with that. They may still deny having a culture, but that white American wants others to participate in American culture nonetheless.
Different-ness is seen as a stubborn obstinacy in avoiding letting go of supposedly antiquated mindsets. The “progress” I just mentioned is tied into the white American cultural value of advancement, which is partially accomplished by divorcing from cultural heritage. American culture devalues the past as irrelevant and inadequate. It relegates all things old to the realm of uselessness; vestiges of times gone past. American culture paints history as undeveloped or unrefined, as if for thousands of years people lived their lives as only a pre-cursor to real, actual things (the present). Like those people were already history during their own lifetimes. Like we’re not history already too.
The white American tendency to eschew any older cultural practices in favor of modern culture may stem from a desire to separate from ancestors seen as war mongering, colonizing, bigoted oppressors. Many Americans descend from colonizers, yet they identify only with the pilgrims who emmigrated looking for asylum, a place to practice religious freedom. This is one of the few historical groups they are willing to identify with as they are obviously victims of oppression. No one wants to be associated with oppressors and violent overlords. The only other type of acceptable connection with history is to co-opt and fetishize pieces of the past and show them in the light of progress. They heavily translate, censor and modify anything old, and re-issue it in endless variations. Americans love their versions, re-makes, re-boots, throwbacks, comebacks, sequels, and series.
The white American will probably not admit to or agree with the assessment of avoiding connection with oppressors. They will probably connect quite well with their definition of “progress” which is the term I chose to use here, but it isn’t in popular usage right now. The terminology currently swirling around this cultural value is “innovation” “growth” “development” “drive” “improvement”, and it is seen as advancement. This focus on looking ahead somehow necessitates not looking back, and of course it’s a shame to miss lessons best learned from historical mistakes. The rhetoric around endless growth and bounty is one that diligently denies current events in favor of focusing on what could be.
This hopeful vision of the future is dismissive of accounting for the past or present challenges with a broad and generalized insistence that things could be better, and thus demands we focus only on that inflated hope that things will improve because they could improve.
P.s., this possible improvement is supposed to materialize, yet whenever we ask the person at hand about specific actionable items to bring about the change necessary to overcome current challenges, it’s mystically someone else’s domain, yet they are firm in their understanding that this problem or issue is being worked on by that someone else.