Escaping Whiteness: The Search for Ancestral Identity
“White People Have No Culture.”
Whiteness is a loaded term. In racial discussions largely amongst strangers, it can be important to define terms. When talking about whiteness here, it’s used as something related to but distinct from white people. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a white person. But being white in America comes with certain aspects needing to be explored by each white person. For ease of discussion, this white American experience can be called “whiteness."
Take, for instance, a phrase you may have heard before, “White people have no culture.” There’s a certain level of humor conveyed in this phrase (even if it isn’t funny). If expanded on, someone might mention how rock was originally a black genre, or how white people like bland foods, or any number of ways in which white people lack a unique sense of culture. Like any stereotype, it’s based on a half-truth. The reality is, white people do have culture, many cultures in fact. However, we’ll miss out on the greatness of them if we can’t escape white culture—or whiteness.
“This Day We Are Covered in Shame.”
Before we can escape from whiteness, we need to acknowledge it.
This is hard.
It’s easy to feel like it’s a problem out there and not within me! I didn’t own slaves. I don’t use the N-word, even during songs. I have black friends. All those may be true, but the Bible frequently shares the idea of institutional sin. Whether it's a group sorted by ethnicity, location, time, or religion people groups are routinely held to account for the sins of the larger body. The prophets call particular attention to this. Here’s what Daniel, who by all accounts was blameless even while being watched by his enemies, has to say about Israel:
“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.” Daniel 9:7-11
Notice all the “we, our and us” language? In our hyper-individualized American culture, this kind of ownership of national identity seems strange and foreign, but for much of history, and even much of the modern world, it’s a perfectly normal and healthy way of living. God seems to agree, as he routinely punishes and forgives entire nations for the actions of a few. Even if we aren’t the ones doing hateful acts, we all contribute in conscious and subconscious ways to the collective identity of our group. Maybe I don’t ever tell racist jokes, but do I let others tell them unopposed? Maybe I don’t even know it, but do I find myself less trusting of certain people groups? The concept of whiteness is that through historical cultural conditioning, white people have formed part of their cultural identity in the American experience, an experience built upon the backs of black slaves. If you’re unconvinced, at least give it some thought. Chew on it over the next several days. Read and listen to some black voices on this topic.
Remember Where You Came From.
Let’s say you accept my premise about this national identity we call whiteness. What does someone do about it? Very few want that kind of cultural baggage hanging around their necks. If you’ve ever heard a white person say, “Talking about race so much is exhausting,” you know what I mean. If you’ve ever heard a black person talk about white fragility, you know what this is. Yet it’s so hard to just put down whiteness. The reason stems from the fact that whiteness comprises a core part of our identity. You can’t simply just cut out part of your identity. The reason it’s often so hard for white people to start having serious introspective thoughts and discussions about race is because it pushes us and asks us to abandon part of who we are. It’s not so much white fragility, as if I could simply be tougher in the face of losing my identity. Rather, it’s more white emptiness, as I face the prospect of trying to reject myself. If we are to succeed in this inward journey we must find something to take the place of whiteness. We need a story about ourselves that is better than the one America has told us.
The prophets also understood this. In appealing to the people of Israel they would often repeat the history of their people. The prophets would launch into these long sermons recounting the deliverance from Egypt, the settling of the Promised Land, and so on. In order to recover from national sin and lost identity as God’s people, it was important to recount where they came from and the God that brought them there. The same solution is there for white people today.
Much of my ancestry is German. The Germans have a rich culture which has influenced me even as a born and raised American. Obviously it’s not all good. I don’t even need to clarify because we all know exactly what I’m referring to. As I’ve grown I’ve found a sense of comfort in my ancestral identity. I’ve learned about how my ancestors who emigrated from Germany to Russia dug holes in the ground to survive their first winter until they could build homes. I felt their desperation in the letters they wrote to those who left for America as Stalin began to systematically remove them from the earth. I watched in awe as Michael Ballack dragged Die Mannschaft to a near victory in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. I’ve tasted Kuchen and Knephla, dishes made by North Dakota Germans who came from Russia. I’ve found a cultural identity that allows me a foundation from which I can explore my white American heritage.
Whether it’s Germanic, British, Scandinavian or elsewhere, white people from America have rich ancestral backgrounds to ground themselves in should they choose. God has been active among all peoples. If we embrace these traditions in place of the empty, soulless whiteness that gave birth to American exceptionalism and the body count it left in it’s wake, we might find ourselves in a place where we can comfortably discuss and grow from the trauma whiteness has inflicted on the indigenous populations of this continent and Africa. When we can do that from a safe vantage point, then perhaps we can begin to reassemble our white American identity into something healthy. At the very least, perhaps we won’t feel the need to borrow other cultures in place of our own. Whiteness may have no culture, but it doesn’t mean you don’t.