Experience tells us that culture is essential for humans. Being a part of something greater than ourselves meets deep, human, life-affirming needs we all have. Yet most of our white antiracist spaces fall woefully short in terms of culture, and many of us feel that even when we don’t know how to talk about it. When white people feel culture-less, we fall into some nasty traps when so much more is possible. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get going.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the Cascades, Cowlitz, Grand Ronde, and Siletz people as the stewards of the area where I live and thank them for their leadership. I also want to acknowledge the people who have cultivated me. I would not be here without my family – by birth and by love – and the wisdom and leadership of Jomo Greenidge, who transitioned to ancestor in Dec 2020, as well as countless people who have challenged, strengthened, guided, invited, and loved me to a more whole version of myself. I honor you all.
Imagine your friend invites you to a group discussion. They say it’s a really important topic that has changed their life. You decide to give it a try, and when you arrive and knock on the door, someone opens the door but doesn’t say anything to you. Their face is serious, and they avoid eye contact. In those few seconds in the doorway, you realize there’s no sound coming from inside, and the only clue that there are people inside are the shadows moving around.
How does that feel?
I’m pretty sure I would turn right around and leave.
Yet, this is almost exactly what most white liberation spaces are like.
No music, food, laughter, celebration, support, love, care, connection, or anything that would actually feel welcoming or exciting – much less life-changing.
My first experience in a white affinity space was much like this. As part of a 3-day training, we split into racial affinity groups for one hour, and when I walked into the room for white people, it was…awkward. We were told how much work we had to do and how behind we were, and then we were expected to share deeply with each other but not take up too much space because we only had an hour. Meanwhile, the sounds of those targeted by racism lingered in the hall…music, laughter, vibrant voices.
I have to admit that some of our spaces have followed suit. It’s one of the many mistakes we’ve made, which only reinforced what’s not going well in our community.
As we begin to contemplate what co-creating new white culture would include, there are a few traps to watch out for.
Part of becoming white includes getting stripped of ethnic culture. Assimilation is a tactic of amassing power that was used on white-bodied immigrants. The saying “misery loves company” couldn’t be more true as we force our wound of assimilation onto everyone around us when we expect them to believe, feel, think, or act like us.
While it may be appealing, we cannot go backward and reattach severed ethnic cultures. How would Polish, Irish, Italian, or German people feel about white Americans all of a sudden claiming, “I’m Polish?” We must mourn what’s been lost in order to go forward.
Jeff Duncan-Andrade offers us great wisdom:
Your culture is your medicine. When you meet people from other communities – and all of us are indigenous to somewhere – that indigeneity is your medicine. If you’re not carrying that indigeneity with you, you’re vulnerable to get sick because someone else will tell you what your culture is. And when someone else tells you what your culture is, you start hurting other people because you don’t have your true moral compass – you don’t have your true north.
We have to talk about “white supremacy culture” because it’s an idea that has permeated much of our white liberation spaces. In fact, I have to account for sharing it myself. While I love that it gave us language to articulate patterned behavior, calling these patterns our “culture” is exactly what Elder Duncan-Andrade warns us about.
Nanci Luna Jiménez says, “People are not their patterns, and group patterns are not culture.”
The bell curve of dominating patterns that white people predictably run is not who we are. We are so much more than that. But if we mislabel group patterns as culture, it becomes incredibly difficult to imagine and co-create the kind of new culture we need to co-create.
By the time I was in my twenties, I felt culturally empty and numb.
I studied other cultures intensely. Tried to understand customs. Bought their cloth. Practiced their medicine. Watched their films. Listened to their music.
I found myself immersed over and over in the cultures of loved ones who gave me permission to appropriate their culture – often telling me they felt honored by my interest.
Looking back, I’m able to notice that I was trying to fill the painful void I felt from losing contact with my ethnic culture, and I have talked with an endless number of white people who have done or are doing the same.
When our culture cup is empty, we take on the languages, hairstyles, customs, and rituals of people whose culture is, at least in part, intact. We may say we appreciate their culture but how is that true when we simultaneously avoid confronting our community for its part in forced assimilation today?
These traps are preventing us from the necessary co-creation of new white culture.
But we can and must do better.
For a while now, we’ve been asking white people who join our communities of practice to finish the sentence, “A new white culture is…” and this is a word cloud of their answers:
What do you notice most?
I notice hope. It’s not a word here, but the possibility that white people could become known as this kind of community is incredibly hopeful for me.
I also notice worry, fear, and inadequacy creeping up within me. For now, this list is aspirational. It will take a lot of effort with each other to become this kind of community.
And with all of those feelings, I notice how relational many of these words are. I don’t have to do it all, and neither do you. We are better together.
Let’s remember what George Hrbek says:
It’s in the context of community that white people find the courage to be who they want to be.
This tracks with our belief that in order to co-create the kind of white community we can be delighted to be a part of, we must strengthen relating patterns and loosen dominating patterns.
Here are a few ideas for the patterns under our microscope at the moment.
💪🏻 Strengthen Relating Patterns (do more of):
CONNECTED: share music, stories, feelings, rituals, time, etc., frequently
HUMBLE: look for ways we are wrong
AWARE: seek understanding more than knowledge/judgment
SHARING: leading, speaking, deciding, resources, etc.
EXPANSIVE: set audacious goals not bound to current reality (“it’s possible that…”)
HEALING: commit to non-transactional practice(s) of healing
COLLABORATIVE: find common ground & practice mutuality
ACCOUNTABLE: reckon with damage to relationships, seek to make whole what is not
RESTFUL: slow down, practice pausing, no one left behind, etc.
CONTRIBUTING: show up, keep trying, & celebrate the contributions of others
CURIOUS: experiment, ask more questions, & be willing to make mistakes
COURAGEOUS: reflect, innovate, & iterate often
PLAYFUL: sing, tell stories, doodle, explore, re-arrange, laugh, etc.
➿ Loosen Dominating Patterns (do less of):
DISCONNECTED: prioritizing tasks/structure above relationships
SUPERIOR: competing, performing, or proving status
OBLIVIOUS: showing off knowledge, misinterpretation, little/no seeking of unknown
HOARDING: unwilling to give up power, leadership, speaking time, resources, etc.
RIGID: this/that, either/or, right/wrong, etc.
RESCUING: emphasis on bandaging harm instead of preventing it
DEFENSIVE: listening for points of disagreement
AVOIDANT: suppressing/ignoring human feelings or needs, particularly in conflict
IMPATIENT: irritated or cross with others, viewing anyone as “not worth it”
HELPLESS: waiting for someone else to save us
POLICING: forced assimilation through coercion, humiliation, violence, etc.
FEARFUL: hiding what’s true/real behind self-protecting armor
INHUMAN: unfeeling, intellectual, cold, lacking care
What ideas does this bring up for you?
In any case, we can’t afford to keep having conversations about race that are lifeless. Who would want to join us or stay put long enough for us to make a real difference? Culture is essential, and it cannot be ignored. How can you infuse culture into the spaces where you are talking about race without falling into the traps I shared?
As always, we’d love to hear how it goes.
no one gets here alone, and I am no different
The brilliant beings who have contributed to these ideas are Jomo Greenidge; Charlene Westley; Chrysanthius Lathan; Lakeitha Elliott; No-name Group; Jody Rutherford; Sonya Renee Taylor; Charlene Carruthers; Page 264 in Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands; Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darica Narvaez in Restoring the Kinship Worldview; family and loved ones of LaGrande, Oregon; Jeff Duncan-Andrade; Tema Okun; Nanci Luna Jiménez; George Hrbek; Lynn Burnett; participants and makers of Jubilee’s Do All White People Think the Same About Race?; all of the white people who are journeying and imagining a new white culture with us; and countless more.