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"Colorless All-Color": Notes on White Culture

Is there such a thing as "white culture?" First answer: depends on what you mean by culture.
Adam Cornford

Issue #33, September 1997

Is there such a thing as "white culture?" First answer: depends on what you mean by culture. If the word is used in the usual sense of a rich and interdependent body of language (including dialects and idiolects), belief, symbology, iconography, behavior, ritual, kinship structure, and so forth, the answer is mostly no. Rather, the culture of the United States, to the extent that it can be said to have one, is a complicated amalgam of various traditions adapted to American circumstances. The uppermost elements in the amalgam are northern European (English, Scottish, German, Dutch), but it also includes -- and ever more so -- Irish, Italian, and central European Jewish as well as numerous others, including Mexican. The 'secret', or often-unacknowledged element in this amalgam of traditions, supremely influential, is African and African-American. As Albert Murray says in 'The Omni-Americans,' "American culture ... is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto."

Mulatto or creole cultures exist wherever slavery imported by European settlers resulted in long-term cultural and genetic exchange and intermixture between the European-descended and the African-descended. In this sense, the US is part of an archipelago of societies that stretches from the Caribbean up and down the Americas and also includes such diverse places as Cuba, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Atlantic Nicaragua. These societies are all caste-stratified by skin tone and more broadly by the degree of 'African-ness' as opposed to 'European-ness' that an individual or family exhibits. The US manifests the pathology of stratified mulatto societies in an extreme form. Here, unlike in some other mulatto countries, an apparently rigid marker of whiteness exists -- the color line -- which is used to divide society into two groups that are by definition exclusive, 'whites' and others. If you are white, you are not non-white, and vice versa.

The awkwardness and inadequacy of all existing blanket terms for these others, such as 'minorities' or 'people of color,' stem from the repression and confusion involved in the very notion of whiteness. Nineteenth-century writers sensed this repression, so that whiteness often becomes an emblem of terror in their work. Ishmael in Moby-Dickspeaks of whiteness as a "colorless all-color of atheism, from which we shrink."

Who is white in the US? Today the simple answer might be someone who shows no physical trace of African, Asian, or Native American ancestry. The privileges denoted by whiteness have only been fully extended to some European-descended groups (Jews, Southern Italians, Portuguese, Poles and other eastern Europeans) in the last half-century or so. Distinct traces of racism toward all these groups still persist in the dominant culture (the Jewish case is obviously unique and I want to leave it aside here). Complicating the picture still further is that a sort of honorary whiteness is being extended to culturally assimilated nonwhites, especially Asians but also some middle-class and usually light-skinned African-Americans and Latinos. All this suggests that whiteness does have a cultural component, which is difficult to define.

To some extent, cultural whiteness in the US, as in other mulatto societies, is Europeanness in America. It is northern, Protestant European-ness rather than the southern, Catholic European-ness that dominates most of Latin America. Whiteness originated in seventeenth-century English Atlantic colonies as a marker denoting those who could own African slaves (though telltale images of blackness-as-contamination are already present in Renaissance plays like Webster's The White Devil and, of course, Othello). In the United States, as in Spanish-speaking mestizo societies like Mexico or Peru, color hierarchy has also been redefined in relation to native peoples, with an important difference. In Mexico, for instance, the original colonial marker, 'Christian-civilized' as opposed to "pagan-savagery," was retained over centuries of colonial history, allowing Christianized Indians to interbreed with the Spanish and to create a predominantly mixed population. In the United States, by contrast, a combination of the phobic, deeply dichotomous culture of New England Puritanism and the pressures of emergent slave-holding capitalism undermined any possibility of such an accommodation. The Christian/savage dichotomy gradually merged into the white/black one during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and faded in independent significance as native populations were slaughtered and their remnants penned up in reservations.

Whiteness had to keep recreating an absolute binary division of the human world, paralleling and growing out of the Calvinist division between the Elect and the Damned. As recently as the 1920s, 'Christian' in the US meant Protestant; 'Catholic' was a separate category; and European-descended working-class Catholics in eastern cities remained 'ethnic.' Arguably, the final full acceptance of these ethnicities as white was a strategic political decision made by the 1968 Nixon campaign, based on an understanding of their tendencies to racism and dislike of the anti-war movement.

American whiteness, then, is at root an adaptation of the Protestant ethic and accumulationist social personality that emerged in the merchant classes of Germany, Holland, and England during the seventeenth century. Whiteness has everything to do with capitalism and, more specifically, with adapting to the evolution of the capitalist mode of production and the social hierarchy it generates. It is also a denial of original crime -- genocide and slavery -- and of the fact that, as Harold Cruse put it in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, "the white Protestant Anglo-Saxon in America has nothing in his native American tradition that is aesthetically and culturally original, except that which derives from the Negro presence." This is obvious from the way 'race' is defined in the US. Race is still mainly based on the slavery paradigm, with an implied shadow of Christian-colonialism -- visible today among genteel bigots of the Bill Bennett stripe -- suggesting that non-whites are less moral than whites.

What, then, is whiteness today, in an era of formal juridical equality for citizens of all 'races'? Depends on who, and where, you ask. First, apply the association test in the better-off suburbs. Disney World. Leave it to Beaver. Jeep Cherokees. Frozen dinners. Golf shirts. No-nonsense pantyhose. Dennis the Menace. First Presbyterian. George and Barbara Bush. The Sizzler. Non-fat food products. Lite beer. Light rock. Country and Western. Masterpiece Theater. The world as it appears in detergent ads, Blondie, early John Hughes movies, Family Ties, or Weird Science.

White (not European) American accumulationist culture is defined by its blandness and avoidance of controversy or risk, by its cleanliness-as-absence. This blandest-common-denominator culture is the behavioral and stylistic norm of the suburb. It is, besides, the ambiance of the modern corporate office, where niceness rules -- or rather, is the means of rule. In the white-collar workplace everyone must act white: quiet, polite, cheerful, emotionally masked, sensually numb, perpetually busy, willing to tolerate any humiliation as long as it's done with a smile.

One might say, then, that contemporary whiteness is, to use a phrase from Roland Barthes, the "degree zero" of culture, the suppression of culture as local, specific, traditional, kin- or community-oriented, non-rational, or non-capitalist. Non-white is all that resists smiling self-adaptation to one's assigned yet ever-changing role as a component in the smooth flow of capital.

This suggests that whiteness is ceasing to be a property-defined quality allocated by the northern European-descended Protestant elite that has ruled the US since its founding. Rather, whiteness is a complex of unquestionable (because invisible) assumptions, behavioral norms, and power relations reproduced by and within all the major institutions of US society: the workplace, the school, the mall and other shopping/consumption sites, the private automobile/highway system, the suburb of detached single-family houses, and of course the mass media. All these institutions teach possessive individualism; anxious competitiveness; rigid emotional control through 'niceness'; narrow or instrumental rationality; ready acceptance of isolation, boredom, and meaninglessness; the sacrifice of a lifetime for merchandise and security. Most of them also implicitly associate these qualities and attitudes both with white or light skin, and with success and self-esteem.

Running apparently counter to these trends is the fact that the workforce as well as the consumption force of the US is ceasing to be predominantly European, as a century ago it ceased to be predominantly northern-Protestant. This demographic fact, as well as the black, women's, and gay movements, has forced non-white (and non-masculine, non-straight) identities into cultural visibility. However, my guess is that the more farsighted sectors of the US corporate class, while they may share a personal racist and phobic revulsion towards this upsurge, see it as inevitable that these identities become part of the cultural mainstream. As Bill Clinton would say: "It's not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do."

There is still plenty of vicious resistance to this upsurge on the part of those whose privileges and values are threatened, and not only from upper middle-class elements like the National Association of Scholars, the New Republic, Charles Murray, or Pete Wilson. Apply the whiteness association test to poor rural areas, frayed inner-ring developments, and collapsing Rust Belt cities. Mountain Dew. Budweiser long-necks. Dented Camaros, vintage vans, and old pick-up trucks. Acne. Bad teeth. Nicotine fingers. Long hair under John Deere caps, or shaved heads with tattoos. On women, cheap blonde dye jobs and too much mousse. 'Outlaw' country and western. Hard rock. Crystal meth. Shock radio. Wal-Mart. Trailer parks. First Southern Baptist. Assembly of God. Confederate flag decals. Burning crosses. The world as it appears on 'Married ... With Children,' or the 'white trash' segments of 'Cops' and 'America's Most Wanted.' We associate these images with places where black, brown, yellow, red, or visibly queer people don't go after dark, and middle-class whites tread cautiously. This is the other whiteness, the embattled, dirty whiteness of fading skin privilege.

Skin privilege is fading at the lower end of the European-American working class. Over half of all welfare recipients have always been white. Now, a much larger majority of the working poor are white too. Nearly half of all high-school graduates without college degrees today work in jobs that pay scarcely more than the minimum wage. The fact that the underclass now consists at least as much of white as of black and brown people is concealed not only by habitual racism but by the fact that the white poor, owing to the history of government-sponsored segregation since World War II, mostly inhabit different zones than the black and brown poor. This is not to say that poor whites do not continue to receive considerably better treatment than poor blacks, nor that middle- and even upper-income blacks are not still subject to police harassment and to subtler forms of prejudice as well. But the media have begun to treat poor whites with the same sort of half-hysterical, prurient scorn once reserved exclusively for African-Americans and Latinos. The recent editorial-page frenzies of sanctimonious snobbery -- sometimes masked as condescending compassion -- over 'trailer trash' figures like Tonya Harding or Paula Jones are the latest examples.

One might argue that there has always been a significant minority of economically successful black people, just as there has always been a significant minority of 'white trash.' What has changed? The answer is twofold: first, the breakdown of the mostly-for-whites income ladders between unskilled and skilled/supervisory jobs, and between blue-collar parent and white-collar offspring; and second, the organized visibility, outside the old ghettos, of a much larger black middle class. These facts have dealt a crippling one-two punch to the old whiteness. Many European-Americans who cannot appropriate the new whiteness because they languish in wage-stripped areas, where public schools almost as bad as inner-city ones, are intent on drawing the color line ever more starkly. For them, pale skin is the last barrier against the realization of their utter disposability, their exclusion from the magic circle. Hence the appearance of Patriot militiamen and Nazi skinheads, who continue to define whiteness and its privilege on old, skin- and religion-based terms. The anxious, threatened suburbanites, still better-off but facing longer and longer work hours and diminished security as they struggle to maintain their position, are not yet ready to go all the way. But they are electoral fodder for the likes of California governor Pete Wilson, whose couches his appeals to racism and xenophobia more respectably in pseudo-commonsensical economic terms.

These two rival definitions of whiteness, the behavioral-elite and the Euro-plebeian, constitute vital fault lines in US politics today. The 1996 Buchanan candidacy represented the emergence onto the national electoral scene of this embattled plebeian whiteness alongside its organic counterpart, economic nationalism. Since 1968, adhering to the Nixonian Southern Strategy, the Republicans have been able to mobilize this constituency for their quite contrary agenda (which is in nearly all respects identical with that of the New Democrats). To the extent that Republicans fail to deliver skin privilege, they will be abandoned by this group. As white working-class people actually validate through experience that not all black people live either like those on the Cosby Show or on true-cop shows -- that the great majority are like them -- these working-class whites will move politically and culturally either hard right, toward openly fascist white nationalism, or left, toward class-based coalitions and creolism.

Of course, corporate or elite whiteness must still dominate social behavior and values; in fact, it must do so more thoroughly than ever before. Factory workers in the mass production era could be thoroughly non-white in most respects as long as they could perform mechanical tasks under close supervision or under the discipline of the assembly line. As noted already, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe who took the mass-production jobs opened up by Taylorism and Fordism in the 'twenties were not accorded full whiteness until well after World War II. The new forms of work, being substantially cognitive and/or emotional, require a much closer adaptation of individual personality and workplace culture to the tasks involved. But all that this requires -- as the experience of any downtown corporate office shows -- is that workers be bicultural. They must be able to act white by muting or even shedding their cultural difference as far as possible while at work, putting it on again like sweats and jeans when they get home. More precisely, on the job workers can retain whatever aspects of their cultural identity are not disruptive to the unquestioning accomplishment of the work unit's goals, however abstract, vacuous, or even destructive these may be. Far-sighted corporations encourage such diversity because it both provides individual workers with an identity that can console them for the dreariness of their tasks, and functions as shared decoration for the work unit, like potted plants, cute posters, and so forth.

The allowable level of non-whiteness or ethnicity increases as one moves down the hierarchy from managerial decision-making and symbolic analysis toward the more routinized, supervised tasks of processing and service. Below these levels are the ghetto workplaces -- the minority-owned small businesses and enterprise zones favored by the current administration. Here, whiteness can approach the necessary minimum, and ethnicity becomes a vital part of business strategy. The long-term unemployed, of course, need not be white at all. In fact, the threatening Other of the new whiteness is the unemployed, presumably criminal underclass -- still ideologically figured as mainly, though not exclusively, black and Latino. This Other, like all the racially-defined Others in US history, plays the role of symbolic terrorist in reinforcing whiteness (and color stratification) among the rest of the population. How this will play out as 'trailer trash' are reconfigured as not-really-white remains to be seen. My guess is that the unassimilated Euro-American poor will start to be subject to the same kinds of surveillance and harassment in 'really white' areas as are blacks and Latinos, and will increasingly face subtle discrimination in employment and housing.

The realm of merchandising and consumption mirrors the new cultural strategy in the workplace. The segmentation of markets made possible by the multiplication of broadcast channels, demographic computer modeling based on point-of-sale data collection, and automated production techniques allows capitalism to become multicultural. As each major ethnic or identity group develops an adapted (not quite assimilated, in the old sense) middle class, commodities can be tailored to the values and traditions of that group to the extent that said values and traditions do not conflict with commodity consumption. Alongside the historic black media, there are Hispanic, Chinese, and Japanese radio stations and cable and satellite channels. Popular music markets already reflect age and lifestyle as well as racial and ethnic segregation. This relatively crude segmentation will become ever more precise and diverse as information technology develops and to the extent that neoliberalism wins out as corporate strategy. Meanwhile, universalist appeals will continue to be made to the more educated segments of the population, as in the recent MCI Internet service ads that proclaim "No race... no age... no gender... only minds."

From this perspective there is no long-term incompatibility between whiteness and at least some versions of multiculturalism. If the version of multiculturalism we promulgate (or accept) as teachers, artists, or activists rests solely on the assertion of culture as identity, or as a lifestyle one can own and can therefore be merchandised, we indeed risk advancing 'white culture' in its newest, most sophisticated, and most insidious form. We are doing no better if we pander to the cruder versions of ethnic nationalism and Afrocentrism that mythologize, sanitize, and essentialize their regions and cultures much like those white New Age realtors who were all royalty in their past lives. The Situationists wrote "Culture is the commodity that sells all the others." Thirty years later, they could hardly have imagined how true this would become.

The history of black people in the United States teaches European-Americans that their whiteness is not an ethnicity but a dominance category and a denial mechanism; in other words, that it is empty of everything but power and forgetting. This forgetting really only benefits the few at the top of the social pyramid, and must be reproduced by a constant blizzard of 'white noise' in the mass media, as well as by every mechanism of geographical, educational, and economic segregation the system can bring to bear. Whenever whiteness starts to break down, as it did during 'the Sixties,' danger looms for the system, because new forms of order, involving the refusal of work and the direct assertion of collective need, tend to appear. I would qualify this by adding that whiteness also comprises the defensive adaptations of subaltern European ethnicities to the American racial divide (an obvious case is what it means to be 'Italian' in Howard Beach).

It seems to me that our task as radicals is not only to decenter the European-derived cultural and social perspectives and versions of history associated with 'whiteness,' but to draw from all traditions the means of destabilizing and subverting whiteness, for it is the central cultural form assumed by capitalist domination in this country.

Adam Cornford is a Bay Area poet and writer. He teaches poetics at San Francisco's New College. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1997 by Adam Cornford. All rights reserved.