Normative whiteness: How dare you love your culture if it is not white??

22 Sep

This morning I was having a conversation with a colleague who is Latino. We were discussing the idiocy in Arizona where they have forbidden the teaching of the history or culture of any minority group. In case you have not been keeping up with the lunatic fringe here is the text of the law which says schools will lose state funding if they offer any courses that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” You see, the lovely white folks in charge in Arizona have decided that teaching the accurate history of blacks, Latinos and American Indians to name a few, although knowing these morons I am sure they would include Japanese Internment in this ban, promotes hate and resentment of white people. In other words, to quote Evilene from the Wiz, “don’t nobody bring me no bad news” in history class.

This is not a new thing. In the 1960’s when schools began teaching Black History there was an enormous outcry in certain schools and cities. How dare we separate blacks from white history, even though white history books at the time frequently relegated blacks to information about slavery.Women of a certain age like myself had as much chance of learning about W.E. B. Dubois, or Marcus Garvey at Xenia High School in history class in the 1960’s as we had of learning about the little green men who were supposedly stored in a hangar at Wright Patterson Airforce Base. Come to think of it we probably had a better chance of being instructed on UFOs than on Black History.

One of the reasons so many people are upset with my Latino friends who immigrate here, or who were born here in some cases, is that they refuse to follow the pattern of other immigrants. They do not want to be white, even the white ones, not white the way that our society characterizes white people. Those who speak standard English without any accent, those who are Christians, those who are middle-class and basically cultureless. Earlier immigrants ( blacks do not count, most of us did not immigrate, we were imported as chattel property) were eager to become “Americans” , read white. They dropped their accents as quickly as possible, anglicized their names and kept their culture a private thing for the most part. Oh yes, the Italians would still have some festivals, generally in their own neighborhoods out of the eyes of the WASPs, the Irish would have St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, but again within the confines of the Irish community. Celebrating cultures that are not rooted in WASP history publicly is a fairly recent phenomenon.

This attempt to whitewash American History has been going on for decades.  When accounts of attempted genocide against Native populations, Japanese Internment, the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow’s disgraceful behaviors, etc., were being included in narratives about America beginning in the 1960s it was immediately declared revisionist history.  The odd thing was that all of these events were easily documented as accurate. Evidently it was not veracity of the oppressive actions of the white population towards the people of color that was at fault, it was the fact they were being publicized. ( On a personal note I had a similar experience recently. I presented a paper at the Association of University Professors last summer  which was an indictment of the dearth of black faculty at Research 1 institutions. When I returned to campus it became obvious that the reaction to my paper, which got some minor national attention, was quite negative. I was puzzled. I had offered the paper to several people to read in advance and no one had found fault with it. I asked my critics when I returned whether they disagreed with my data, my findings or my conclusions. The answer was universally “no.” Evidently what they objected to was me telling  about it! )  It was characterized at one point as unpatriotic to tell bad things that happened in America to people of color. It is chilling to see language around the law against teaching about culture in Arizona that uses words like treason.

When blacks began to display cultural pride in the 1960s by wearing our hair in Afros, sporting dashikis and pushing black music onto the airwaves on white, not ethnically programmed radio stations, using slogans like “Black is Beautiful” all of a sudden there was a frisson of alarm in the white community. As long as we had been straightening our hair, trying to lighten our skin, copying white dress, customs, home decor, etc., we were marginally acceptable. As soon as some of us stood up and said, ” I like being black, I do not want to be white” things began to get dicey. We were now being viewed as radical and dangerous. Some of the older black folks at the time were equally alarmed. They felt that flaunting one’s blackness was dangerous. This was still a time when folks were being buried in dams in Mississippi for trying to register people to vote remember.

It appeared to some white folks that an outbreak of uppityness had broken out among large segments of the black population. They were proud to be black they said. Who ever heard  of such a thing? They were making demands! How dare they? And, they had stopped trying to be mistaken for white, trying to blend in. The nerve!  Now, having constructed a pretend post racial society with the election of Barak Obama–who has certainly done a lot for black folks since he has been in office–these Latinos show up, speaking Spanish ( I know they are talking about me) listening to Latin music, celebrating their culture! Here we go again. Why can’t these minorities understand all they have to do to succeed in America is to be as white as they can be? Of course, in order to do that they have to acknowledge the superiority of the white race to their own culture, but that is a no-brainer, right?

In the 1970’s I was teaching American History in Xenia Ohio at Warner Jr. Hi. I decided to add a series of lessons on Black History. Because it was not in the curriculum ( surprise!) at the time I had to go to the principal and then to the curriculum committee ( on which I served) to get it approved. I was able to get it approved after submitting lesson plans, learning outcomes, etc. Proudly I announced to my class that we would be, for the next three days, studying Black History from 1619 to the present. Obviously this was going to be a Cliff Notes version of Black History, but small steps were necessary in that time and place.  Several of the white student snickered. One of the white males said ” that is going to be a short lesson” letting me know that I had my work cut out for me. In justice to my home town I only had one parent request that her child be removed from my class, a request that was denied by the principal.  I write this to say that most people in America of any color do not know the history of the people of color in this country. Ask people about Japanese Internment they might know but ask them about the Braceros Program, about Madame CJ Walker, or about the siege of Ft. Pitt and the dissemination of smallpox infected blankets to what were considered recalcitrant Indians. Ask them about the Tuskegee Study that infected black men with syphilis in order to study the effects and you will probably get blank stares.

Could teaching about these things make minorities have hard feelings against white? Maybe, but as an historian I believe we have to tell it like it was accurately to the best of our ability.  If we are making up history it is bad no matter what the subject. Such accurate knowledge about people of color might also make whites understand more why some of us do not want to be white, but are proud of our culture as they should be of theirs for the most part.

I am, and always have been and always will be an uppity black. I was taught from infancy to be proud to come from a strong, resourceful, talented, intelligent culture. That does not mean I do not like white people. It does not mean I hold grudges against white people for past sins. If you were not alive at the time I cannot hold you accountable for it. I can, however, hold you accountable for continuing some of the practices that were initiated long ago to oppress people of color and for continuing to insist that white, Christian, straight, English speaking people are the only normal ones.

To me black is normal, everything else is different. That does not mean it is inferior or superior, it is just different. And wouldn’t this world be boring if we were not all different? Do not ask me to imitate a culture that is not mine and I will not ask you to imitate mine, although when we get right down to it from music to language a lot more white folks imitate black culture than vice versa. Be proud of who you are and what you are and encourage everyone else to do the same.


Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “Normative whiteness: How dare you love your culture if it is not white??

  1. Nigel Gunn

    September 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Isn’t “white” an ethnic group as much as any minority cultural group?
    Therefore, “are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group” would suggest that they are also not allowed to teach anything that prefers white students either.

    • minerva5

      September 23, 2011 at 12:22 am

      Actually NIgel we do not usually refer to white people as ethnic. I do not know why, it was done before I was born ! 🙂

  2. Sue Ellen Ward

    September 23, 2011 at 2:40 am

    It’s unreal to me that in the 70’s someone would want to be removed from a class because they were going to study black history a few days…..I think it was my Junior year (76/77) that they offered short 6 week social study courses..I signed up for black studies and enviornment in crisis….but the courses were cancelled due to lack of enrollment…I think they were only a quarter credit but I was interested in the subject matter..

  3. Guy

    September 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Cookie — this is something of a nonsequitur, but do you know the story of Milt Hinton? As a musician, I think it is fascinating…

    Milt was a bass player, and a talented amateur photographer. He was on the road with Cab Calloway’s band for over 20 years (and photographed all over the world — some of the more poignant ones coming from the deep south). Afterward, he settled in the New York area, becoming a “first call” studio musician. When I learned of his story, I checked some of the many jazz albums I had, and was stunned to learn how many he had appeared on.

    In the mid-80s, the Smithsonian convinced Milt to go on the road with a small fraction of his photographs. This is when I first learned of him, seeing him perform and speak in Cincinnati. I later saw him again, in the Boston area.

    The best part is that some of his many photographs were collected into a couple of books he wrote. I, for one, am hugely grateful he was there to document so much of 20th century culture.


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