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whitewashing

there is no such thing as "white culture", and the greatest threat to the cultural heritage of different types of white people is the idea that white culture exists.


obviously, issues of race and culture have been pushed further forward in the last few days, and there are about a thousand different discussions that could and should happen, and i'm not able in terms of knowledge or time available to cover even a fraction of them, but there is one that i wanted to chip away at, where i think i have adequate knowledge to speak cogently: the far right idea of "white culture".

demonstrations like the ones that happened last friday and saturday champion the cause of "white culture" and claim to defend it in the face from exterior threats. this sort of bluster often emerges when governments decide to change or remove traditions and symbols that are deemed offensive to non-whites. that's what we were faced with this weekend, but it's hardly a unique situation. it's an example that relates specifically to the white culture of the southeastern united states, but it also echoes the cries of populist parties in europe that white culture there is under attack.

however, the idea of "white culture" is a comparatively new thing. it dates only to the seventeenth century, and to the american colonies rather than to any place in europe, and the idea of whiteness as being superior to blackness dates from even later. before that, europeans operated largely with notions of "self" and "other". they expended huge amounts of money and hundreds of thousands of lives killing other white people over what they perceived to be profound cultural differences. indeed, since the fall of the roman empire, europe had evolved with a series of shifting alliances and enmities. before the age of colonial expansion, the europeans did encounter other races [as we think of them today], but their perception of race was rather more specific than ours. a french person would have perceived themselves as different than a turk, but they would also have perceived themselves as different from an englishman or spaniard, and it was the englishmen and spaniards who represented the most immediate threats. catholics attacked muslims in the holy lands, but they were just as brutal with protestants in europe. "others" were defined by much more than race, and there was no prevailing concept of homogeneity based on skin colour.

nor were there permanent definitions of the "other". the vikings, whose symbols have been co-opted so successfully by the far right that they're generally considered fascist calling cards, are an interesting case study. they are revered by right wing extremists as examples of pure whiteness, powerful and feared warriors who held tight to their clans and countries. however, there's little truth to that. in fact, as formidable as the vikings were, they relied heavily on waves of quick military surges against unsuspecting targets. and once they had defeated a certain area, they cemented their dominance by marrying into the local royalty as quickly as possible. the fact was, they were, quite often, attacking places that were larger and more populated than their homelands, making long, sustained battles a losing proposition. settlements in places where they weren't able to quickly turn at least part of the local populace into allies, such as the eastern edge of canada, floundered. rather than maintaining their own pure bloodlines, the vikings were eager to merge with conquered "others" as soon as they could arrange it. and, rather than imposing their culture on those they ruled, they were frequently "turned": the gaels in scotland and ireland merged with them so completely that no one could tell where one culture began and the other ended. early invaders from the swedish island of bornholm may have ridden roughshod over great swathes of france, but in their journey, they were transformed into burgundians.

nor were the germans- who weren't germans until the nineteenth century, but a continuum of states speaking germanic dialects- averse to mixing it up, blood-wise. the roots of almost all the royal houses of europe can be traced to the marriage of philip hohenstaufen, king of swabia to irene angelina, the daughter of byzantine emperor isaac ii. hailing from constantinople, it is unlikely that queen irene would ever be accepted as properly white by today's neo-nazis [or by the original nazis].

even when europe began to congeal into the rough national outlines we see today, they were hardly uniform in culture. minority cultures within larger nations guarded their languages and their customs fiercely and took pride in their difference. a little while back, i wrote a post here about languages that included audio of dozens of separate languages within france and italy, as well as a handful from spain. while many of those are dying, they persisted long after natives were brought under the rule of those nations. and therein lies the problem of "white culture".

before the age of mass media, culture was extremely local. one might swear allegiance to the british crown, but still maintain a fiercely scottish identity. hungary and romania, surrounded by slavic speakers and often under the power of others, never lost their distinct characteristics. and even much later, the idea of a unifying "white culture" could get you in trouble in a lot of places. go explain to an irish republican, or a basque, or a diehard quebec separatist that all white cultures are basically the same and see how far that gets you.

in fact, the notion of a broad, bland, generally european and north american culture [yes, australia and new zealand, you count too], with minimal variation around the globe, is the greatest destructive force against the tapestry of white-people cultures everywhere. france has killed off most of the cultural diversity within its borders through strict centralizing programs. the handful of celtic cultures that survived into medieval times were decimated in the modern era. and the catch-all term "north american" [referring to white people] disguises the fact that the white-majority countries of north america are culturally different: americans are largely descended from germans, while canadians come from english, irish and, of course, french stock. the english and the germans considered each other to be vastly different [and threatening] well into the twentieth century, even during times when their rulers were literally cousins.

there are similarities between european cultures and their progeny: they generally speak indo-european languages [hungarians, finns, basques and a few select others notwithstanding], they are generally pale [although, in many cases, not as pale as the fairest-skinned asians], they are christian [although there are stark differences between traditionally catholic and protestant cultures, and they're far outnumbered by christians in other parts of the world at this point], and they have a number of practices specific to a history of life in the northern hemisphere [such as the alignment of events and holidays with key seasonal shifts]. but that's a pretty weak basis for a culture.

cultural practices have not historically been so general: children got to know the world through stories close to their own communities, expressed themselves through the language and dialect of those closest to them, ate what was locally available, wore what was customary, fashionable or practical for their area, and understood the universe largely by following the example of their parents. cultural exchanges could and did happen, but having one culture suppress another was an act of violence.

and, in an era where the same messages and the same ideas can spread throughout the entire world, that violence has become normalised. white skin and caucasian features are genealogical quirks, like long fingers or curly hair, but those who express the greatest pride in their whiteness place the entire locus of their culture in those quirks, rather than in shared tradition. when they seek to cut and paste elements of history onto their imagined global community, they frequently get it wrong, because they try to make history fit their modern image. [and contemporary white supremacists often get their historical information from earlier groups who had it wrong, compounding the mistakes.]

the idea of generic, interchangeable white culture is ahistorical and pretty flimsy. it requires us to overlook things that were considered important for centuries. i come from an area of the world that's pretty attached to its traditions, and i knew i was scottish long before i knew i was white. i knew about culloden before i knew about the founding of canada. i consider myself lucky, because i've no doubt that things have changed; being scottish made me something affiliated with music and ceremonial clothing and a tangled family and national history and cultural tragedy. being white did none of those things. i understood how whites and non-whites experienced the world differently, but that didn't make me feel any kind of cultural bond to the vast white majority around me. shifting notions of culture to a huge scale, so that they can encompass the largest possible group of people, requires that most aspects of actual culture be abandoned.

"white culture" isn't under threat: it is the threat.

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