‘The End of White America?’ bawls the cover of this month’s Atlantic, superimposed on a close-up of Barack Obama. The article is by Hua Hsu, a Professor of English at Vassar, whose list of specialities includes ‘philosophies of race and ethnicity’, those being amongst many things over which English department people now exercise a casual mastery.
It’s not the old fear of being swamped by Others that we learn haunts white Americans, it’s the absence of a white ‘culture’. The idea of culture at work here may be epitomised by the article’s description of Hip-hop as ‘transformative’. Poor white kids, they got no music of their own. The message from the new discipline of White Studies is that ‘whiteness’ is in trouble. As one academic puts it, young white Americans ‘don’t have a culture that’s cool or oppositional.’
Over at Stuff White People Do (not to be confused with Stuff White People Like, a much bigger deal) there’s a large chunk of Hsu’s article and an interesting and mostly literate set of responses to it. Several posters make the obvious point that ‘culture’ is not just about the present, not just about what’s popular and not just about consumer choice. But this reminder doesn’t make the issue go away.
One of the posters clarifies:
I didn’t mean to suggest that there is NO white culture, but the culture that PLDs or YWAs (white suburbanites to me) grow up in is not saturated with Mahler, Ibsen, Picasso, or Einstein; contemporary US white culture is about reality TV and celebrity gossip. This is what the people I work with and grew up with talk about and how they live, and it’s what I ran away from long ago. When YWAs talk about not having a culture, it’s the active day-to-day that they’re referring to.
Older readers might sigh a little and think back to the hipsters, The White Negro, Leonard Bernstein throwing a party for the leadership of the Black Panthers. But in the 1959s and 1960s white envy and emulation of certain black styles was confined to a relatively small group, mostly people in the arts and their followers. What we’re looking at here is a much bigger crisis of confidence.
The household I grew up in wasn’t exactly saturated with Mahler and Picasso. My mother read nothing, my father read books on accountancy and magazines of science fiction. In his youth, he had read Shaw and Wells, but there were no copies in the house. My own hungers led me to literature and to music and by my early teens (spurred on by social envy, a useful emotion) I had a working understanding of what culture was: it meant Mahler and Picasso, and Beethoven and foreign languages and travel and a crowd of similar things that were not available at the touch of a button, things that were scarce and difficult to get hold of, that had to be sought out and paid for and laboured over until understanding arrived. Portrait of a lower-middle-class boy on the make, desperate for cultural capital, or the natural development of someone gifted and receptive to works of art, someone who once exposed to a few samples could not live without more: ein gebildetes Mensch in the making. Yes, and a second-hand European and all the rest – but I’m not trying to tell the whole story here.
Later I came to recognise that science and technology were also, in this formative sense, a culture. They are also, and I put this point neutrally, descriptively ‘white’ as well as whatever we are to call the Chinese empiricists (‘yellow’ anyone?) and the Indian mathematicians, Ibn Rushd (Averroes). For science as science is colour-blind.
Well, that’ll have to do – notes towards a thesis. In ‘whiteness studies’ we have yet another pseudo-discipline founded on nothing more than a parochial prejudice.