Why do people claim that whites “have no culture”?

A lot of culture–aside from that time your parents dragged you to the ballet–is what we would, in honest moments, classify as “stupid things people used to do/believe.”

Now, yes, I know, it’s a bit outre for an anthropologist to declare that large swathes of culture are “stupid,” but I could easily assemble a list of hundreds of stupid things, eg:

The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because they believed that if they didn’t, the world would come to an end.

In Britain, people used to believe that you could literally eat the sins of a recently deceased person, speeding their entry into Heaven. There were professional sin eaters, the last of whom, Richard Munslow, died in 1906.

Americans started eating breakfast cereal as part of an anti-masturbation campaign, and in Africa, many girls have their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn nearly shut in a much more vigorous anti-masturbation campaign.

The Etoro of Papua New Guinea believed that young boys between the ages of 7 and 17 must “ingest” the semen of older men daily in order to mature into men.

In Mozambique, there are people who kill bald men to get the gold they supposedly have inside their heads; in the DRC, there’s a belief that eating Pygmy people will give you magic powers.

People in Salem, Massachusetts, believed that teenage girls were a good source of information on which older women in the community were witches and needed to be hanged.

Flutes assume all sorts of strange roles in various Papuan and a few Brazilian cultures–only men are allowed to see, play, or listen to the flutes, and any women who violate the flute taboo are gang raped or executed. Additionally, “…the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.”

Spirit possession–the belief that a god or deity can take control of and speak/dance/act through a worshiper–is found in many traditions, including West African and Haitian Voodoo. If you read Things Fall Apart, then you remember the egwugwu, villagers dressed in masks who were believed to become the spirits of gods and ancestors. Things “fall apart” after a Christian convert “kills” one of the gods by unmasking him, leading other villagers to retaliate against the local Christian mission by burning it down.

In India, people traditionally murdered their moms by pushing them into their father’s funeral pyres (and those were the guys who didn’t go around randomly strangling people because a goddess told them to).

People in ancient [pretty much everywhere] believed that the gods and the deceased could receive offerings (burnt or otherwise,) of meat, chairs, clothes, games, slaves, etc. The sheer quantity of grave goods buried with the deceased sometimes overwhelmed the local economy, like in ancient Egypt.

Then there’s sympathetic magic, by which things with similar properties (say, yellow sap and yellow fever, or walnuts that look like brains and actual brains) are believed to have an effect on each other.

Madagascar has a problem with bubonic plague because of a local custom of digging up dead bodies and dancing around with them.

People all over the world–including our own culture–turn down perfectly good food because it violates some food taboo they hold.

All of these customs are either stupid or terrible ideas. Of course the dead do not really come back, Zeus does not receive your burnt offering, you can’t cure yellow fever by painting someone yellow and washing off the paint or by lying in a room full of snakes, and the evil eye isn’t real, despite the fact that progressives are convinced it is. A rabbit’s foot won’t make you lucky and neither will a 4-leaf clover, and your horoscope is meaningless twaddle.

Obviously NOT ALL culture is stupid. Most of the stuff people do is sensible, because if it weren’t, they’d die out. Good ideas have a habit of spreading, though, making them less unique to any particular culture.

Many of the bad ideas people formerly held have been discarded over the years as science and literacy have given people the ability to figure out whether a claim is true or not. Superstitions about using pendulums to tell if a baby is going to be a boy or a girl have been replaced with ultrasounds, which are far more reliable. Bleeding sick patients has been replaced with antibiotics and vaccinations; sacrifices to the gods to ensure good weather have been replaced with irrigation systems.

In effect, science and technology have replaced much of the stuff that used to count as “culture.” This is why I say “science is my culture.” This works for me, because I’m a nerd, but most people aren’t all that emotionally enthralled by science. They feel a void where all of the fun parts of culture have been replaced.

Yes, the fun parts.

I like that I’m no longer dependent on the whims of the rain gods to water my crops and prevent starvation, but this also means I don’t get together with all of my family and friends for the annual rain dance. It means no more sewing costumes and practicing steps; no more cooking a big meal for everyone to enjoy. Culture involves all of the stuff we invest with symbolic meaning about the course of our lives, from birth to coming of age to marriage, birth of our own children, to old age and death. It carries meaning for families, love, and friendship. And it gives us a framework for enjoyable activities, from a day of rest from our labors to the annual “give children candy” festival.

So when people say, “Whites have no culture,” they mean four things:

  1. A fish does not notice the water it swims in–whites have a culture, but don’t notice it because they are so accustomed to it
  2. Most of the stupid/wrong things whites used to do that we call “culture” have been replaced by science/technology
  3. That science/technology has spread to other cultures because it is useful, rendering white culture no longer unique
  4. Technology/science/literacy have rendered many of the fun or emotionally satisfying parts of ritual and culture obsolete.

Too often people denigrate the scientific way of doing things on the grounds that it isn’t “cultural.” This comes up when people say things like “Indigenous ways of knowing are equally valid as Western ways of knowing.” This is a fancy way of saying that “beliefs that are ineffective at predicting the weather, growing crops, curing diseases, etc, are just as correct as beliefs that are effective at doing these things,” or [not 1]=[1].

We shouldn’t denigrate doing things in ways that actually work; science must be respected as valid. We should, however, find new ways to give people an excuse to do the fun things that used to be tied up in cultural rituals.

 

12 thoughts on “Why do people claim that whites “have no culture”?

  1. I think the reasoning is not correct. The parts that technology have changed are very secondary. The main feature of White culture is not the use of a pendulum to predict a baby’s sex. In fact, I have never heard about it and I am white.

    Most non-Western countries are very able to preserve his culture and use technology, thank you very much. See Qatar, for example. In Morocco, a TV program made compete students in the recitation of the Koran. Viewers used SMS to vote the guy who recited the best. So much for technology replacing culture.

    The disappearance of white culture is a consequence of a deliberate and continuous effort to replace traditional Western culture with liberal culture through school and mass media.

    This liberal culture comes from the Enlightenment and is individualistic (following the philosophy of the Enlightenment). This is why it has few rituals and gatherings.

    The rituals and gatherings it has (which are mostly stupid like demonstrations, parades or voting) are atomistic and not ibecause you are part of a family or a tribe or a religious sect. This also follows the Enlightenment.

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  2. I would say that the notion that whites have no culture came out of the “white ignorance” plea of colonialism.

    Ones hears it all the time: “I don’t see color” (or people of color) “I treat people just as people”. And the like defenses. Or perhaps the worst statement of white ignorance: “reverse racism”.

    White people having no culture is not a claim of white people having no culture; that is utterly ridiculous. Of course, everyone knows and can point to many aspects that one could consider white culture. That is not the point. And that is not where the (colloquial) idea came from.

    Such an opinion is similar to people who don’t like, say, postmodernism. And point to all sorts of Postmodern ideas like “every one has their own reality”. Or “we construct our own reality”. Or. “Everything is subjective”. And things like that. Postmodernism is a critique on modernist institutions; it is not an ontological assertion as many people like to use it for.

    Similarly; the “whites have no culture” came out of the white eurocentral colonialism which viewed anyone who was not of Northern European European decent as “having culture”. Just like the idea that only people of color as racial, or “have a race”; like when we speak of “minorities” we are not speaking of white people usually, even though in many communities white peoples are the minority.

    The notion of culture was primarily used to speak of non-white, non Northern European groups’ practices, as though white culture was a neutral of “non-cultural” space from which to analyZe and make “true statements” about non-whites. As though white people and culture is “absent”, or the standard from which all other groups are allowed to be analyzed.

    The history of anthropology is riddled with this problem.

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  3. I think Anthropology has distorted most people’s conception of culture. Culture is what makes society work. If you look at primitive societies, you’ll find primitive cultures. If you look at complex civilizations, you’ll find a more refined version of culture. Look at the books that were printed in 1600’s Europe. They required woodblock illustrators, a large system printers working together, and authors who understood classical references and could use them for intellectual ends.

    People who say that ‘white people have no culture’ aren’t necessarily wrong. When I think of culture, I think of skills, traditions, and shared cultural references. Maybe it’s smartphones or maybe it’s the schooling system, but most people seem to grow up deprived of all of those things.

    The big thing that’s missing in modern society is skills. Even decadent societies used to place a large focus on talents like music, calligraphy, and other handicrafts (particularly sewing and other domestic handicrafts for women.) Men were supposed to know how to handle weapons or even just regular tools, but few people can do that nowadays. What shocks me is that even though we have a very leisurely society, no one pursues more refined artistic skills.

    Traditions are also missing from our society. Without much communal life to speak of, there aren’t many ways for people to express complex social sentiments, or signal them through some kind of ritual activity. These days, most people don’t even know how to dance, that’s how little formal communal activity takes place.

    What’s particularly weird is how, again, we have a very literate and leisurely society, but people rarely engage in literary topics. We have a broad array of shared cultural references, but with TV and now smartphones, people seem to have forgotten all of these. Few people read, even fewer write, and I’ve only met a handful of people who can converse about things that happened even 50-75 years ago, when we have at least 2000 years of well-documented history and literature to draw on.

    We lack any idea of cultural continuity. Most institutions are gone, and nothing seems to have replaced them. It seems that for most people, the only way to set yourself apart is through short-term virtue signalling.

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    • We do have shared cultural references. I can reference Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or Spongebob Squarepants, and most people get the reference immediately. I can hum the “What would you do for a Klondike bar” tune and most people recognize it. Everyone knows who Tickle Me Elmo is.

      I don’t like the fact that this is our shared culture, but it exists anyway.

      We have plenty of skills. People in our society learn how to drive cars, use computers, read and write, type. Most people with jobs learn specific skills, from fry cooks to data managers.

      We are disconnected from the traditions of our ancestors and few people put much effort into developing a leisure-time hobby into a real talent, I agree.

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      • What concerns me about our set of references is that while we have a lot of universal references, we have very few particular references. We can talk about star wars all day, but it’s hard to signal anything in particular by talking about it, especially when it comes to developing a personal relationship.

        This is probably because our culture is so universal. I can talk with an African or a Chinese without too much trouble as long as I can get over their accent. They share all of my cultural assumptions, they just have some extra ones of their own. This probably comes back to identity issues: after all, I may be an american, but so what? Who isn’t? It’s not just that anyone can become american, it’s that american culture is so pervasive, that everyone already is one. So what exactly am I then?

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  4. Great insightful post. And hopefully understanding of psychology and society will stop white people spitting and denigrating their traditions in favor of new fads. And use them instead as anchor to build healthier communities

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  5. Because people of color tend to meet urban white liberals as their white people. And they indeed have no culture. That is, they tend to have very high “outgroup preference”, tend to repudiate their own culture. Because they interpret it as Red Tribe redneck culture. And instead they borrow everything, food, exercise (yoga), music and so on. And to show how open-minded they are, they show a great curiosity for the culture of non-whites. So if you are say Inuit and the average urban liberal you meet tends to think country music (something you are actually curious about) is just redneck white supremacy but she is very interested in your throat singing tradition, what are you going to deduce? That these people have no culture. And indeed, urban white liberals have no no culture.

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    • Urban white liberals have culture, though. Do they not drink pumpkin spice lattes, enjoy craft beers, and attend art shows? Don’t they wear Uggs and Polo shirts, ride bikes and have carefully maintained beards? Have they never shown you their collection of New Yorker cartoons?

      Yoga isn’t really foreign, it’s just stretching with an exotic label slapped on to make it sound more interesting. They eat a lot of exotic food, but people have been going around the world to get more spices for centuries.

      There’s a difference between urban liberals and hippies. Hippies are into “world music” and “throat singing” and things like that. Urban liberals really aren’t, though they’ll try to be polite.

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