Yes, White Americans DO Have a Culture!

One of the things I’ve periodically bumped into as a justification for neoshamans and other neopagans to draw from indigenous cultures is that “white Americans don’t have a culture”. By this they generally mean that white American culture is limited to strip malls and fast food and pasty men in suits telling us how the country ought to be run. Somehow this then translates into a dichotomy where everything that seems antithetical to this construct is considered “good”. Hence we end up with a bunch of white people playing African drums, offering rum to lwa, and shoving New Age concepts into oracles based on “Native American spirituality”.

I’m not condemning drumming, white Vodouisants, or non-Native people having good relationships with Native cultures. However, if you look at the “cultural appropriation” category of this blog, I think it’s clear that I have some issues with the way in which a lot of pagan-type folk “borrow” from cultures other than their own. Often it’s a surface treatment of the borrowed culture, with little to no awareness of the power differential between the culture of the borrower and that of the borrowed.

The other issue is that the borrowers often forget that yes, they do have a culture that they’ve been raised with and which, whether they like it or not, permeates their lifelong conditioning and approach to the world. This is why there can be such conflict when they try to insert themselves in another culture–they’re bringing more cultural baggage with them than they want to admit, and if they aren’t admitting they have it at all, then the baggage is just going to sit there and be a big problem. Just because they don’t notice it’s there doesn’t mean others don’t, either.

Let’s look at one of the hallmarks of white American culture (and, admittedly, others, though the U.S. seems to have particularly latched on to it)–individuality. As a culture, white Americans value individuality above collectivity. “Do your own thing”, “the rugged individualist”, “the lone wolf”, “just do it”–these and so many more societal messages encourage us to work independently of others. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Valuing being an individual doesn’t automatically translate to having narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals often display a certain amount of unfettered creativity because they don’t feel held back by group norms. And people in a more individual-based society can still have healthy relationships. It’s just that values and mores may be somewhat different than in a more collective society.

Many indigenous cultures tend toward being more collective. Again, this is not better or worse, objectively speaking. However, there’s a huge difference between being raised in a collective culture, and trying to create community in an individual-based culture. The way one forms relationships, the values that are applied to those relationships, and the balance between self and others are ingrained from birth, and it’s harder to learn new ways of doing these things later in life, especially as an adult. It’s not impossible, of course, but it requires more immersion than what most neoshamans and neopagans who draw from other cultures experience.

Yet time and again I see pagans romanticizing collective cultures and demonizing individuality. In doing so, they ignore the conditioning they have as individuals and try to shoehorn themselves into some artificial community construct, or, alternately, attempt to join up with a more collective culture while approaching it with a largely individualistic mindset (which they often deny they have!) In the former case, all too often these artificial communities end up with short lifespans because no one really has the skills to be able to build their scaffolding from scratch. In the latter, there are numerous examples of well-meaning but clueless white people hanging around the edges of indigenous communities, hoping someone will take them in, or worse yet, inviting themselves into the community and creating quite a mess of things.

Additionally, the conflict between individual and collective ways of being manifest themselves in some of the more arrogant manners of cultural appropriation. These tend to be along the lines of “My spirituality is MINE, and I can do whatever I want with it, and if the gods/spirits/etc. talk to ME, then I can work out whatever relationship I want with them and no one else matters!” Granted, this is an extreme; I am quite individualistic in my approach to totemism and my insistence that in this culture it’s better to work out individual relationships with the totems. However, I also urge people to be aware of cultural appropriation when looking at any other culture’s totemic system, and to be mindful of where they’re coming from when approaching those other systems.

My point in all this is not to say individuality is bad and collectivity is good. Individuality in and of itself, again, is not a bad thing. What this is meant to be an example of is how ignorance of one’s own culture of origin can seriously affect interactions with other cultures. And it affects the continuing formation of neoshamanism.

See, one of my biggest gripes with core shamanism in particular is that so many people claim it’s “culturally neutral”. Which is bullshit. Core shamanism is white, college-educated, middle-class shamanism. Only people with the greatest amount of privilege would have the audacity to say that what they’re doing has no cultural trappings, because they’re the only ones who have enough privilege to ignore cultural differences. That’s part of what privilege is about: you have the option of ignoring everyone else, while everyone else has to pay attention to you.

And I see this time and again with white neoshamans. “We have no culture, so we can plug our shamanism into other people’s cultures.” It’s racist, and it’s also separating neoshamanism from the possibilities it could have in the culture that produces so many neoshamans. If we’re so busy trying to be like other cultures, is it any wonder that we have an increasingly negative view of our own?

So how do we white American neoshamans change this? Well, first of all, by admitting that we do have a culture, which, yes, does include things like strip malls and suburbs, but includes a whole lot else, too. We need to be exploring our communication styles, our values, our biases, and how this affects our interactions with others. We need to stop looking at our culture as something to be ignored or demonized (but not go the opposite direction and try to elevate it above everyone else–white supremacy is bad, mmmkay?) And we need to understand that even “white culture” is a broad artificial construct, that the concept of “whiteness” was created to try to marginalize racial and ethnic minorities, and that there are a lot of nuanced subcultures under the umbrella of “white culture”. Plus there’s the issue of intersectionality–we are not just our race, but our sex, gender identity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and numerous other things that make up our social location. We can’t ignore these influences and just say we’re “culturally neutral”. It’s impossible.

Most of all, we need to stop with this whole “All people are one people” thing. Yes, it is good to acknowledge interconnection and universality. However, “all people are one people” is too often used in the same way as “I’m racially colorblind”–a nice-sounding way of absolving one’s self of the hard work of admitting there are still very real inequalities, and saying “we are all one” does jack shit to actually address or do anything about those inequalities. It’s little consolation to people who are stuck on the bad end of those inequalities, and again “we are one” originates uniquely out of a place of privilege.

And “we are one/all people are one people” is too often used to justify cultural appropriation. After all, if we’re all human beings, then we all have the right to use whatever cultural or spiritual trappings we like, right? We’re breaking down the barriers and boundaries between us, aren’t we? Except a lot of the time it’s the people who are more empowered who are busting down the defenses of minorities who use those boundaries to feel more protected. Just read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, for example, and you can get a pretty good idea of why so many Native people are so distrustful of white people–and why walking in saying “We’re all brothers and sisters” just ain’t gonna cut it.

So I challenge you to start thinking about this stuff if you haven’t already. If you’re a white, middle-class, college-educated American neoshaman like me, look at how your culture–and other social factors–affect your shamanism. If you glorify indigenous cultures over your own, look at what you dislike so much about yours and see whether that’s really warranted. Chew on this stuff. See what you make of it.

ETA: 11 September, 2012 – The comments on this blog, to include this post, are screened. If you’re going to just leave vitriolic screeds against one group or another, don’t bother. They’ll just get trashed. If you want to constructively add to the conversation, whether you agree with what I say or not, that’s fine. But ranty bits about how “all members of [group] are [stereotype]” aren’t going to see the light of day here. This is a very sensitive topic, and I don’t want this to devolve into people virtually screaming at each other. It doesn’t do anyone any good, and it won’t help you feel better, either.


24 thoughts on “Yes, White Americans DO Have a Culture!

  1. Generally I encourage people that suggest that they have no culture to go have a nice long talk with their ancestors, of birth and of spirit/influence (or at the very least, go do the research part and think about the implications). “Generic White Person” is a convenient lie, a thief, and a construct that causes way too many problems for both the bearer and everyone else that have to put up with it. History is good for dispelling it.

    Also, hi! Its good to see you posting here again. =)

    • Well, here’s the thing–Americans are not Europeans. Culturally, while there are some similarities to some European cultures, we’re not the same at all. In some ways, going back to ancestral paths misses the point just as much as going after indigenous ones that have no relation to one’s ancestry. I’m talking about being embedded in the here and now.

      • That’s absolutely true–I wouldn’t suggest that Olde Europe held the answers, I’m thinking much more recent ancestry; the stuff that America is made of, and the paths that brought us to the here and now, mass media, various trends, etc. Some folks seem to have trouble finding that hook because they’re completely immersed in it–sometimes it’s easier to see where you’re at, if you back up even a single generation and trace it up to the now.

      • *nods* yeah, I just see a lot of suggestions in the larger dialogue of “look to your own ancestors’. it’s not really about our ancestors’ cultures, though—it’s about us 🙂

  2. Great points, as always–and it is really difficult for many of us white neoshamans to see just how much cultural baggage we have. I think these kinds of questions and challenges annoy us–and that’s a cultural thing. We want to see the challenge, face it, overcome it and move on (hey, we’re Americans and we get things done!). Sound familiar? But what I’m realizing is that there isn’t an end to this process. There isn’t a magical place or moment when we surpass our cultural differences and merge into glittery spiritual mush never to notice or be plagued by differences again. I think many of us (even subconsciously) are craving that; maybe it is out there, somewhere, but I’m less and less convinced that it is. That doesn’t have to lead to any kind of despair, but it does mean we need to rethink our perspectives and realize that maybe we’ve been a little nearsighted all along.

    • But it’s also a strength. We like being directive, being the active principle, and that’s not necessarily bad. We just balance out the negatives and make the most of the positives. Like we can spend more time in-depth on one thing, but having the drive to try something in a new and interesting fashion–that can yield all sorts of good stuff.

  3. I live a cultural mishmash of female, poor working class, Furry and aim for a future of this

    I dream of a new culture, based on sustainable technologies, that appreciates individuality and egalitarianism. A culture where gender has been eliminated, personal responsibility is the default and everyone is more or less self sufficient and generalized in skills and knowledge.

    Oh and the whole poly/bisexual thing.

    • Yep. These are all important, and we need to look at how they fit in with our experiences, and what we want to *become* our experiences. but before we know where we are going, we need to know where we’re starting from.

  4. My main quibble with “core shamanism” is that, de facto, it privileges being able to pay lots of money for instruction over anything else.

    I have learned valuable things from it. However, i really do not think that being able to write a check that does not bounce means that one is an ideal choice for advanced training.

    Personally, I don’t feel much of a pull to my ancestors. I don’t feel at home in the place that I’ve lived for 30+ years. I feel rootless- and my own path deals with that, albeit not in an especially comfortable way.

    • Yeah. That’s a major gripe of mine, too. I wouldn’t mind so much with shamans who also have things like advanced degrees, but there are a lot of uncredentialed people running around (and I include legitimate indigenous training as credentials).

  5. So, understanding the culture that I came from, and still exist in, what do I do when I HATE that culture and its insanity, soullessness, destructiveness, and denial of the cycle of life? I want to help create a sane culture that venerates life and recognizes the sacredness of all things. If it was possible to do that just by leaving the dominant culture, I would – but civilized cultures are fundamentally based on domination and the eradication/assimilation of all other cultures, this one worst of all (by FAR). At this point, the only way for any sane cultures to have a chance of existing is if the dominant culture is STOPPED – therefore, it is my enemy. I will spend the rest of my life trying to undo its toxic enculturation of me, breaking out of its (insane) mindset and freeing myself from its chains.

    I have no desire to continue cultural genocide through cultural appropriation. I can look to the cultures of my European ancestors, but they have been civilized for so long that in order to find sanity there, I have to go back at least 2000 years. And those ancestors were from (and are now part of) a different land than the place I was born in and have lived my life in. Its definitely possible to create new cultures, based on a new worldview and a new way of life – and in fact they will inevitably arise as modern civilization collapses. But they doesn’t exist yet, at least not as embodied in real communities.

    So, my fate, and that of all in my generation who reject the dominant culture, is to go through life culturally rootless, without an intact, healthy culture to belong to. At least by helping to plant the seeds of a new culture, and beginning the process of setting down physical and spiritual roots in the land, we can leave a legacy for the next generation so they won’t have to suffer the same.

    • You’re only looking at one element of this culture, though. This is EXACTLY what I’m talking about when I get frustrated with people only looking at the strip malls and the corruption, when there’s so much more to this culture than that. There’s ingenuity and curiosity; there’s a willingness to fight for the rights of all people, even if not everyone agrees with social justice; there’s a can-do attitude, and while the elements of privilege in access to resources and education need to be continually addressed, the concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is still a core value, even if not everyone values it the same.

      No, things aren’t perfect. But there’s a lot to embrace if you don’t let the negatives get in the way of that contact.

  6. I love your articles on appropriation.

    I tend to agree with you-‘western’ culture seems hung up on the idea that we don’t have a culture, which is nonsense. I’ve found that if you’re creative enough, even if you’ve been called to be a shaman (classic or core), you can pave your own way with new ideas, new techniques.

    I heard a theory-put out by Piers Vitebsky in his book “Shaman”, that a lot of ‘new’ shamans getting called are actually making their way around the rave scene. This idea intrigued the hell out of me, because flashing lights (via my glow-in-the-dark and LED hoops) and trance music are *exactly* what I use to work up to my own states for my practice. Loud thundering noise and movement. . .it’s an old technique done in a new way. Maybe it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s how I do it and not get blamed for peeing on someone else’s fire.

  7. I found Harner’s core shamanism to be white bread, filling but not very nourishing. You wrote: “Core shamanism is white, college-educated, middle-class shamanism.” That comment strikes me as truth. While Harner removed the cultural aspects of South America (and Siberia) from his brand of shamanism, he could not (or did not want to) remove his own cultural expectations, attitudes and beliefs from the methods he taught. If Harner experienced any acculturation on his travels to study in South America, his book shows no traces.

  8. this essay misses a crucial component in its argument: a working and operating definition of culture. because of such, it is a pseudo-intellectual attempt to unfold contours and dimensions in a seemingly flat concept of “whiteness” which consequently neglects any serious discussion about the material interests and realities that grounds the entirety of “whiteness” itself.

  9. I get a little perturbed at the idea that some cultures believe they have a right to, or claim for certain aspects of life that are inherently human. For example, if I see Red tailed hawk and meditate on it soaring above me, and feel a deep connection to it as a sign, guide, or omen, one could claim that because I am not Native American, I have no business feeling that way. I think these concepts are quite damaging to all people. I think it is dangerous and shortsighted to say that because of your birth condition, you are more apt to experience or be connected to the ineffable…it is a silly conclusion…

    • I think the complaints aren’t so much about someone non-indigenous seeing a hawk and feeling the power in it; it’s about things like white people reducing Native Americans to stereotyped assumptions about their spirituality, or white people trying to be like the Indians because they feel they have no culture of their own.

  10. Have you given any kind of consideration at all with converting your main site into French? I know a few of translaters right here which would certainly help you do it for no cost if you want to get in touch with me personally.

  11. Very good write, for starters. I’ve only recently begun to ponder this topic. You gave some good beginning indications as to what, “white culture” is. These were some that I easily rattled off the top of my head when someone told me there is no, “white culture” and specifically American white culture.

    Part of that American culture is that thing referred to as, “color blindness”, that so many seem to disparage so. Perhaps a lot of people don’t know what it means. It does not mean that one is unaware of ones races, nor the races of others, but that decisions are not based on it. Martin Luther King understood it. He said in his dream speech that a day would come when a person was not judged by the color of ones skin, but on the content of ones character. That’s the “color blindness” that many mention, and many disparage (I think mostly due to misunderstanding).

    This is the first writing of yours I’ve encountered, so I’m unfamiliar as to your reference to, “Shamnism”.

    • The problem with color blindness as it’s interpreted by a lot of white people is that it’s used to ignore the very real inequalities that still exist today. It’s great to want everyone to be equal, but there are a lot of tough problems that will need to be solved before that happens, and color blindness doesn’t take those problems into account.

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