When a young American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was gunned down for walking while being black in a diverse suburban community, the first thing many of us wanted to know was the race of the guy who pulled the trigger. That man, George Zimmerman, was described as white by the media and Latino by his father. But why does it matter?
Far from the crime scene in Sanford, Florida, two Boston-area educators offered an explanation last weekend during a workshop on “Transforming Whiteness” at the Kirwan Institute conference on race in Columbus, Ohio. Susan Naimark and Paul Madden didn’t mention the Martin case but instead posed a broad and open-ended question to the interracial audience of progressive academics, social activists, and community organizers that could well resonate in the coming federal investigation of the shooting: “What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘white culture?’”
Dare, if you will, to engage in a conversation about race in most places in our country and the issue at hand will likely revolve around the status of black Americans. Perhaps in the fastest-growing parts of the nation, the topic may include concern about the increasing presence and plight of Latinos. Almost instinctively, Americans know and recognize “other” cultures, which are typically described with dark and foreboding adjectives.
But what is “white culture?” The audience attending this session—roughly half African American and half white—seemed stumped. The workshop participants seemed to have no common answer. It took some gentle prodding from Naimark and Madden, both white, to get the conversation going among the otherwise talkative conference attendees. Eventually, as each person in the room offered a one-word definition, a portrait of whiteness emerged that was vague and elusive. For the most part, the group’s definitions offered variations on a theme of “power” and “privilege.”
I sat through the session in dumbfounded amazement, struggling to make sense of the conversations around me. It may have been the first time I heard white people discuss and attempt to define their own culture. Could white people actually be race-less? Are people of color the only ones seen in the human, racial spectrum? Can whiteness exist without darker tones to offer contrast or definition? If that’s true, then any definition of white culture sets the benchmark against which all other “cultures” or “identities” are (negatively) measured.
During their 90-minute presentation, Naimark and Madden said that the hegemony of European-centric social ideals has been the dominant worldview for nearly all of recorded history. But such thinking must end, they argued, as our nation—indeed, the entire world—is no longer under the exclusive control of white people.
“European culture is particularistic, not universal,” Madden said in his remarks to the conference. “Cultures at their core can change.”
What’s more, they insist, notions of white cultural supremacy must change as the world’s population, which never was composed of a white majority, is becoming more diverse every day. Power—expressed globally through political, economic, and military clout—allowed white, European-based cultures to maintain their international authority. But as global communities of color become increasingly linked and interdependent, traditional levers of power are less and less effective.
Closer to home, demographic changes across our nation suggest that the U.S. population will no longer have a white majority by the year 2050. While some cities, states, and regions of the country have already experienced the shift, the changes to come will certainly affect the entire nation.
And this is where invisible, unremarked-upon ideals of white culture collide with the Martin case. By historic default, the presumption of criminality and guilt falls heavily upon the “otherness” of nonwhite cultures. Though Martin was killed weeks ago, Zimmerman, 28, an armed neighborhood watch activist, remains out of police custody despite his connection to the shooting of the 17-year-old high school student.
Cultural memories, embedded in the souls of black folks, recall a time in the not-too-distant past when white power and privilege denied any accountability for a white man to take life of a black person. Such memories prompt Martin’s grieving family to claim that, were the races reversed, an armed black shooter would have been arrested for the killing of an unarmed white man. The family’s protests have brought national media attention to the shooting and now triggered a federal probe.
Naimark and Madden warned that as all of us adjust to changing racial realities, ancient notions of white superiority must surrender to future certainties. Failure to do so will lead to increasing conflicts, they said.
“As long as European culture, at its cultural core, seeks ever expanding power and control, Europeans will not forfeit the power and control afforded to them by the system of racism,” Madden said during the workshop. “We are not here to present a universal ‘master plan,’” Naimark told the group. “There is no single right way to transform white culture.”
The idea that white superiority will collapse in the steady march of demographic change struck me as impossible or, at best, naïve. After all, she was speaking at a conference of like-minded, liberal folks who had come to discuss the impact of race on society. In effect, she was preaching to the antiracism choir. I mentioned my skepticism to Naimark during a conversation after the session and her response shocked me into rethinking even my doubts.
“There are some [white] people who are never going to get what we’re talking about here,” she said. “But I’m convinced there are lots more who may not come to a conference on race, but who nonetheless believe that there is something wrong as it relates to race in the country. They’re not racists, but they’re concerned and many are just scared.”
And, she said, there are self-interested advantages for white people to transform that part of their culture that depends on racism, whether they know it or not.
“The world seems to be changing all around us and white people aren’t going to deal with only white people in the future,” she said. “There’s a psychic toll that comes from living in a world that’s built on racism because you train yourself not to talk about things, not to see things and not to feel what you experience around you.
“The truth is that transforming white culture allows you to be more comfortable and that’s a liberating feeling.”
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.