We White People Think White Culture Is Cultureless – My Daughter Leni Looks For Hers In An Essay Assignment

23 Oct

This is a kind of culture, too, right? little sister, Darla, (left), Leni, essay author, (right)

This is a kind of culture, too, right? little sister, Darla, (left), Leni, essay author, (right)

I was glad when my daughter Leni told me that her 10th grade English teacher gave her class an assignment to write an essay, titled “My Cultural Identity.” I’ve heard white people say many times that they feel like they don’t have a culture. That to be white is to be bland,to be a white American is boring. That to be anything else but a white American is more interesting–that people born in other parts of the world, who come from people with a more ancient history, have richer traditions, foods, and manner of dress.  I’ve been guilty of this myself. White people sometimes use words like “exotic,” “intriguing,” and “fascinating” when describing cultures different from theirs, and can have a difficult time defining their own culture or even believing that they have one. I’m told this “othering” of people of color is typical when one is a member of a dominant group.

I know that the color of one’s skin doesn’t  define one’s culture, and that ethnicity is only one element of culture, though again I’ll admit that growing up I thought that was the main element of it.  I know the concepts of race and culture get mixed up a lot by people, too, so I reached out to my scholarly friend, Diana Fox, Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at Bridgewater State University and asked her to give me her definitions of both culture and race. Here’s what she had to say:
“Culture refers to learned behavior and customs underpinned by norms, and reflective of belief systems, values and symbols. It consists of cognitive features (beliefs, norms and values) and tangible/observable ones (behaviors, material culture, symbols). Culture is not homogeneous, it’s often contradictory (behaviors can contradict values, for ex) and it is emergent, not static.

“Race refers to social and cultural notions of how human physical and biological distinctions organize people into groups. The terms and characteristics of racial groups vary cross-culturally. (There is more genetic variation within so called races than between them). The American Anthropological Association has a statement on race that says it best: “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes.”

Diana’s explained the following to me before, but I always have to hear something more than a few times for it to sink in. I asked Diana to explain more about the fact that race is a social construct, something made up.

Diana replied, “Yes–the racial categorizations we are familiar with are the product of the slave trade and western colonialism that drew from social Darwinist and cultural evolutionary models that are ideological, and rooted in theories of cultural evolution that erroneously tied race to culture. We are still undoing this damage. So called racial characteristics–Skin color, hair texture, nose shape, ear size, etc. do not correlate with discrete racial groups that correlate to specific genes.” She continued, “It is random to choose certain characteristics over others to group people–why not choose length of second toe, or straight or crooked teeth, or high foreheads vs. low foreheads? Racial categories have real implications because they are sociological categories that have shaped peoples’ access to resources, opportunities, treatment, etc. In slavery days people were ranked from savage to civilized according to whether they were mulatto, quadroon, octamaroon or “pure white” etc.—1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and different terms like “high yellow” were used as racial categories. By the way, 25% of so-called Caucasians in the US have at least 1 black ancestor and 75% of so-called “negroids” have at least 1 white ancestor.”

“The ‘one drop rule’ illustrates the social and cultural values attributed to race: if someone had any indication of any African ancestry, they were not white. Someone like Sophia (Diana’s daughter) who shared 50% of her father’s genes and 50% of mine, for years would’ve been considered part of the “negroid race” until the category “biracial” was created.”

“It’s no accident people confuse culture with race, assuming that “races” behave in certain ways and share certain values, beliefs, intelligence, propensity toward crime, etc. This is a direct result of 19th century theories that connected behavioral characteristics with race and is completely fabricated and based on assumptions and prejudices. If people who share culture happen to look similar it’s because of socialization and acculturation processes (learning and being taught to be members of a society and culture). Culture is not inherited. So the term “black music” for example, indicates a history and tradition of sharing and creating musical styles of a population, but just because someone has brown skin doesn’t mean they were born with the ability to play, enjoy or create “black music”.”

Getting at the heart of race as a social construct, Diana finished by saying, “Basically “races” don’t exist genetically. Anthropologists prefer the term “population clines” which refers to gradual changes of a feature in a species over a geographical area, often as a result of environmental heterogeneity. So this is why people of African descent have a sickle cell gene–it’s not a racial characteristic, it’s a population cline characteristic.”

Thank you, Diana, for sharing your knowledge on race and culture, and now here is my daughter Leni’s essay.

 My Cultural Identity

by Leni Warlick

My cultural identity is not something that I think about or incorporate in my every day life.  I am kind of lazy about it.  My family does not practice our Jewish religion every weekend by having big family dinners and going to temple every Sunday.  We don’t have a million different family traditions or dishes that we eat only on special occasions. We are relaxed with our culture and love to focus on the present time we have with each other.

My ethnic background is Scots Irish, Russian, Hungarian, and we are card carrying Native Americans.  I am proud of my Cherokee heritage, but we haven’t embraced or celebrated it as far as going to pow-wows when I was younger.  The reason my family hasn’t  kept close to our roots is because we don’t have any more foreign family members or any members living in a different country.  Our only secret family recipe is for Snickerdoodle cookies, and we still keep those cookies as a tradition in my dad’s family to be made when asked.

I have grown up in cities my whole life, so if something were to not be walking distance from my home, I would get a little annoyed and think a fifteen minute car ride was basically equivalent to an hour.  I am from Manhattan, New York, so I was raised to walk anywhere and everywhere, or take public transportation. I have grown up more independent by living in cities. I don’t depend on my parents to take me everywhere unless necessary.  Also it toughens me up a bit. I’m not scared of any random stranger on the street or going out at nighttime, but I know how to take care of myself.

My family raised me with values. Ever since I can remember I have been told to give back to the less fortunate and to always help others. My grandpa taught my mom and her sisters the importance of giving back and my mom has taught me. When we lived in New York, my mom started an organization that helps homeless and mentally ill people get back on their feet with art therapy. They could sell the art or anything to get them away from what they were struggling with. That has been a huge influence on how I have grown up. I have learned to give back, be appreciative and to not do anything I don’t want to do. Those are the most important things I have learned from my family.

My cultural identity is built on my family teaching me how to be the best self I can be and to always appreciate your values. I am being raised to be independent and focus on my present self. To me, family is the most important thing I have to learn from for the future. My culture is spending time with my family, laughing and learning together, sprinkled with our little family traditions.


I have to say I was inspired by Leni’s search for her cultural identity, which I believe was prompted by her teacher to look at culture as something much broader than just ethnicity and religion.  Looks like I’ll have to do some digging of my own to further define my cultural identity, but now I know it wouldn’t be wrong to say my culture somehow includes Michael Jackson.  How about you?  Can you share something about your own cultural identity with our readers here?



13 Responses to “We White People Think White Culture Is Cultureless – My Daughter Leni Looks For Hers In An Essay Assignment”

  1. Tanisha October 23, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Great Article! I hadn’t ever thought about my family’s culture because even as an African American AND a card carrying Narragansett Indian, I still felt like I has no culture. I love the way culture was broken down and now I know culture isn’t only what I feel like I lack, but traditions, ideas etc.

    • Wendy Jane October 25, 2015 at 9:27 pm #


      I’m glad this comment came through even though you got a message back that it didn’t seem like it did go through. It’s interesting for me to hear that you, too, had feelings that you didn’t have your own interesting culture. I learned from Diana’s breakdown of culture and race, and Leni’s essay, too, that culture is much broader than what I had once thought it was.

      Thanks again for reading and sharing here with our readers.


  2. Wendy Jane October 23, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    I had someone relate that they were unable to comment here. I’m hoping that the Comments section is working

  3. Sherry Gordon October 24, 2015 at 3:23 am #

    Dear Wendy Jane and Leni,

    Hello, there, you two! Leni, I absolutely so enjoyed and loved your absolutely fantastic and brilliant essay which you wrote so very well! I sometimes have sleeping issues with insomnia so I am awake so in the wee hours of the morning but I am glad that I have something to do in responding here with my heartfelt comment so that I can keep my mind off of the aggravation of not being able to sleep! What an absolutely amazing, so very heartfelt with such sharp acuity blog post by you, Wendy Jane, my sweet white and Jewish sister, and our wondrously wonderful Leni!!!!!!!! I so, so very much loved and liked this being a very enlightening blog post article, Wendy Jane, and your magnificent essay for your class, Leni, and I have learned so very much and even more perspectives from you and your dear mom from your perspectives as white persons. I love to learn more and more about white persons’ experiences and where white persons are at and coming from because I love to reach out to white people as our Good God’s children as a very integral part of my spirituality! I so cherish so much as well, Wendy Jane and Leni, learning joyfully of your life and experiences as wondrously wonderful Jewish persons! I think being Jewish the way all of you are is just so cool and fantabulous! Leni, I love how you shared that you form your cultural identity through your family with family times together with lots of fun and how this is a part of your cultural identity along with not strictly practicing the rituals of being Jewish per se but still how all of you so very value, love, and cherish your so beautiful Jewish culture and heritage. Leni, I so loved an liked how you described your feelings of culturelessness. I so enjoyed your discussion on this! Wendy Jane and Leni, I have only learned over the very past few years that many white people feel that they don’t have a culture, and feel bland and bored. This is something new I have learned over the very past few years-I didn’t realize you two!

    Leni, I so enjoyed reading and learning about your ancestry in all of its beautiful and wonderful aspects! I have something in common with you and your family. I am a black woman who also has some Native American ancestry and heritage with my paternal Great-Grandfather having been a Native American from the Blackfeet tribe. I am just so very thrilled and happy, Wendy Jane and Leni, that all of you have the Cherokee tribe ancestry and heritage with having that link to some Native American heritage and ancestry. I’m remembering how my late mother would often say that we had Black Jews in our family ancestry from going way back to ancient times. I’ve been praying, hoping, and wishing all of my life that she was right, Wendy Jane and Leni!!!!! My mother would be so vague, secretive, and unclear about our family’s ancestry and heritage so I’ve been unsure not knowing for sure if she was correct in knowing somehow that there were Black Jews in our ancestry and heritage from way back in ancient times. I want so for this to be true you two! Being Jewish is such a beautiful heritage and culture and I would be so very honored and blessed to have this also as a part of my ancestry and heritage, Wendy Jane and Leni!!!!!! I think that my late mother may have been biracial having a white biological father. There was a lot of family secrecy about him. My maternal grandmother had very problematic situations with many men and my mother never knew for sure who her father was but there were some rumors that he may have been white. My mother would hint at and then not explain that we had some white ancestors but not be definite about this. The she would be silent on the subject and refuse to discuss any further. I submitted my DNA sample almost two years ago to http://www.23andme.com and the results said that I am 12% white European. I was so very pleased to find this out and to have those family rumors confirmed. Those results said I have ancestry throughout Europe and even said that I have some Eastern and Southern European ancestry so I hope from those results that there were very much indeed marvelous Black Jewish and White Jewish persons in my ancestry and heritage way back then, Wendy Jane and Leni.

    Leni, I so loved and liked so how you delightfully shared on your dear mom’s very powerful and sagacious influence on you and your dear little sister, Darla, to be aware and open-minded. I so love how all of your family have been such a great guiding force in your life, Leni, and have fostered such a love for life and justice in which these very fine qualities have been instilled in you so very well. Wendy Jane, you have some two very smart girls here who both are just the greatest and the very best, sister!!!!!!!! Wendy Jane, you are such a shining light and a very powerful example with your lovingly caring and sensitive work with the mentally ill with creative art therapy and your former experiences working with the homeless, What a so very dear and great mom you are, sisterfriend!!!!!!! Wow, your girls have learned so well such solid values from you and your family, my sweet Jewish sister who you are For Always, Wendy Jane!

    I love how Diana described, explained, and defined the terms race and culture. Our Diana is so right on, on point, and pertinent here, Wendy Jane! I so love and like Diana’s great point that race is a social construct and that races don’t actually exist genetically for certain. It is also very interesting learning from her that anthropologists prefer the term population clines to the word races. I so, so very much loved and liked the very beautiful and lovely pictures and writings from our Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah, Wendy Jane! It looked like such a glorious and very spiritual and Spirit-filled ceremony and such a fun time, sister!!!!!!

    Wow, you two wondrously wonderful people, I just so thoroughly enjoyed both of your so very cool and astounding writings, Wendy Jane and Leni!!!!!! Leni, what a remarkable person you are and just very brilliant and amazing! Please all of you Wendy Jane, Leni, and Darla have such a fun-filled and fantastic, wondrously wonderful weekend and week coming up next week! I thank-you so you two for sharing your splendid writings!!!!!! It was such a great joy and pleasure for me reading and joyously responding with my very heartfelt comments!!!!!!

    Peace, Love, and Blessings For Always to you all so very dear and special people,

    Sherry Gordon in Iowa City, Iowa

    • Wendy Jane October 25, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

      Hello Sherry,

      Thanks so much for this. I will be certain to share this with Leni as soon as I can. That’s so interesting what you learned so far about your ancestry–I hope you get to learn more. See, we are connected!:) We are all connected–every last one of us. Thanks again for your kind words. I hope you sleep better tonight.

      Peace, Love and Blessings to you, too, Sherry!

      Wendy Jane

  4. Vickie October 24, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

    Impressive! Great article.

    • Wendy Jane October 25, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

      Thanks, Vickie! I’ll share your kind words with Leni.

  5. grace welch October 25, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

    Loved this article!!

    • Wendy Jane October 25, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

      thanks so much, Grace! thanks for reading!

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