The Challenge of Whiteness

I wouldn’t choose to describe cultural phenomena by colors – particularly skin colors.  Of course, I don’t particularly like describing race by skin color, either.  In February, I’m getting fairly pale – come September, I’ll be back to the spot where Vargas would set his arm by mine and observe, “Darker than mine – and you call yourself a white man!” 

I’d tend to call the cultural priorities a blend of European and American Indian – white people were assimilated by the native population as well as the reverse.  Compare an American’s views on civil liberty infringements with the average European, and you’ll begin to realize that the natives did some respectable work on assimilating the early European immigrants. 

I ran into a tremendous difference between “white” schools and Reservation schools over Christmas of 2009.  I got a notification from the high school vice-principal that they weren’t going to give Sam credit for the semester – she had missed too many days of school.  She was passing everything, still on the honor roll, but had too many absences.  So I met with the bitch.  I explained the situation – I had gone through surgeries for both melanoma and colon cancer.  I was still going through chemo.  Sam had missed the first week of school to be with her grandmother as she was dying.  We didn’t stay for the funeral.  The vice-principal’s reply was “You should have called me.”   Somehow, that seemed a bit arrogant.  I called the superintendent – he explained that I should go through the chain of command, and was a little shocked at my reply: “Roger, I’m a sick man.  I lack the energy to push my way through layers of bureaucracy.  Right now, it’s Roger and Mike looking at a problem.  If we don’t solve it now, it will be Dr. DeGroot and Dr. McCurry communicating through attorneys . . . and you will lose.” 

The problem was solved – but it would never have occurred at a school on a Sioux Reservation – and that’s an example of how folks who encounter bureaucratic power call it ‘Whiteness’.  At the time I ran across this problem, I worked in another bureaucracy – the university.  The vice-principal treated Sam the same as she would have an Indian kid, or a black kid, or – more importantly, any kid whose parents lacked power.  Her classmate, Stryker, matched that characteristic.  His mother had been ill, he was down for excessive absences, he wasn’t on the honor roll.  And he was black.  I understand why they call it whiteness.  As Sam was completing her first college degree, Stryker was moving into prison.   

The typical native kid probably attends 50 funerals by the time he or she is 15.  The extended family provides a lot of social support – but takes a lot of time in providing, and learning to provide that support.  It’s a situation where the tribal value of generosity (spread amongst a large extended family) contrasts with the white cultural value of savings and thrift.  There is definitely a conflict when it comes to economics within a tribe and within the larger, mostly white, culture.  The vice-principal’s behavior would not have occurred in a Sioux school.  

Mike Jandreau – Chairman of the Lower Brule – always had tens and twenties in his wallet.  Culturally, a tribal office-holder has to be able to help a needy member.  It’s a responsibility.  I don’t expect my state senator or representative to pick up the check – but for Mike Jandreau, there was always a chance a tribal member would drop in and need a tank of gas to get back home. 

The problem – to me, at least – is that ascribing color to a cultural trait isn’t rational.  Max Weber wrote of ‘the Protestant Ethic’: according to Merriam, “ an ethic that stresses the virtue of hard work, thrift, and self-discipline.”  I suppose the term ‘protestant’ is as poorly assigned as the term ‘whiteness’.  I’ve known Buddhists, Catholics and Hindi whose behavior would fit that definition as well.   I’m not sure that the Bahai wouldn’t fit it better than the Baptists. 

Max Weber’s book was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  He interpreted Martin Luther’s doctrine, and even more John Calvin’s as valuing hard work, frugality, and prosperity as a basis that motivated the active economic life that was very compatible with capitalism.  It is hard to imagine how frugality could lead to prosperity in a cashless economy – which is what the Sioux had for generations.   

Of course, this explains why Americans of Asian ancestry are being termed white.  They’re not necessarily protestant either – but they also value hard work, frugality and prosperity.  It’s hard to develop that ‘protestant ethic’ if you live in a culture that doesn’t permit you to accumulate wealth . . . but Asia has long been a place where wealth correlates with prosperity.    

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