“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller
Sometimes, we coin or resurrect the words we need.
My Grandmother’s Hands author Resmaa Menakem’s directive for white people to create anti-racist white culture hit home, and had me ruminating for months. I’d been working against racism for decades, and wanted very much to take steps to create white anti-racist culture. However, creating a culture of “anti-something” stuck in my craw. People much more readily rally around creating, uplifting, or advocating than opposing.
The architects of Proposition 8 in California and the Defense of Marriage act understood this “pro” bias well. They used language to framed both Prop 8 and DoMA as forward-stepping even though both measures opposed same-sex marriage. Those measures also confused people who were pro-same-sex marriage — to uphold same-sex marriage, one had to vote against Prop 8. This negative-wrapped-in-a-positive trips up the mind, which is exactly what the measures’ architects intended. It worked, setting back same-sex marriage efforts by years. Anti-abortion activists did the same thing with the term “pro-life.”
Another example of using a positive against a negative is the advent of sex-positive consent culture. Few potential rapists sign up to learn how not to rape, but many may get in line to learn how to have better sex. The relatively recent rise of consent culture has gotten traction for its promise of better sex and relationships as it also widens the space for people of all genders to speak up about their wants, needs, and experiences of violation. Its leaders teach boundaries, self-awareness, and practices of consent, all vital parts of a positive skill set that improves upon the kinds of less conscious interactions that lead to rape and sexual assault. They also create better sex. That said, naming and opposing sexual violence will continue to be necessary as long as such violence persists. Consent culture and anti-rape efforts are not only not mutually exclusive — they complement and depend on each other.
I wanted a similar sort of term around which to build anti-racist white culture — not to replace direct opposition to the persistent, ubiquitous, and insidious casualties of white supremacy, but to complement those efforts in a similarly interdependent way. I want to help galvanize more white people toward a common positive goal that engages our passions, talents, and visions for the future, and that taps into our own “skin in the game” — the benefits to us in dismantling white supremacy mythology. As with consent culture, this would not only open up new ways for light-skinned people of European descent to understand ourselves outside of historically defined “whiteness,” but also and more urgently, help stop the harm to Black and Brown people. These goals are intimately intertwined.
The word proculturate came to mind. It’s not in any dictionary I could find.
A Google search turned up just one English usage by a Georgian (the Eastern bloc country, not the U.S. state) psychological anthropologist named Vladimer Lado Gamsakhurdia in a book called The Semiotic Construction of the Self in Multicultural Societies: A Theory of Proculturation.
The word means using one’s own values, desires and discernment to fashion a unique expression of self drawing from both old and new traditions. He says:
The contradiction between the imaginary conventional form of Georgianness and the modernization through Westernization forms a heterogeneous semiotic framework through which individuals may proculturate and construct new idiosyncratic representations of Georgianness. [italics mine]
As Gamsakhurdia describes it, some Georgians create their cultural expressions of self from multiple sources. The word suggests to me a kind of proactive fashioning of a new form of self from existing elements. This sole appearance of “proculturate” in Gamsakhurdia’s context encouraged me to repurpose it.
Like Georgians’ “heterogeneous semiotic framework,” white people in the U.S. too walk a line between two worlds.
On the one hand, our whiteness is inescapable — the moment we enter into a public space, we receive numerous palpable advantages relative to darker-skinned people based on our being perceived as “white.” It also impacts how we think of ourselves and react to the world around us, especially when that whiteness gets called into question. Yet whiteness itself began as a fiction created solely to differentiate enslaved from not-enslaved humans. That fiction morphed over the centuries into the unconscious culture of whiteness we know today.
Culture is simply a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that we inherit — mostly unconsciously — from those around us. We can choose to evaluate — and either discard or retain — some, none, or all of those. As with a dysfunctional family, when we become conscious of how lies we’ve been steeped in shape our reactions, we can more easily choose different attitudes and behaviors based in truth. If we wish to evolve as humans, we’d best make a practice of this, lest we repeat the horrors of history.
Unexamined, unconscious whiteness carries with it a set of defensive, angry, and terrified knee-jerk reactions to antiracism. Of course it does — without racism, whiteness as we know it ceases to exist.
The noisiest reactionaries act as if they’re defending their very personhood because some central part of them believes they are. Anti-racism tugs on the thread of trauma of our white ancestors, or the ancestors of those who look like us, who were on the perpetrating end of murder, enslavement, and as Resmaa Menakem puts it, “Two hundred and fifty years of legal rape.” Unless we want to go down in history with blood on our hands defending this nonexistent bulwark, it’s time to start shaking off our attachment to whiteness. I mean this last phrase literally — we may need to feel our terror at releasing the fiction we’ve become accustomed to.
As with anti-sexual-violence efforts, anti-racist efforts need to persist and increase until the harm stops. In the meantime, I propose that we also proculturate. By that I mean create a deep, rich, historically relevant, positively-focused and depth-infused movement that organically obsoletes whiteness and white supremacy.
This would help light-skinned people of European descent (AKA white people) recognize and appreciate themselves and each other for attributes other than whiteness. It would help us look at whiteness with a critical eye, and find ways to step, dance, or dig our way out of it.
The good news is, that by this definition, anti-racist white people already are proculturating. For example, white members of the group Coming to the Table do genealogical research, and find out their relationships to enslavers and enslaved ancestors. They face these truths, grieve them, and forge new relationships that include this awareness. .Another example is organizations such as Life After Hate who “help people leave the violent far-right, to connect with humanity, and lead compassionate lives.”
I think we can have a good time with this. Proculturating, at its core, means reclaiming the humanity stolen from us by whiteness. It can include things like dancing, celebrating nature, resurrecting old traditions, talking to our oldest living relatives (if any) and learning more about what brought us to this foreign land in which we now appear to be white. If I have anything to say about it, it will involve food — lots of really good food.
We’d also need to face the hard truths of how we got here. Most of our ancestors came here fleeing violence and oppression at the hands of other whites, and many of them slaughtered First Nations people as they colonized this land we call the U.S. That holocaust continues to this day. We need a reckoning — not only to heal our own trauma that’s bound up with these historical horrors, but also to get resourced enough to actually do something to stop the harm.
Here are a few more ideas for how to proculturate:
Stop taking whiteness personally.
You are not white. I am not white. Whiteness is an idea that generates a whole range of behaviors to preserve it. Because whiteness technically does not exist, genetic annihilation is not a thing, and even if it were, we won’t be around to witness it. Whiteness was built on a lie, solely to steal labor and maintain a system murderous and exploitative to Black people. It’s expiration date is long overdue. It’s time to toss it.
Lean into our “skin in the game”
Whiteness dehumanized the white people historically in the oppressor role. (Imagine being a little child and taken to a lynching to watch someone get murdered for entertainment.) This impacts us generations later. When we reckon with those hard truths, we become stronger, more aware, and more resourced.
This mess isn’t our fault. But like any mess we inherit, if we want to clean it up, we need to step up and take responsibility. Now.
Buckle in for the long haul — and talk to your neighbor.
Proculturation is a long game. We took four centuries to create this particular mess, and it’s going to take some time to clean up. In the meantime, we’re all here together — white people who “don’t see color” alongside those who organize to promote white supremacy, next to those who seek to dismantle it, often in the same family. If we talk to each other, we can find those common core values, and together stumble forward to proculturate new ways of living up to our deepest ideals.
Jill Nagle works with leaders to dismantle white supremacy from the inside out. She is curating a Proculturators Series of interviews with white anti-racists. She’s also working on a couple of related books for which she is seeking representation. Find her at EvolutionaryWorkplace.com