Culture

Western Neutral: Separating Common Culture From “Whiteness”

by Kayla Ancrum

This article is a follow up to my very first article on diversity How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour if you are White. It was requested by a reader who wanted further explanation on the term “Western Neutral” which I had used when explaining how to write People of Colour.

The first time someone ever accused me of “speaking white” I was maybe seven years old. 

The concept completely baffled me.

My mother is a speech language pathologist, I grew up in a middle class multicultural neighborhood, I went to a gifted school and I live in the midwest.

Literally everyone around me sounded exactly the same.

So, why on earth was this tow headed, yellow bellied, idjit kid accusing me of “talking like a white person” when literally everyone within shouting distance of us spoke with the same exact midwestern standard dialect?(Which, of course is also the dialect used on radio and in films:Standard American”)

It didn’t occur to me until much later, when I was in high school and my white friends had started jokingly calling me anoreo(and then later, a “coconut” when they learned that I was Bajan), that that boy’s comments didn’t have anything to do with everyone else around me, but more to do with cultural perception and my own inescapable visible brownness. 

Such began my journey towards understanding and debunking the concept of “Acting White”:

actingwhite

The concept of “Acting White” relies on the ideology that all modern western culture we enjoy was created by, built by and influenced by white people and that all other brown, red and yellow peoples are merely (new) participants in a dominant white culture. 

Of course that is a concept with deep roots in historical white washing, purposeful misguided cultural ignorance, and the  pervasive and destructive and relentless ego born of being a long standing member of a dominant and oppressive racial system.

But really, guys. What it boils down to is this: A fairy tale delusion that everything in Western culture is “white” and everything “ethnic” is somehow other. 

Ironically, even the barest glimpse at even the most whitewashed of history books paints a picture of the development of modern Western culture as something that has been continually contributed to and influenced by people of color from all over the world. Everything from music, to the English language, to technology, to basic creature comforts like refrigerators and our traffic system were literally shared efforts between POC and white people throughout history. (x)(x)(x) etc

People of Color own western culture just as much as white people do because it was built using our hands and minds too.

So, lets go back to that boy and “speaking white”.

With the understanding that Western Culture is comprised of more than just white accomplishments, does that accusation actually make logical and historical sense?

Answer:

No, it damn well does not.  

So, why on earth do we, as people of color, and white people as well, keep accusing each other of “Acting White”? Using that particular vocabulary to talk about (other) POC who have likely adopted dominant western culture as a form of survival in their homelands, or adopted nations? 

It makes literally no sense. We need new academic vocabulary for that phenomenon that is not nearly as convoluted as what we have now.

The phrase I have coined for this is: Western Neutral.

This refers to classic dominant Midwestern culture in particular, as well as Westernized culture the globe around (I see you, UK) without attaching that culture to whiteness in any way. It is also designed to be difficult to stigmatize, which is enforced by the word Neutral, because in no way should Western Neutral Culture be seen as superior or inferior to cultures outside Western Culture. The word neutral is also referring to a meshing of the conglomeration of western culture as it is formed the world around (ie: Basically, the opposite of the word “ethnic”. Which, by the way, includes the cultures of other areas with white people that are still highly indigenous like parts of Iceland for example)

So, can we all  just stop accusing people of “Acting White” because when those words come out of your mouth, what you’re really saying is that the glories of modern metropolis, science, pop culture, literature, and invention was created from the ground up by White Americans and White British people, exclusively; and that this POC you’re describing will only, ever, and always be, just a visitor in the glittering greatness of “white culture”.

Which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so incredibly and horrifyingly sad.

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Kayla Ancrum is an American YA novelist. She graduated from Dominican Universities with her BA in English. She currently runs the blog KAYLAPOCALYPSE, where she provides information about the writing and publishing process for other young authors, as well as original articles about writing tropes and diversity in media. Find her on twitter @Kwritesfiction

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9 replies »

  1. Great analysis. As a “white” person I have a big problem with the separation of everything into “white” vs. “other,” as you mention, because (A) I grew up in a very multicultural neighbourhood and have lived abroad as a visible minority on several occasions and it all just rings so untrue to me and (B) Just as it lumps a wide array of diverse “People of Colour” into one group, so it does with “white” people, many of whom also have a complex array of histories (what about my “white” stepmom who was born and raised in Zimbabwe? Or my “white” friend who was “racially profiled” at the US border because she’s from Lebanon? Just for example?) In light of all that, what the heck is “acting white” supposed to look like? Thanks for this post! :)

  2. Nothing less than brilliant. People of color & whites, should watch how they categorize people of color who don’t sound as they think they should. Great discourse here, give an eye to it.

    Nothing less than brilliant and true.

    (And, her blog is everything.)

  3. Wow. Wow. Wow. And more more. Yes!!! Exactly. As soon as I read this I had all my answers to the idea, but then you expressed them here and much more eloquently than I was managing!

    Plus you took it one step further!

    Glorious.

    So excited I’m following you!

  4. This is a very wonderful piece about culture and racism and I applaud your talent at writing so clearly and pointedly. Thank you for enlightening us and I really hope someday we will see the end of prejudicial behaviors.

  5. word! the dominant culture got that way by stealing others and taking credit for it. the thing about internalized racism is that we buy into it. great piece!

  6. Great article. You have again raised the important yet subtle point about the unchallenged perception that Western culture is “white” – a phenomenon you aptly term “Western neutral”.

    It’s an important point to make, as the vast majority of what we today call “Western culture” originated outside of Europe, right down the very script we use today to write the alphabet. I agree that a necessary step towards dismantling institutional racism – and the societal racism that supports it – is an acknowledgement of the multi-cultural roots of Europe. Without it, future generations everywhere will continue to suffer under the deceitful, etiological burden conceived by slave-owners and colonisers who openly devised ways to retain control forever.

    Finally , couldn’t agree more on the overall need for “new academic vocabulary”. Imo much of the language used today to debate issues of race and identity are inherently problematic, but that is a completely different conversation. Great read.

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