the default myth

Photo by Markus Spiske

One of my opportunities as a professional editor for primary research articles and dissertations is they are often primers on subject matter on which I am not an expert. A dissertation I edited last year introduced me to the concept of White Culture.

I had never thought of myself as having a culture. I had often, in fact, bemoaned the fact that I did not have a culture of my own in which to ground myself. I leaned on my Italian heritage and sought out related influences, modeling myself after the great-great aunts and grandmothers I’d been told stories about growing up. I remained blind to the fact that I was already steeped in a narrow and inscribable culture that exerted considerable influence on my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I remained totally unaware of this influence not just on what I did, but who I imagined myself to be.

What is White Culture? Here are a few items:

  • The elevating of quantitative data and information in the form of observable proof and outcomes supported by hard evidence, and an accompanying distrust of information lacking these underpinnings.

  • The willful siloing (separation) of public institutions from one another, including faith, community, government, accountability (the law), and medicine.

  • The privileging of an individual’s needs and autonomy over the well-being of the population as a whole. This can be seen in middle to upper class white families spending money and using nepotism to place their own children in the best possible situations at the expense of children from poor white and non-white families.

  • The prioritizing of individual wealth over societal good, as evidenced by anti-government rhetoric and anti-tax propaganda.

  • Well-defined social strata and a mistaken belief that it is easy to move among them despite, paradoxically, hard evidence to the contrary. This results in the demonizing of the bottom rung as lazy or stupid, and for those born into privilege to assume their financial fortune is based on effort rather than luck.

  • Black and white, us-versus-them, zero sum attitudes towards conflict and the double standards that naturally arise out of this viewpoint.

When I learned about these things, courtesy of a dissertation I edited followed by a rhetorical theory course, I suddenly saw them in my concept of self-worth in stark relief. Worship of hard data? Check. Separation of institutions? Check. Individualism? Check. Black and white thinking? Check. Distaste for those less fortunate than I? Check. I have been working to dismantle that last one for years, but with only mixed results, and less accountability than I should have.

Since I became aware of these things about myself, I have struggled to extricate them. I have reassessed my distrust of non-empirical data, although I have not been able to shake it. I have exerted myself to learn the different environments and circumstances that conferred or withheld opportunity and to understand and respect the individuals in them and their belief systems, even if I disagreed with them, also with only limited success.

It is a work in progress and will be for some time. And the fact that it is such hard work has shed light on why it is so hard for neurotypicals to understand autism. Neurotypicals struggle to understand other neurotypicals with opposing belief systems. No wonder they cannot wrap their heads around not just a different belief system, but an entirely different way of perceiving and understanding reality. Neurotypicals assume that their conception of reality is a default against which others are measured, rather than a single option among a broad range of them. The idea that one’s mental processes are not a default but a specific type that not everyone has is a heavy lift, no doubt about it.

I don’t want to make this post about my autism, though. I want to speak to this moment in time regarding civil rights. I want to discuss how White Culture has perpetuated systemic racism. And for the record, systemic racism does NOT mean people in the system are racist. According to the eloquent Radley Balko*, it actually does not speak to the beliefs or actions of the people in the system at all. Instead, Balko affirms that systemic racism refers to the “systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them.”

There is a tendency among whites, myself included, to assume that our culture [sic] is a default, or an absence of culture. This, in turn, leads us to assume we are normal and that any aberrations from our normal are just that–aberrations. When we see these aberrations, the natural tendency is to assume that they arise due to a lack of experience or intelligence, and to subconsciously (or consciously, in some cases) think of people in the aberrational culture as less human, less important, less feeling, and less worthy of respect than those like oneself.

This has its roots in White colonialism. White colonialism entails a recognition that the lion’s share of colonial history we are taught was written by white colonists, and that the experiences of the colonized were only described from a white colonist’s viewpoint. It seeks to at least partially rectify this by seeking out and highlighting these experiences in the voices of the colonized themselves.

White colonialism produced what is called the “colonial gaze,” the vantage point from which colonizers looked down upon the purportedly less evolved and less intelligent natives of whatever land they took possession. This perception allowed colonials to treat the natives in one of two ways: to try to “fix” them by imposing White cultural ideals upon them, or to view them as animals and treat them as such. While there were a few notable individuals who pointed out the ethical problems with both these activities, these individuals remained on the fringes, unable to make a dent in the status quo.

We can draw a straight and uninterrupted line from the colonial gaze to the mistreatment of non-whites that is perpetuated throughout White cultural institutions, including:

  • Medicine Blacks were originally thought not to feel pain at all, and are still considered to feel less pain than whites by a plurality of doctors and nurses.

  • Government and public service Acts to limit imaginary “voter fraud” disproportionately disenfranchise non-white voters. Gerry-mandering persists in most states wherein minority votes are concentrated in a single district to limit their representation and influence on policy.

  • Immigration Incarceration and inhuman treatment of non-citizens crossing the border persists, with immigrant families and children in cages and denied food, water, bathrooms, and medical care.

  • Law enforcement Blacks are three times more likely than whites to be injured or killed by police.

  • The court system Blacks are five times more likely than whites to be incarcerated and for longer periods of time than whites guilty of the same offenses and with the same histories.

  • Education. See racialized tracking, a system wherein non-white students are penalized more harshly for misbehavior than the same behavior in white students and shunted away from accelerated courses and opportunities that whites are preferentially shuttled into.

  • The financial system Banks charge non-whites between 5 and 9 points more on their loans than equally-qualified white borrowers.

In fact, if you Google “Racial Disparity” you’ll get hits ranging from Cliff Notes to YouTube to the Science Direct primary research database.

If this isn’t evidence of systemic racism, I don’t know what is. And as much as this phenomenon bothered me, I never examined my own bias and prejudices. I never took action against systemic injustices. I told myself the problem was simply too big to solve to excuse this lack of action. But the closer I examined my natural responses to differently colored people, the more previously unrecognized bias I uncovered.

  • I realized that I assumed that black people were “stronger” than white people physically and mentally.

  • I realized that I assumed all blacks thought and felt the same way about all political issues.

  • I realized that I assumed political beliefs I disagreed with were the outcomes of lazy thinking, rather than natural, evidence-based conclusions borne out of one’s circumstances.

  • I realized that I assumed that loiterers were criminals and not individuals in bad circumstances trying to find work.

  • I realized that I assumed that blacks who wore their hair, dressed, and spoke “white” did so by personal choice, and not because they were forced to in order to succeed.

  • I realized that my efforts to learn more about other whites from different communities were not matched by efforts to learn more about non-whites from different communities.

  • I realized that I had never thought twice about the fact that all of my interactions with police were completely non-violent and never escalated beyond a citation.

In fact, when I was pulled over in college going 95 in a 65, something that would have surely resulted in a beating and arrest if I were a black man, all I got was a court summons; I was then allowed to drive home. No handcuffs were employed. In court, I got probation and a fine. No jail time. The extent to which this experience reflected the color of my skin did not occur to me until literally the last few days or so.

I’m so ashamed of my contributions to systemic racism, of my privilege in ignoring certain laws without fearing for my life, of taking for granted that I get preferential treatment from the system because I am white, and I look and sound white, and that even if I chose to dress and speak differently, I could make that choice without losing access to my privilege.

It’s upsetting, but it’s also motivating. I’m not stuck thinking this way; I can change it. I can change my behavior. I can check my privilege before responding. I can apply a White Culture and white privilege prism to my life to root out personal bias. It’s hard and it takes a lot of mental bandwidth, something I don’t always have a surplus of, but now that I have realized these uncomfortable truths about myself, it is my responsibility to address them.

It may be that my understanding of autism and how it differs from a supposed default neurology has made me more open to the idea that there really isn’t a default anything, be it thinking, perceiving, looking, sounding, acting, feeling, or knowing.

It thus follows that there is no such thing as a default culture, body, or mind. There are countless different versions of all of these, even among different individuals we lump into categories like black, conservative, disabled, autistic. Dispelling the seductive myth of the default is an important first step towards removing systemic entanglements with racism, with ableism, with cronyism, with chauvinism. We need to see with fresh eyes and think with fresh minds. Look around you and see your culture. Recognize its influence on you. Use this information to imagine how you could be better.

And I want to acknowledge that among my friends and peers, I do know a few people who already do perceive different cultures, including their own, as simply different, and don’t traffic in assumptions about cultural defaults. I want to honor them as examples of how I want to think about and interact with others that may look different from me. I want to become one of those people.

I know that being better people is something everyone does want, no matter what their apparent category is. This moment is an opportunity to move past default-based ideas and accept new possibilities. I plan to take it.

*This post originally misspelled Mr. Balko’s first name as Rodney instead of Radley. The latter is correct.

About C. M. Condo

I am a late-diagnosed, high-functioning autistic living with chronic pain. I started this blog in March of 2014 as a way to try to process what was happening to me. It is my hope that by sharing it with you, we can both gain something, or at least learn something, from my experience.
This entry was posted in Book Two - Mind, Setting 4 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to the default myth

  1. christellsit says:

    After getting about a third of the way through “White Spaces Missing Faces” by Catrice M. Jackson, the idea that there is such a thing as White Culture finally hit me as something real. It needs to be taught as such. I mean, who is going to tell the white children and white young adults who don’t get it? Even though they may be supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, they do not KNOW. You figured this out for yourself! Wow!! I am impressed. Not surprised, though.
    Congratulations and let’s spread the word in whatever way we can. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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