What is white culture, exactly? Here’s what the stats say

Whiteness is hard to define, but apparently it involves lots of vegetables, alcohol and the arts and names like Yoder

A few months after I moved to New York, a magical conversation happened that would radically shift my psyche forever. I was telling my friend that I had gone to his favorite shop and he asked: Who served you? Was it the tall white guy?

I frowned and replied, Are the rest of the staff not white? to which my friend replied Huh? What do you mean? No. I was just describing him.

While he wandered off to get a beer, I stood dumbfounded. This was the first time I had heard a white persons race used as a casual descriptor, a simple point of differentiation in what I perceive to be a white world.

As a Brit, I grew up in a country that was 86% white, so white was the norm. That kid you were imagining in books like Roald Dahls was white, unless you were told otherwise (which you never were). The men paraded on the TV show Crimewatch were described as black when they were black, and short or tall or thin or fat when they were white.

Now I live in the United States, a country that is 61% white. Non-whiteness is much more visible here, and suddenly the contrast of whiteness is too. But Im still struggling to make the shift from my previous mindset, where white is the default, the presumed, the baseline. You dont notice normalcy; you see the deviations from it. So the word white could always be hopped over as an adjective.

Now, white still feels like an absence: an absence of color, an absence of food that is different and an absence of a mum who pronounces your name differently from the way your friends do. But if my friend can use white as an adjective, then what exactly are they describing? What is white culture, exactly?

I decided to find out by asking the questions that I and many other non-white people have been asked over and over again. I looked for answers in data.

Q: What do white people eat?
A: Vegetables.

The US Department of Agricultures latest data shows that the average white American eats 16lb more vegetables at home each year than do non-white Americans (that could add up to 112 medium-sized carrots, 432 cherry tomatoes, or God knows how much kale).

The only thing that white people seem to love more than vegetables is dairy. White Americans eat 185lb of dairy products at home each year, compared with just 106lb for black Americans.

But this isnt just the result of our appetites: all of these numbers are shaped by structural factors. For example, fruit and vegetable consumption increases each time that a new supermarket is added near to someones home, according to a 2002 study. That same study also found that white Americans are four times more likely than black Americans to live in a census tract that has a supermarket.

Q: What do white people drink?
A: Alcohol.

Almost a third of non-Hispanic whites had at least one heavy drinking day in the past year, according to the CDC. Only 16% of black Americans and 24% of Hispanic Americans said the same.

If youre wondering which drinks white people are drinking, then you have the same question as a team of researchers who followed 2,171 girls from the time they were 11 years old to the time they were 18. As each year passed, the researchers noticed that compared to the black girls, white girls drank a lot more wine (and beer, actually, and, er, spirits, too).

Q: Whats a typical white name?
A: Joseph Yoder.

The Census Bureau did an analysis of 270 million peoples last names to find those that are most likely to be held by certain races or ethnicities. Yoder might not be the most common family name in the US only about 45,000 people have it but, since 98.1% of those people are white, its just ahead of Krueger and Mueller and Koch as the whitest last name in the country. Which means that statistically speaking, the Yoders of America are probably the least likely white people to marry someone of a different race to themselves.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> The most common white last names. Illustration: Mona Chalabi


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The most common Hispanic last names. Illustration: Mona Chalabi


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The most common black last names. Illustration: Mona Chalabi


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The most common Asian last names. Illustration: Mona Chalabi

Many of these last names have German and Jewish origins. Which seems to run counter to my theory of white culture being intangible Jewish culture is far from it. Having experienced discrimination, and having a distinct, tangible culture is enough to potentially disqualify you as white, as some American Jewish people themselves ask the question: Are Jews White?.

As for Joseph, well, the best data I could find was the most popular baby names listed by the race or the ethnicity of the mother (no mention of the father so some of these Josephs are probably mixed race). Even then, the numbers are only from New York and were collected from 2011 to 2014. Still, I found that the most common white names are Joseph, David, Michael, Jacob and Moshe (seven of the most common names were male because people tend to be more creative when theyve birthed a girl).

Q: What do white people do for fun?
A: Enjoy the arts.

I turned to my esteemed colleague and friend Amanda and asked what she would like to know about white people. Amanda, herself a white person, replied: Why do they love guitars so much? Alas, despite two hours of online research, I couldnt test her theory about musical instruments and race. (Although I did find out that bassoons are more popular with women than men, which led me to a YouTube clip of a woman playing the bassoon with a comment that read THIS is how you bassoon. It made me laugh so hard I had to take a break from writing this.)

Instead, I looked at the latest American Time Use Survey. It was published after the Bureau of Labor Statistics asked 10,500 people in the US how they spend their time. White people are the only racial or ethnic group in the dataset to have a number higher than zero for time spent attending museums or the performing arts. Its only 36 seconds, but remember, this is a daily average, so that adds up to 219 minutes each year.

I double checked my findings against a 2015 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, which found that white Americans were almost twice as likely as black or Hispanic Americans to have done at least one arts activity in the past year. Their definition of an arts activity was pretty broad it included jazz, classical music, opera, musical and non-musical plays, ballet, and visits to an art museum or gallery.

Pondering leisure time. Illustration: Mona Chalabi
These numbers feel close to home. When I was growing up, my family never set foot inside a museum, gallery or theatre. Not once. I didnt think it was strange, I just thought it was like travelling in pairs or taking coaches an activity reserved only for school trips.

And yet, despite having better access to these institutions, it seems like its some white people who seem to feel culturally deprived.

Remember Amanda? I mentioned her earlier shes my colleague with the contempt for guitars. In 2015, she interviewed black psychologists to ask their opinion about Rachel Dolezal, a white academic who purposely misrepresented herself as an African American.

Anita Thomas, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Loyola University, said: In some ways its normal, but not at her age. Thomas explained that many white adolescents behaved similarly to Dolezal, attempting to take on what they perceived to be the characteristics of another race while exploring their identities. Being the other sure as hell has its downsides, but it turns out that not being the other does too especially if youre a teenager.

For white [American] youth, who are disconnected from European heritage or legacy, it often feels like whiteness as a concept is empty, Thomas added in a quote that has really stuck with me. It seems to tie together some disparate thoughts I have had on white as an adjective.

Dolezal was treated as if she were a bizarre outlier, but shes part of a much bigger pattern of white behavior. It includes Mezz Mezzrow, the 1930s jazz musician who declared himself a voluntary Negro after marrying a black woman and selling marijuana. It includes the millions of white Americans who take DNA tests and proudly reveal that they are in fact x percent non-white. And its a pattern that includes the white Americans who listen to a rights for whites album that includes songs titled Sons of Israel and Fetch the Noose. One reaction might seem laughable, the other frightening, but they are all ultimately about finding a concept of whiteness that isnt empty.

But what does all that searching yield? Im not sure I can answer the question what is white culture? but Im certain we should try. If whiteness takes no shape, then the concrete structures that shaped it (and often benefit from it) remain invisible too the supermarkets, the marriages, and the museums that make these numbers what they are. If the somethingness of white culture is never quite pinned down, it remains both nothing, really and well, everything.

If white culture remains vague, then it can lay claim to every recipe, every garment, every idea that is not explicitly non-white. That would mean that my identity is just a sum, that my non-whiteness can only be understood as a subtraction from the totality of whiteness. I refuse to be a remainder.

This article will be published in the March edition of The Smudge.

Do you have thoughts on white culture? We want to hear them! Please leave a comment below or email me at <a href=”mailto:mona.chalabi@theguardian.com” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>mona.chalabi@theguardian.com.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/26/white-culture-statistics-vegetables-alcohol

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