White Privilege and Cultural Imperialism

A TikTok Video Response

During our History of Political Philosophy class in Fall 2020, we discussed that “whiteness is comparable to the air we breathe”. This metaphor makes sense if you think about whiteness shaping everything that exists as if having an invisible hand in creating the systemic structures of oppression at play. Even Dr. Charles Mills in The Racial Contract describes the racial privilege that white people have as a contribution to the system white people use/continue to use to dominate, and that “It is just taken for granted, it is the background against which other systems, which are political systems are highlighted.”

Although I agree that whiteness is not always tangible, yet inescapable, the metaphor above didn’t completely sit right with me. How could we compare whiteness to air when it’s not essential to living and breathing? The point of the metaphor is to demonstrate how everything is in a white context, yet if we eliminated the structures at play that supported whiteness we could breathe better.

I chose to tweak the metaphor for my TikTok based on what I have interpreted whiteness/white supremacy to mean, specifically when it comes to what Iris Marion-Young describes as “Cultural Imperialism.” To me whiteness/global white supremacy is more comparable to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases emitted into our air and destroying our planet. Greenhouse gases naturally exist, but the number of pollutants expelled into the planet is mostly man-made. This is similar to how white supremacy has created man-made systemic systems of oppression with catastrophic effects. You might visibly see some of the consequences of these toxic fumes, comparable for example to the Dakota pipeline exploding on Indigenous territory, but most of these gases are transparent and have been slowly accumulating over a long time causing destruction of natural habitats all over the world over generations, such as generations of genocide of indigenous people stemming from colonization of the Americas. We have existed with global white supremacy for so long that we have grown accustomed to the way the system operates and it’s difficult to imagine a world in which “white culture” was not the dominant culture, let alone our ability to breathe in that world.

Therefore, inspired by Iris Marion-Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” my Tik Tok focuses on Cultural Imperialism from my political location and identity as a young Venezuelan-American immigrant.

This project was inspired by reacting to a viral Tik Tok within the app. This app is mainly utilized by Gen Z and millennials, which provides necessary insight on how the youth of our society interpret important social concepts and injustices. The original Tik Tok itself created by @a!exis styles was intended to be used as a voice-over. The creator encourages others to put the sound on and react to what she’s saying by asking others to put their fingers down if it applies to them. Specifically, the creator says things like put a finger down if you’re not white, put a finger down if you love cheeseburgers, put a finger down if Christmas is your favorite holiday, put a finger down if you celebrate Thanksgiving, put a finger down if you live in America. At the end of the video, the original creator misuses the term cultural appropriation to say “Congratulations, you just appropriated white culture!”

There are several logical fallacies with her argument. For starters, she falsely equates being an American to someone who celebrates traditions like enjoying BBQ food and Thanksgiving. Being an “American”, or more accurately a United States Citizens does not require one to celebrate U.S. holidays and enjoy fast food. For instance, would an indigenous person celebrate the genocide of their ancestors brought on by the arrival of pilgrims? Does a person whose ancestors were enslaved and still to this day experiences racial inequalities have to celebrate the land of the free?

In addition, what is more alarming is that creator of the TikTok equated being American with Whiteness itself. Whiteness has become so ingrained in the American society that “ …. [being] American means white,” according to author Toni Morrison as well as legal scholar Cheryl Harris. Nowhere in our constitution does it say you have to be white to be American; however, our society has been ingrained to believe due to oppressive events such as colonization, slavery, forced relocation, incarceration in concentration camps, etc. that being white is superior to those who are non-white. Moreover, the original creator claims there is such a thing as “white culture”, and that people who are not white, insinuating people of color, are appropriating it. For one, how can you appropriate whiteness if it’s the dominant “culture”? Property, labor, colonization, imperialism, slavery, capitalism, religion, genocide, democracy, liberalism, etc. are all shaped by and propagate(d) white culture. Culture appropriation is the exploitation of oppressed cultures by those in power: therefore, you cannot appropriate your oppressor.


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