Komm, Herr Jesu; sei du unser Gast;
Und segne, was du uns bescheret hast.

Whiteness is the bargain that all white people’s ancestors accepted. It was simple: in exchange for being accepted into whiteness – a fellowship of basic social status and economic reward – they agreed to give up their ancestral cultures. My ancestors came to the United States in the 19th century from Germany and Ireland. And they were known by those labels, seen as different – somehow other. But like other people now known as white, they eventually gave up their German and Irish cultures in exchange for the benefits they obtained. 

In their homelands and when they first arrived here, my ancestors had cultural practices that connected them to one another, to their lands of origin, and to their contemporary communities. These practices were passed from generation to generation, evolving over time, but always growing organically from what came before. These cultural practices held my ancestors in relationship with one another, gave their lives a sense of meaning, and provided them with deep, cultural joy. They knew who they were and where they came from. My German forebears settled in Lebanon, Wisconsin whose rolling hills reminded them of the region of Pomerania from which they came. They built homes and farms as they had in Germany, founded Lutheran churches, and spoke German to one another. 

Over time, though, they accepted the bargain. They learned English and spoke it more and more frequently. They gave up their customs, foods, and habits. What made this bargain so attractive? There were incentives and disincentives built into the system. People who accepted the bargain found it easier to join the larger white economy and society, to engage in business, for their children to be accepted in school. Those who did not accept the bargain were not punished, but they found everything a little harder. They continued to be regarded as different. If they did not use English as easily, they were regarded as lesser people. In this way, acceptance into whiteness was a necessary precondition for full acceptance into American capitalism and American democracy. Without that transition, my ancestors and I would have remained on the outside of both.

All of these pressures meant that European immigrants, or their children, eventually succumbed, giving up language, traditions, and cultural joy. Not all at once, but step by step, it happened. My paternal grandparents were born in 1913 – my grandfather – and 1919 – my grandmother. They both spoke German in their homes and at school. When they married in 1937, they spoke German in their own home and taught it to their children. My oldest uncle was born in 1940 and spoke German when he was very young. After my father was born in 1946, he was never taught German, and the other children’s German faded away. My grandparents still maintained some cultural and food traditions. They served stollen – German bread – at Christmas and ate spaetzle – German noodles. They spoke German to one another occasionally. On rare occasions, I heard them recite the German version of the Lutheran table prayer:

Komm, Herr Jesu; sei du unser Gast;
Und segne, was du uns bescheret hast.

Or in English:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest;
And let Your gifts to us be blessed.

But it was less and less frequent as time went on. 

By giving up their ancestral culture, my ancestors gave up their cultural joy. In exchange for sacrificing this joy, my family gained some measure of social and economic safety in the community of whiteness. We found it easier to attend school, to get jobs, to engage in business. Was this bargain worthwhile? It certainly seemed so to them, and I cannot blame them for it. But I also recognize what they gave up when I hear Latinx colleagues talking about the literature passed down to them, when Asian family members talk about their heritage foods, when Black neighbors talk about the legacy of resistance that their forebears have given them. I realize that my deficit of cultural joy doesn’t somehow equal the struggles that people of color have had to undergo in this country. But the fact that these problems are far from equal does not mean that we white people haven’t lost something. 

What have we white people done in response to this deficit of our own cultural joy? We have celebrated, then adopted, and finally coopted other people’s. Jazz and blues into rock and roll. Yoga and Zen Buddhism into mindfulness. Latin music and hip hop. Swing and salsa dancing. Many white people think of these things as part of the “default culture” of America. All have been taken from the cultures of people of color. I am not arguing here that people should not celebrate one another’s cultures. We all can stand in appreciation of brilliance, from wherever it emerges. I am arguing that the cultural expressions I have named here and many others are not “white” or “American” – they are the cultural expressions and cultural joy of distinct Black, Latinx, and Asian cultures. We have taken those cultural expressions and monetized them – made them into commodities that make untold amounts of money for numerous American corporations. 

Rather than coopting, selling, and buying others’ cultural joy, what we white people need is an expression of our own. Does that mean rediscovering our ancestral expressions? Creating something new? I don’t know. Maybe some of both. What I do know is that we cannot continue on this same trajectory. 

Our task is not to sit in criticism of ourselves or our ancestors. In many cases, they were poor immigrants, trying to get by as best they could. Our task is a struggle against the system of unbridled capitalism that subjugates us and people of color. Capitalism hollows out the culture of everyone who strikes a bargain with it. And it hollows those out the most who strike the deepest and longest pacts. This has happened to Black people, Latinx people, Asian people as well. But it has had the deepest and longest start with us white people. Indeed, we were the ones who originally constructed the system that now holds us hostage. We set ourselves on this path; we can now find another. We can join the legacy of those white people who have pushed back against unbridled capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Eugene Debs, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, John Brown, and many others: they were not perfect people, but they each pushed back against the system of unbridled capitalism that attempts to turn people into machines, most obviously in the enslavement of African people and in the false promises made to lure Latinx and Asian immigrants here for jobs; that attempts to steal pieces of the planet on which we live, most obviously in the land theft from and genocide of the Indigenous peoples of this land; that attempts to homogenize our beliefs and cultures, very clearly in the case of we white people who are most deeply in relationship with it. 

These are our tasks: to create new systems and relationships that honor the being and labor of each human person, that honor the planet we reside on and the rights of all of us to be nourished by its bounty, that allow us to express our own deep cultural joy. Perhaps the expression of cultural joy might seem a lesser task than the others, but it is bound up with them. 

And so, I say, fellow white people, let us look to the gifts of relationship with other cultures and the Earth. Let us lift up our own gifts. And in a small shift to my grandparents’ prayer: Segne was uns bescheret wurde. Let these gifts to us be blessed. Let us bless them through our beliefs, our relationships, and our actions, and in the process (re)create some cultural joy of our own. 

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