(A commendation of B. H. Pitner’s thesis on the cultural vacuousness of whiteness, a critique of the same author’s treatment of Southernness and whiteness as equivalent, and an open letter inviting that author to collaborate.)
I recently read a book that made me at once thoughtful, and profoundly sad: The Crime Without a Name, by Barret H. Pitner.
I love his exploration of the term ‘ethnocide’, which I would tend to call ‘cultural genocide’, and his indictment of white culture, and I’ve enjoyed his discussions of philosophers such as Satre, Camus, and Kierkegaard (although I think that many of his conclusions could be as easily arrived at without the existentialist philosophical framework around which he structures his arguments).
What saddens me is his treatment of whiteness as being inherent to Southerness, with the implication that ending the one means ending the other.
I will never accept this. Southern culture is far more than the Southern brand of racism, and has the power to transcend – even to end – the construct of race.
The day that the descendants of the Black Southerners who left the South in the Great Migration recognize and embrace their cultural commonalities with Southerners of all races who stayed behind; and that white Southerners seek ethnic solidarity with their neighbors of all races instead of with people from other regions who happen to be white, will be the day that the construct of whiteness itself truly begins to erode in the US.
Pitner’s creation of a framework that seemingly precludes that outcome is anathema to the destruction of whiteness, and I want him to realize that. As such, I thought I might reach out to him, in the hope of entering into a dialogue.
I was also galled, in the course of my reading, by what I felt was Pitner’s mischaracterization of Southern hospitality and conviviality.
His view seems to hold that the Southern tendency to greet strangers in passing, in the expectation that they’ll respond, is essentially a micro-aggression designed to remind Black Southerners of their historical social subordination to white people; that being polite to people, including and especially strangers, and trying to subtly increase their comfort is a superficial and insincere nicety that masks a lack of true kindness; and that the slow pace of Southern life is a continuation of the antebellum planter ethic, whereby white people in the upper echelons of society were lazy because they expected to be waited on by their slaves.
I disagree with him strongly. Niceness and kindness don’t need to be antithetical – in fact, oftentimes, the former is an extension of the latter, rather than evidence of its absence. While there are people whose conviviality is only skin deep, or – conversely – whose gruff exteriors conceal kindness, there are many people who enthusiastically engage with others, and who treat them with automatic gentleness, as the outward expression of the same tendency that would motivate them to give much needed help in time of trouble.
This lattermost type is the kind I’ve most often encountered in the South, whether the Upland or the Deep South, and whether from white Southerners or Southerners of color. I also believe that the gentle pace of rural Southern life is a deviation from whiteness, rather than a result of it. The frenetic pace of American life outside much of the South, especially in Northern industrial towns, is to at least some extent a product of the dehumanization wrought on the working class by industrial capitalism, with its ethic that workers must always be busy doing profitable work. By contrast, while most people from preindustrial societies are seldom idle, their activities are seldom undertaken for reasons other than necessity (raising buildings, caring for children crops and livestock, preparing food and textiles, etc.) or pleasure (singing songs, telling stories, dancing dances, etc.), with quality prioritized over time efficiency. The fact that this much healthier work ethic has prevailed in many Southern communities (both white and non white) despite capitalism is surely a social good, rather than a social evil. Something else I hope to discuss with the author, if I succeed in contacting him.
As a manifestation of that hope for contact, I wrote the following letter, and sent it by email to Mr. Pitner a few days ago:
Dear Mr. Pitner,
I recently read your book, The Crime Without a Name, and enjoyed much of it immensely. Your re-discovery and publicization of the word ‘ethnocide’, and your re-definition of the word ‘ethnogenesis’ (coined originally in the 1800s in the field anthropology, albeit with very different connotations) are timely and valuable, and I suspect that the insights arising from your writings on these subjects will greatly assist me in my own work (the cultural revitalisation of endangered folkways connected in varying degrees to the Scottish Gaelic language, especially in Kentucky and adjacent parts).
As with any philosophical text, there were, of couse, some aspects of the book that resonated less well with my own experience of life than others. One of these – and one I hope to discuss with you – was what I felt was your apparent conflation of the contructions of Southernness (at least among white southerners) and whiteness. At several juntures in the book, you seemed – at least insofar as I understood you – to look on the South as a sort of reservoir of whiteness that had somehow contaminated a United States that would have otherwise been less ethnocidally white.
However, my own experience of Southernness – and even southern whiteness – is that, at least in among the working poor, it has historically functioned as an identity subaltern to mainstream American whiteness, and that it has, in fact, often been subject to the ethnocidal tendencies of U.S. whiteness in general.
I would invite you to consider, for example, the class-based cultural dichotomy in my native Kentucky between poor white people and wealthy white people. The poor whites are almost invariably culturally ‘Southern’: they have southern accents; they cook southern food (often using recipes passed down to them from members of their own families or local communities); and they prefer to listen to and perform music from genres like country, old-time, gospel and bluegrass (music, in other words, with local roots).
The rich whites, by contrast, are culturally ‘non-regional’: they almost invariably speak ‘standard’ English (to varying degrees of actual conformity to that standard, but with the clear intent of conforming); they don’t cook for themselves, or – if they do – they tend to make use of an eclectic variety of recipes found online or in books, to the exclusion of local recipes that they consider provincial or plebian); and they listen mostly to ‘mainstream’ forms of music (nothing country, seldom anything overtly religious, and rarely anything more than fifty or sixty years old unless it is operatic or orchestral).
Effectively, in my experience, it is mostly middle- and upper-class white Southerners who embody the essence of whiteness as you define it in your book: people who inherit nothing from their ancestors but objects and material wealth; who have no particular connection to any region and its specific culture or ecology; who produce nothing themselves that they consume, be it food, art, clothing or music.
By contrast, the working-class Southerners of my acquaintance barely embody that kind of whiteness at all. They learn a great deal of oral history and useful skills from their parents, and, conversely, often inherit relatively little in the way of other sorts of generational wealth. Their connection to the areas they come from is obvious from the way they talk, from the foods they prefer (at least some of which they grow themselves), and from the kinds of recreation they engage in – much of which consists of outdoor activities rooted in place, like hunting, fishing, gardening, and farming. They produce much of what they consume – be it food, textiles, music, art, or maintenance of their homes and tools – often as a matter of necessity owing to their limited financial resources.
They do these things, however, only to the extent that either their own sense of identity or the limitations of their resources prevent them from becoming, or aspiring to become, wealthy whites.
Many are the poor white Kentuckians whom I have watched divest themselves of their cultural heritage either in order to become ‘successful’ (that is, middle- or upper-class white people) or because they have achieved such ‘success’. In my grandparents’ home county, in rural south-central Kentucky, most people sound Southern, cook Southern, and can recite any number of items of local folksong and folklore – some of it generations old. And, yet, if you visit members of the same families who have lived for even a few decades in the suburbs of Louisville (Kentucky’s largest city), you’ll find that their accents are hard to distinguish from those of white suburbanites anywhere else in the US; that they will have largely abandoned their grandparents’ recipes; and that their children will know little to nothing about the oral history of their parents’ home county, whether in song or story.
If you ask them why this is, many will tell you that their heritage was too costly – both financially and socially – to maintain: that they gave up their southern accent the third or fourth time a prospective boss laughed at it in a job interview, or a stranger on a bus called them a hick; that they stopped repairing their old clothes because they could afford to throw them out and buy new ones instead, and their neighbors had said, anyway, that doing otherwise was tacky; that they would never teach their youngest child old country ballads like Barbry Allen or Pretty Polly, because their oldest had informed them that his friends at school called songs like that hillbilly music.
Effectively, to achieve success in a world that despises them, such people discard everything about themselves that mainstream U.S. society hates. Sadly, the only thing about poor white Southerners that society approves of is the color of their skin, and so – to be acceptable in that society – many of them do away with everything but that: they decant the greatest part of themselves, and leave their bodies little more than empty vessels that they then try in vain to fill with money and power. And our society applauds them for this, and punishes them if they hesitate to do it.
You have given me a word with which to describe this process of sacrificing Southern identity on the altar of whiteness and wealth: ‘ethnocide’.
I write to you to thank you for this word, and to extend a proposition tangent on its use. I suspect, from your book – and especially from what I perceive as its characterizations of Southernness and whiteness as being essentially equivalent – that it might not have occurred to you that ethnocide should be applied to the cultural erasure of Southernness, and that, in fact, you might object to such an application.
Even so, I would like to ask your blessing to present a case for the application of ethnocide to Southernness in the form of a book – a book which would also substitute the existentialist framework underpinning your own book for one grounded in the largely metaphysical and theistic philosophical worldview of the Scottish Gaels. The book would aim to further my efforts to cultivate Southernness itself as a racially and nationally transcendent regional ethnicity (a process for which you have given me another word: ethnogenesis), incorporating elements from Scottish Gaelic culture to compensate for any aspects of Southern culture as it exists or has historically existed in Kentucky that are too thoroughly integrated with capitalism, malevolent patriarchy, racism, and/or whiteness to be healthily revived in a way that benefits humanity.
I hope to create via this process an ethnic group that I have tentatively named Tramontanes, a ethnonym historically applied to various sorts of Highlanders, including the Scottish Gaels and – later – the Appalachians, from both of which groups many modern Kentuckians claim descent.
I would like for there to be formal relations between Tramontanes and Freecanos [a hypothetical ethnic group rooted in cultural US Blackness that Mr. Pitman hoped to found, according to his writings in the aforementioned book], and I would be interested at a future time in co-creating with you a piece of ritual or performance art in which representatives of the two groups met, in regalia symbolic of their cultural histories and hopes for the future, and affirmed one another’s existence and their shared hope for the end of ethnocide in the U.S.
I hope that this proposition excites or at least amuses you, and that it is not perceived an object of offense. My hopes for both the writing of the proposed book and for the future friendship of the Freecanos and the Tramontanes are sincere, and I hope that both will serve the causes of social and economic justice.
I would be greatly pleased to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written above, and I would be willing to discuss the matter at length by either email correspondence or video call on a platform of your choosing. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Whether you do or not, I thank you for having written your book, and I wish you success in your future endeavors.
Leis gach deagh dhùrachd (With every good wish),
Adam Dahmer, PhD
Professor of Gaelic Studies at East Tennessee State University
I have yet to receive a reply from Mr. Pitner, but hope that the message is received in the spirit with which it was written; that I will hear from him soon; and, that – once we’re in touch – I can persuade him of the cultural value of Southernness, and of its usefulness as an agent not of ethnocide, but of ethnogenisis.