“My life is straight vanilla,” a friend once said to me during a catch-up phone conversation. There wasn’t anything to report. No adventure, no excitement. She considered her life boring and has since alluded to a diffuse and pervasive sense of meaninglessness. She didn’t see her life as having flavor, culture, or spice. As I listened to her speak, the word “plain” came to mind.
In seeing the words “vanilla” and “plain” as synonymous I continued with a fundamental error in thinking that I have found common within many in my white community. My explanation requires a bit of storytelling. You see, for many years I conflated “vanilla” and “plain.” As a child, I believed vanilla ice cream was plain ice cream. Vanilla meant no flavor, the same as plain. I saw plain yogurt in stores as a curiosity. Who would ever choose plain? I never chose anything plain, and I never chose vanilla either. It was as though my taste buds were not sensitive enough to pick up vanilla’s flavor. My error in thinking was never questioned.
Somewhere along the line I began to taste vanilla. I don’t recall when it happened. But I remember noticing that I liked Vanilla Bean ice cream and Very Vanilla Yoplait yogurt. I realized that each had a distinctive taste. Vanilla candles spelled pungently, and vanilla body wash woke me up in the morning. As I increasingly recognized the flavor of vanilla, I began pouring an extra 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla in batter when baking.
What I have since realized is that saying “vanilla” is the same as “plain” is like saying that being white has no flavor, that it is plain and has no associated culture via generalizable assumptions, tendencies, or beliefs. For most of my life, I was not sensitive enough to see how being white shaped me, contributed to the way I thought, behaved, interpreted events, and saw others. seeing my white culture as plain masked its effects on my life. My error in thinking was never questioned. In fact, my white culture taught me not to see being white as real or meaningful. My white culture taught me to only see myself as an individual, to relish in my uniqueness.
Knowing that what white culture is, means, and includes is often hotly contested, I can still say that it is partially because of it that being white equaled being “plain” in my mind. If anything, I associated being white with my life having no culture. I thought it was colorless, flavorless, lacked spice, and was boring. The fact that my ancestors had elected (and been coerced to some degree) to take on a white identity and give up our heritage to fit in to the white group is 100% a part of this. Ultimately, my cultural and ancestral history supported my inability to see white culture as a flavor, like vanilla, hard for me to taste.
At this point in my life I see being white as part of my life’s flavor. I may not fit into all that some say is associated with white culture. But, that’s ok. No one fits 100% into the categorical box that is used to describe any particular culture. Said a different way, no generalized description of any culture fully captures all of those who are influenced by that culture.
White culture is real to me now, just like I now recognize that vanilla is a flavor. White culture is perceptible, even if I would never claim I exemplify all of it. Seeing white culture as “plain” did me, and those around me, a disservice. When I saw white culture as having no flavor, no influence on my life, it led me to believe I was culture-less and it made me unable to perceive how my thoughts and actions were infused with ideas and assumptions I did not realize were affected by my culture.
I love the taste of vanilla, and I appreciate seeing white culture. Being aware of its flavor helps me choose how much of it to keep as part of my life and where certain elements should be shed. Although my life may not be “straight vanilla” or exclusively shaped by white culture, I now recognize how much of my life is infused with it. And, I can now more consciously and responsibly choose how to enact the recipe of my life.
(More is written about my own process around my sense of cultural loss in Chapter 1 of Witnessing Whiteness, just in case you’re interested.)