This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on DailyKos.
This is a meme that I see coming up again and again: But nobody I know thinks of themselves as white! I’m Dutch-Irish! I’m Norwegian! I’m a proud Polish-American! And so on. A lot of white folks get confused, or hurt, or angry when people of color start talking about how “white folks say this” and “white folks do that.” And most of them get pretty upset when “white” is used as a pejorative term in by people of color and their allies. As a white person who doesn’t take offense at this, I’ll explain the history that lies behind that category called “whiteness” and try to help you understand why “white” has become a shorthand term to describe a power structure that, in truth, most progressives, of any color, should oppose. I will also explain why “white” and “black” are not equivalent descriptions of individuals or groups, since both definitions were imposed by white authorities on both black and white people. This is, by the way, a long-ass essay, because some things are just too complex for sound bites.
As always, a history lesson is a good place to start. In the U.S., in the period leading up to the Civil War, slave or free status often turned on an almost incalculable percentage of “black blood.” Those deemed to possess “black blood” were defined as salable commodities. From the period of Colonization until the Civil War, and even after the Civil War, “black blood” determined where you could live, where you were physically unsafe, where you could work and play, and whether or not you could vote.
In the beginning, the Colonies imported both Africans and indentured servants for use as labor, and the status of Africans was somewhat ambiguous. Slavery had not yet been established as the “peculiar institution” that came to distinguish the U.S. But for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, it was more convenient and attractive to European colonists to retain the labor of African slaves, rather than to allow them the freedom and rights that indentured European servants inevitably earned. Eventually, African descent marked the difference between servants who were to be manumitted and servants who were to retain slave status throughout their lives. Indentured servitude was eventually phased out, and slavery became the foundation of the laboring body that built America. It is important to note that the children of indentured servants were not indentured, but that the children of African slaves inherited the servitude of their mothers. Slavery was thus determined by one’s “African blood,” and the condition was inextricably bound to the notion of “blood” and “blackness.”
I would like to note, here, that European and U.S. notions of Native American “race” were the product of another crucible. Unlike blacks, who were defined as valuable property (or potential property, if free), after a number of failures to successfully enslave Native Americans, they were defined as “non-people” — neither valuable property nor potential American citizens, but members of a vestigial group whose eradication was either celebrated or lamented, on the path to extinction. I cannot follow this trajectory in this diary, but there are very fine Native American bloggers whose work documents the genocidal policy of the U.S—Ojibwa comes immediately to mind.
The problem with the “African blood” demarcation is that, sufficiently diffused, African genetic heritage is invisible. And plenty of African blood was diffuse, due to generations of sexual slavery and rape. Property that can talk and walk just like free people needs to be distinguished in some fashion, and if you can’t see a distinction, you need to invent one. Because African heritage was often invisible after several generations, it became crucial to define the category of people who didn’t possess it: thus “whiteness” was invented.
Of course there were no “white” people in the U.S.; there were simply people of various ethnic heritages that were not African. But in order to exclude the slave class, people not of African heritage needed to be lumped together and defined as a larger category that was, specifically, “not-black.” Birth certificates and bills of sale became the documents that determined one’s race and, as late as 1978, people who were to all visible appearance “white” in Louisiana were denied the right, by that state’s Supreme Court, to change the race listed on their birth certificate from black to white. (Louisiana was famous for its brisk trade in white-looking slave women in the Antebellum era, and it would have been illegal to buy and sell them if they were not defined as “black.”)
The black or white label you bore determined the course of your life. Or, rather, the black label limited the course of one’s life, while the white label opened it to the opportunities offered to American citizens.
In the black community, though there was and is a level of colorism, one was historically not told one was “too white” to qualify as black, because membership in the “black” category was never voluntary. A light-skinned black might be criticized for “putting on airs” or “acting above herself,” but everyone was aware of the vast rift between the categories, and the near impossibility of crossing it. (A very small percentage of Americans of African heritage did pass successfully, but in order to do so they had to leave behind every person who might be able to identify them, and to successfully integrate into communities that were often suspicious of folks without “pedigree.” But that, too is another story.)
On the white side, a single hint or accusation of “black blood” (no matter how white one’s skin), proven or unproven, was often enough to ensure your banishment from the white community, and the stripping of white privileges and rights. This was particularly true of whites in precarious social or economic positions. The horror with which white people regarded the ability of a small number of “blacks” to pass was a marker of the instability of that identity. Whiteness was a protection from the horror of the “social death” that was slavery or other forms of black servitude. In the case of poor whites, this categorical boundary was often the only item of value that they possessed, and they defended it with a fierceness that sometimes defied reason. (And if that strikes a chord today, it should.) The black or white label you bore determined your right to an education, vote, to use “whites only” facilities, and so on.
Race mixing was forbidden in principle, but rampant in practice. White men used their privilege of sexual access to black bodies both for pleasure and to breed more slaves. In most cases the progeny of such unions were treated as any other slave and the “white blood” was ignored because the “one drop rule” means the addition of white blood to black never ultimately dilutes it. In fewer instances, these “mixed-blood” children were educated and/or manumitted. (The penalty for white women who bore “tainted” children was so severe that far fewer black children were born of white women, and were often carried and birthed in secrecy.) With all this mixing, and because the slaveowner often imposed his religious and ethnic traditions on his slaves, many black Americans also had European ethnic heritages (Scots Irish, Dutch, French, etc.). Some distinctly American traditions (the blues, for example) arose from contact between Africans and other ethnicities, notably the Scotch and the Irish. It was clear to whites that “mere” ethnicity was not enough to separate blacks from whites: the racial distinction had to cross ethnic lines as well. If you were “black,” then none of your other ethnic heritages were considered to count.
The category of whiteness arose as, literally, a master category defined by the absence of “black blood,” and, in the U.S., recent immigrants were often defined by their supposed proximity to blackness. European prejudices carried over into the New World, and the British belief that the Irish were a sub-race of savages dovetailed nicely with American racism, but Irish assimilation was not as threatening as African assimilation because it did not shake the foundations of the U.S. labor system. (Unlike Chinese assimilation, which was simply forbidden.) If an immigrant group was “white enough” to assimilate, it was not necessary to maintain the myth that they were chattel.
If ethnic groups were to assimilate into white culture, their members, too, had to self-define as not-black (white) to elevate their status. I don’t know what your heritage is, but my European ancestors (German, Polish, Russian) erased every trace of accent and refused to teach subsequent generations their mother tongues in order to assimilate us more quickly. Many immigrants understood that “becoming white” meant giving up most ethnic traits.
Most people don’t know that the surge of white American interest in ethnic identity is largely a product of the Civil Rights era. These days, plenty of Americans who have never been to their putative homeland, and who have no current awareness of family connections there, will proudly state their heritage. Often they go by last name, and assume a heritage based upon that. This is not true of all white Americans, of course. In many communities where immigrants from the same country (and sometimes the same towns of origin) lived in the same neighborhood over generations, and where new waves of immigrants arrived regularly, ethnicity was preserved, but at the cost of a very slow integration into whiteness. (The Irish in Boston, the Italians in New York, the Jews in every city.)
When immigrants dispersed, however, they tended to lose their ethnic identifications, and not to pass those identifications on to their children. Interestingly, during the Civil Rights and ensuing black pride movements, these atomized descendants of immigrants often started to explore, unearth, and, at times, invent their heritages. Today, many Americans of Irish descent who have no ties to, say, the Irish community of South Boston, or other Irish enclaves, or even another Irish person, feel a kinship with other Irish and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. However innocent these actions are today, it’s important to remember that reconceptions of white ethnic identity were often tainted with the racism that informs white American identity. For example, the St. Paddy’s Day parades of Boston (a city with a lot of racial strife) became defiant responses to pressure to racially integrate Boston schools. In short, Irishness was deliberately associated with whiteness by many Bostonians.
This white ethnic identity frenzy was spurred by black people’s attempts to redefine themselves and to proudly reclaim a heritage that had been denigrated throughout American history. Interestingly, this is a moment at which some black folks in the black power movement started saying to other black folks that they “weren’t black enough,” and wanted to exclude them for a variety of markers, from skin color to diction to hairstyle. This is the moment at which racial identity became a sexy commodity, and all of a sudden white people wanted to have one too. Lacking color, they grabbed for ethnicity. (Though they often grabbed for color, too, which explains the sudden emergence of the black partner in buddy movies — he’s there to hipnify the otherwise bland white guy.)
As for “identifying as white,” white people don’t explicitly do it much (outside the white supremacy movements) and that’s the point. White is normative in America. One usually only needs to point out what is “not white” (“Look, Ma! A black doctor!”) For white people, this means, “You’re in the club unless you’re out, so relax.” For black people, this means that their very appearance is what Toni Morrison has called “an eruption of funk.” White people don’t feel “white” until a person of color steps into the room (or the conversation, etc.). Then the line is drawn, but the rest of the time we don’t need to think about it. Until very recently in the U.S., we could pretty much assume that we’d primarily interact with other white people and that other white people would be the people wielding power over us. (In which case, the Italian boss might not like the Jewish applicant, but a simple name change from Goldberg to O’Malley can take care of that, as my grandmother can attest.) But we very specifically don’t suffer from our racial designation.
And that’s what makes all the difference. The designation of “white” does not hurt us in any real sense. It does not disadvantage us at all. Why should it? We invented the category to protect ourselves and our privileges. So when black folks define us as white, they are naming our privilege, not taking our rights away. For all the complaining from certain white folks, I have yet to see a white person injured (beyond hurt feelings) by “white people suck” comments. Or even by “whites are racist” declarations. I think the number of white folks who have paid a real price (beyond hurt feelings) when whiteness is criticized is about as large as the number of voters who actually commit the voter fraud the Republicans are always screaming about preventing. And I think the complaint is about as legitimate. I don’t have the right to walk around thinking nobody can ever hurt my feelings, especially when they’re describing reality.
When black folks bitch about us, we have a choice. We can not listen to it. We can pay it no attention at all, and it won’t change our lives one bit. (That’s what privilege means.) I’ve been listening to critiques (some quite harsh) of white people for 40 years now, and you know what? It ain’t hurt me none. In fact, I often enjoy sitting around with groups of African Americans who might even, at some point, slam white people during the conversation. Somehow, I manage not to cry like a baby. Somehow I manage to understand that it’s not all about me; it’s about power structures that I oppose right along with the people critiquing white folks. And I know that these folks aren’t talking about me, unless I’m acting like the kind of asshole white folks they criticize: unless I’m representing an oppressive power structure, and enforcing institutional racism by flaunting my privilege to discriminate..
And hey, if I do come across some particularly nasty black person who wants to make his or her criticism personal, BFD. What the hell can they do to me? It’s not like the jerky guys on the street who yell insults and harass me, and who make me feel afraid because men as a group have a 100,000 year history of raping women as a group. I’m afraid of those guys. But non-white people who say mean things about white people and maybe even call me a racist? Not a real problem, except insofar as I want to make it my problem. And that, my friends, is privilege.
Whatever you want to believe about fairness, or double standards, the reverse simply is not true. That’s what inequity means. It means I’ve got “the system” on my side, and they don’t. If I randomly accuse some African American woman in a store of shoplifting, I can be pretty sure that the cops are going to believe me. If she protests her innocence, she can be pretty sure that the cops are going to doubt her word. That’s reality. If I pick out some random innocent five-year-old white child on a bus and snarl at him that he’s a honky motherfucker, I am likely to upset him terribly, and I shouldn’t do it because it’s mean. But if I snarl racial epithets at a five-year-old black child, I am both cruel and I affirm all of the stereotypes he has already subconsciously internalized — the ones that make him, at five, think a white doll is “better” than a black doll. I will crystalize that suspicion of inferiority into an outright declaration of his worthless blackness vs. my privileged whiteness. I may be the author of the first incidence of that horrific realization, but I will surely not be the last, because every form of media, and every institution with which he comes in contact will tell him that white is better than black.
And the saddest, most tragic thing about that situation is that I could be the lowest, least privileged white person on the planet, and I can still have the effect of reinforcing white supremacy in that little boy’s mind, so that it echoes down the years every single time he runs into racism again.
Think about that, next time you decide to get exercised because the black folks are saying mean things about you. Because in this instance fair is not fair.
That’s power, I tell you. And if you can’t see that, and can’t recognize the difference, it’s just because you don’t want to.