A friend posed a thought-provoking question. “And what is white, anyway? Why was President Obama considered black when he had one white parent and one black? What do we really mean with “black” and “white” anyway? There is no such thing as racial purity, so again, why use that term?”
It’s incisive, because we toss around these words, and memes such as whiteness and, extending that appropriately, blackness, as though everyone knows what they mean. That’s clearly not the case. The meaning of these words has changed over the last two centuries.
When Italian immigrants came to America in the 1800s they were considered other than white:
John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
Swarthy was a commonly used adjective referring to Italians. American nativists, themselves descendants of European stock, reviled them. The first mass lynch mob in America murdered Italian immigrants.
Something happened after the time of the second World War, though, that changed Italian-Americans’ status. Perhaps it was the shared service of American soldiers of various ethnicities returning home, or close contact between American GIs and the Italian people they encountered at the end of the war. After battling against and occupying Italy, where many Italian-Americans fought and died, Italians immigrating to the US were transformed in the American consciousness: the line demarcating white moved to encompass them.
It’s difficult now to imagine this transformation.
The Irish lived a similar story, fleeing the potato famine for America. As researched and documented by Harvard lecturer Noel Ignatiev, their transformation took place over a century and a half.
Newly arrived into America, the Irish were scorned by nativist Americans, who complained that they displaced low-end workers. Left unmentioned was that these were jobs Americans such as they didn’t want and wouldn’t do. Sound familiar?
The same racial differentiation was argued: other than white.
Over time, the Irish, who became our cops and our domestic workers, made the same transformation in the American mind. The line demarcating who is considered white moved to include them, as well.
Not everyone agrees with this analysis.
The notion of immigrant-as-non-white was rebutted in this brief article by David Bernstein, which helps me to my point by separating white from whiteness. Bernstein homes in on what we mean by the latter term:
a stylized, sociological or anthropological understanding of “whiteness,” which means either “fully socially accepted as the equals of Americans of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic stock,” or, in the more politicized version, “an accepted part of the dominant ruling class in the United States.”
What we’re really talking about is power. Pejoratively referring to a group of people by the color of their skin is an intellectually lazy way of stating who has it, and who does not. Throughout American history the demarcation between those who are considered white and those who are not has changed, but of course no-one’s genes have. What’s really growing is the circle of whiteness: those who at least believe they hold privilege, if not in fact.
We use white and black as shorthand for whiteness, or the lack of it. Perhaps blackness is a good stand-in here. Unless there’s no other useful descriptor, why note someone’s color at all?
This begs a question: if past if prologue, will we see the demarcation between those considered white move again, and if so, to whom?
And to echo my friend’s question, what do labels like white and black mean in a culture where mixed-ethnicity couples and their children are the second fastest growing demographic?
Indeed, why is Barack Obama considered black when his mother was white, when he graduated an Ivy League school, when he was editor of that school’s law review journal? He possesses the phenotype of white in his genes, and the hint of whiteness in the privilege he gained by education and election.
Identity labels such as Latino, Irish-American, Italian-American, African-American increasingly have more to do with cultural experience than ethnic boundaries. They point directly at heritage more than class.
As each of these groups, save African-Americans, are drawn into the circle considered white, that demarcation holds less meaning. And that threat to status is enough to put a racist bigot over the top and win the presidency of the United States.
Given all that, isn’t now a good time to reconsider the opaque, politically charged, and increasingly useless labels white and black? How much more whiteness are we willing to tolerate before it tears our culture apart, or, more hopefully, leaves us looking at each other wondering, why the hell did it take us so long to figure this out?
#race #ethnicity #culture #white #whiteness #black #blackness #American #population