Sunday, April 11, 2010

On the Subject of Whiteness

One of my earliest posts in this blog was on the subject of race and the U.S. Census; that had to do with the controversy about the inclusion of the word “negro” in the question about race. My recommendation was that everyone choose “other” for their race and write in “human.” (The Census information page warns you that if you write in “human” your race will not be counted; I ended up marking “white”).

When I got my census form I was amazed at the number of categories for people of Asian and Pacific Island extraction—Korean, Filipino, and Samoan all had individual categories—but there were no individualizing categories for “White.”

What does “white” mean anyway? The absence of any trace of all the other categories? Some kind of negative race, where everything else is subtracted out?

The April 12, 2010 issue of The New Yorker has a review by Kelefa Sanneh (“Beyond the Pale”) of some recent books about race and in particular, the White race. I capitalize it, even though that seems strange to me, after reading some articles in a Black women’s magazine I picked up at a doctor’s office—it had never occurred to me before seeing it there that White should be capitalized like Black or Hispanic.

The article quotes labor historian David Roediger’s 1994 book “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness”: “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.”

The United States was founded on the one-drop rule—if there is the slightest amount of “colored” blood in a person they cannot be considered white. Our current President proves that rule is still in effect—why is he called Black when he is half White? (see my article “Dreaming of a Post-Racial Future”)

The New Yorker article chronicles the history of whiteness and shows that the definition has shifted over the years. In eighteenth century America, “white” meant Anglo-Saxons from Great Britain. Eastern and Southern Europeans—Poles, Russians, Italians—were not included in the category of “white.” White indicated the people who could have political power. To be white meant you were part of the dominant culture.

Over time, as more and more immigrants from many nations landed on these shores, the definition of whiteness grew to include more Europeans. However, as Sanneh writes, “There remains something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries. Roediger notes that ‘Guineas,’ an old marker for African-Americans originally signaling their origins on the West African slaving coast, came to be applied widely and pejoratively to Italian-Americans.”

And now the question is being asked, are Hispanics White? The 2010 Census asks about Hispanic origin in the question before the race question, as if the designers of the Census were confused. Yesterday I saw a protest by Latinos over racial profiling, and they were yelling out, “Hispanics are white, and brown, and black, and yellow.” They were advocating the end of the concept of races.

Sanneh ends the article by encouraging the idea of a “white” people and culture, which seems odd to me. “But,” he concludes, “if the old race theory was brutally reductive, there is something reductive, too, about the idea that whiteness, for all its paradoxes, isn’t real. The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So we should probably stop thinking of whiteness as an error, and start thinking of it, instead, as a work in progress. Historians have sometimes framed the treacherous history of whiteness as the slow death of an idea. Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it, instead, as the slow birth of a people.”

It’s too bad Sanneh hadn’t heard of Martin Mull’s hilarious spoof on whiteness, called “The History of White People in America” (published 1985). Mull’s book portrays whiteness as the middle-class WASP America of the 1950s. One of the memorable chapters is about a White Thanksgiving, with the turkey so dry from overcooking it requires one tureen of gravy per diner, served alongside the jello salad.

I think American life has gotten much more interesting and exciting as the whiteness of our culture has declined. Let’s do away with this politically-motivated racial construct.

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