what we talk about when we talk about whiteness
(This is part one of a three part series on “what we talk about when we talk about whiteness.”)
Sometimes I engage in conversations about whiteness that make people bristle. Questions are often raised like: so is “white” automatically wrong? Why is “whiteness” evil? Are you saying “white people” are inherently bad? My impression is that there is a bit of talking past one another that happens in these discussions, so it is my hope to define terms and better flesh out my perspective here.
First, it may be helpful to recognize that “whiteness” can be understood as a synonym for white supremacy: the pervasive belief that people can be hierarchically sorted into separate “races” based on what regions of the world their ancestors came from, and that “the white race” is the best of these groups. This is an ideology that is actively enforced through bodily and psychic violence directed towards the groups of people who are assigned immutable “racial” traits and deemed undesirable.
Secondly, we might note that “whiteness” as a social and historical trend has relatively little to do with skin color. Indeed, what constitutes “being white” today is not the same thing as fifty, much less two hundred and fifty years ago. German, Greek, Jewish, Irish, Spanish, and Italian immigrants to the United States are all examples of ethnic groups once rejected for their racial inferiority, considered subordinate, but who are today viewed as an allied coalition of groups under the banner of being fully and simply white.
To interrogate these supposedly stone-ingrained logics, we might ask: are the Sami people “white?” Is each new mixed race person the marker of another race? Are Armenians and Iranians, whose countries the Caucasus mountain range runs through, actually Caucasian? Although the United States has historically classified “Middle Eastern” people as white, explosions of anti-Arab antagonism, from lynching to post-9/11 attacks and hate crimes, make it clear that although Central and West Asian people must continue to check “white”on the census, they are not so easily absorbed into whiteness.
Then and now, cultural groups can be either pushed out of the good graces of whiteness, or ushered deeper into its realm, for good time served. The tricky racial alchemy by which a people are made into an inferior or superior race might be called the careful art of “racecraft” – the pseudo-scientific assigning of humans into categories of worth based on each race’s “fixed” physical characteristics and emotional temperaments.
This washing white of ethnicities once considered “non-white” or less-than has always been tied to the economies of immigration, finance, and the preservation of political power. We can unearth these legacies through a basic historical surveying in which we are not left to guesswork – we can easily track popular definitions of race over time, through perusing government documents, editorials, exclusionary laws, formal propaganda, and the analysis of formal tools of measuring race like the official United States census.
Through this social archaeology, what we might detect is that although it is often invisible, whiteness is never neutral – rather than a neat tool for categorizing individuals based on skin pigmentation, it has historically served as an organizing principle for the gifting of power to some and for the social predation and economic disenfranchisement of others.
When James Baldwin verbally jousted with an interviewer in July of 1968, insisting that white “is not a color, [but] an attitude,” he was pointing out that there is no actual biological classification for “being white.” There is no defined genetic criteria you can meet to enter this category and there is no country or region of the world called “whiteland.” If you believe you are “white,” you are generally acknowledging you have been socialized into a majority “cultureless” culture, and lost, to some degree, the traditions your ancestors held. “You’re as white as you think you are,” Baldwin insisted, “It’s your choice.”
As author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ has explained, while today we ask questions about “the black race” and “the white race” and think this framework legitimate, seventy years ago Americans spoke as if “the Japanese race” were a distinct entity. One hundred and fifty years ago Southerners believed that their “white” Northern foes were actually a separate racial group, “a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs” rather than the descendants of Jacobite and Huguenot settlers like them, the noble “Southern race.”
“I think race is oppression, and nothing else,” writes the Irish socialist writer Richard Seymour in a blog post called “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” What he is revealing is that the belief that race is reality, and not epic fantasy, drives the mechanisms by which we continue to harm each other based on culture and physical appearance. Because there is no medical or biological definition of race we must acknowledge that “race” is only linked to powerful systems of Enlightenment-era classification and colonial exploitation. Our compulsive desire to coalesce cultures into discrete racial groups has undergirded many of the most awful social projects in human history, including Eugenics and the Holocaust.
We must name this awful duplicity – the odd truth that it is actually our own dogged determination to assign race that creates racism. That is, it’s not the “fact” of race that fosters discrimination. It is in believing in the “reality” of race – insisting that each separate continent has essentially “birthed” its own discrete racial group with its own innate characteristics – that gives rise to the practice of prejudice.
Race is oppression and nothing else – it is a fictional belief maintained by physical violence, undergirded by a gnostic and colonial insistence that our individual bodies and cultures do not matter and should be either crushed by or subsumed into Something Bigger. Now, as much as our culture of American individualism might profess the importance of personal agency, an odd racial formula seems to persist – if you and your immigrant descendants remain in the United States long enough, as long as you meet certain criteria, you can be treated as white.
What are those criteria? Community organizer Scot Nakagawa has pointed out that “anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy,” by which he means that whiteness by nature is constantly positing itself above and against blackness as its opposite, the sole defining mark of unwelcome, antithetical otherness. Among the only requirements for smooth participation into whiteness is that you are at least a) willing to be treated as the dominant racial group and b) okay with being anti-black.
To be white is not about your skin color but about your ready socialization into a privileged group membership that defines itself against blackness, a legacy emerging from an understanding of black bodies as fuel, the needed refuse by which a capitalist, slave labor economy can sustain itself. As long as blackness is its opposite point, whiteness is willing to cross all sorts of awkward ethnic lines in strange, irrational ways in order to ensure its survival.
For example, when my father, a Japanese man from the big island of Hawai’i, was told to check “White Other” on his census form when entering the police academy, he was being invited to erase our culture under the guise of a benign, gift-wrapped welcome into social privilege, instructed to do so by defining himself primarily against blackness.
Japanese Americans who visited the segregated South from concentration camps were sometimes confused when they were ordered by bus drivers to move up from the “colored” section and sit at the front of the bus, as their very presence frustrated determined “whites good/blacks bad” binary logic. The cases of various Asian Americans who petitioned the courts to be either legally treated as white or as black are all revelatory of whiteness’ frantic, obsessive drive to organize immigrant groups against black people, who are viewed as the idle, perpetual counterpoint of the American dream.
When we say race is a “social construction,” we are saying it is a “shared delusion.” It is a superstition we all participate in spreading, whose sacred power is fueled by our active belief in its existence. Our understanding of race itself is a porous, shifty thing that has changed over the centuries, and continues to morph along the fault lines of political power today. There are well-established historic reasons for this logic and other racial classifications, and it is to this point that I will turn in the second part of this post.