I’ve been sitting on this essay for months, because I’m a coward. I’ve been through so many attacks this year for writing about race and for writing about the Democratic primary that I was afraid to post this, despite how deeply I believe in it. And then the events of the past few days– the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile– happened and I could no longer live with my cowardice. Our Black brothers and sisters are taking their lives in their hands every time they leave their houses, and I’m afraid to post *an article* because I’ll be sent more attacks and threats. I was ashamed by my desire to protect myself with privilege and silence. So here is my essay.
“Whiteness” by Jessica Rath
We use the phrases “white people,” “white America,” and the like all the time. I say that I’m “white.” I experience “white” privilege routinely. But how do we define “white”? What is “whiteness”?
While the usage of the term “white” has been used for millennia as a physical descriptor (along with “black” and similar descriptors) often attached to various cultures or groups, the term “white” was first applied as a cross-ethnic racial category in the late 17th century, created specifically around the racialization of slavery. (I hate to use wikipedia as a source, but this isn’t a bad summary.) “White” was created to mean “not Black, therefore, culturally superior and not subject to slavery or racial discrimination.” This meaning has never substantially changed.
Jews, the Irish, and southern Italians were not widely considered “white” when the first large waves of immigrants came here in the late 19th century. They slowly became “white” over the 20th century, through a process of assimilation that, in some cases, involved assimilating “white” America’s anti-Black racism. It’s important to note there’s no consensus about that process. There’s a great deal of academic discussion about who was considered “white,” when it happened, and what regional differences there may have been. But just the fact that there’s room for argument, the fact that there are differences of opinion even amongst experts, proves that there is no essential “whiteness.” “Whiteness” is a constructed social category that means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority.”
Irish American. Swedish American. French American. English American. Ashkenazi Jewish American. Scottish American. Greek American. Polish American. These are legitimate ethnic identities tied to proud cultures, traditions, heritages. These are identities and heritages of which one can (and should) be proud. Being “white,” however, has no intrinsic meaning. It means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority over people of color, especially Black people,” and, as such, the only heritage, culture, and traditions of “whiteness” are slavery, lynching, racism, oppression. “Whiteness” was conceptualized as a weapon to use against Black people, and as such, it’s spawned an extraordinary amount of social ills. When you raise children to understand their proud Greek, French, or even American heritage, that means something specific about your family, its past, and its connections to a long and storied culture and history. When you raise children to understand they are “white,” that means literally nothing but which position they occupy within a deliberately created system of racial hierarchy. “Whiteness” is a disease from which an enormous amount of our social ills have sprung. It’s time to dismantle the concept of whiteness.
I’m not calling for the dismantling of the concept of “Blackness” because Blackness is completely different. Blackness is an ethnicity, a culture with many subcultures. Black culture developed in this country because we ripped people from an enormous variety of different cultures (research shows that most Black slaves came from one of 46 different ethnic groups), threw them all together, often isolating them from anyone who spoke their native language, told them they were now “Black” instead of Ibo or Temne, told them they were now Christian instead of Muslim or adherents to their traditional tribal faiths, and tortured them the second it looked like one might be considering disobedience. Faced with an unimaginably traumatic disconnection from their cultures of origin, Black people in America together created a vibrant, strong, detailed culture with multiple subcultures, and with multiple linguistic and artistic traditions, influenced by their cultures of origin but crafted into something unique that would have (and continues to have) an enormously disproportionate impact on American culture as a whole. Black people make up just 13% of this nation. Yet how much of American music, language, and art comes from Black culture? This culture, with all its subcultures, miraculously created like a fucking phoenix from the ashes of one of the worst human rights atrocities in human history, is so powerful, so rich, so potent, it has, despite being the culture of just 13% of our people, invented just about everything you love about America. A Black woman invented rock and roll, Black people invented every piece of slang you use (I’m not even going to link that because we all know), Black people invented nearly every form of music we label “American” (jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel). Black inventors have revolutionized multiple industries. A Black man invented the home video game console. Black culture is so rich and influential, it makes America American, and spreads far beyond the borders of America to influence cultures all over the world.
When all is said and done, and America has joined the ranks of Great Dead Societies, Black American culture will have been as globally influential as Greece or Rome. To say that an American is “Black” is to tie them to a very specific, robust culture that is intrinsically tied to race because “white” Americans forcibly grouped them as such. It means something culturally specific in the way that “white” does not. (BTW, this is why I capitalize “Black” but do not capitalize “white.”) I’m sure Black people would have loved to have had the luxury of coming here (or not) by choice, and identifying as Nalu American or Ewe American, or, as many modern immigrants do, Nigerian American, Ethiopian American. That choice was denied to them, and they created a unique, robust culture of their own.
“White” Americans, on the other hand, nearly all came here by choice– even the indentured servants— and had the luxury to preserve their culture, or not, as they chose. I don’t mean to denigrate the enormous pressure for late 19th/early 20th century immigrants to assimilate, or the racism some (including my own ancestors) faced. But they came here by choice, and, despite those pressures were able to retain much of their cultures of origin.
“White” people didn’t put together a “white” culture with “white” traditions that became an entirely new ethnic identity. People from varying ethnic traditions identified as “white” for the sole purpose of oppressing Black Americans, then navigated back to their specific ethnic, regional, or religious identities at will.
Each and every one of the people who fall under the category “white American” have a more potent, more meaningful, more, let’s face it, real culture than the constructed racist identity of “whiteness.”
If your family has been here so long it’s lost all connection to its culture or cultures of origin, you have multiple options to move past your “whiteness.” You can reclaim a heritage identity; you can identify as “American,” you can identify with your region or religion. You have numerous options, many of which, I would wager, you already use. There’s no reason to cling to a label that was created specifically to be deployed as a weapon of oppression.
If we can step away from the concept of “whiteness,” we can step towards equity. I’m not naive enough to believe that people will magically lose their racism when they start identifying as “Finnish American” instead of “white.” But I do believe that language shapes thinking, and that what we call something– or someone– shapes how we think of them. If you call yourself, and people who look like you, “white,” that will have an impact on how you think about yourself and others. Restructuring how we understand “white” people into various ethnic categories that are not definitionally hierarchical is a step, one step, in the right direction towards eliminating the many structures and systems of racism that exist in American culture, American minds, American hearts. Eliminating the concept of “whiteness”– seeing ourselves and each other in terms that are not specifically defined by who is accorded cultural superiority– is a step toward eliminating that cultural superiority and building equity.
I’m not naive enough to think that whiteness is something I can unilaterally renounce for myself, and step out of the white privilege that exists as a prominent part of my intersectional identity. But I do think that all of us living as “white” people together taking responsibility for the impact of “whiteness” on people of color, renouncing that label and hierarchical concept, and claiming identities not based in deliberate cultural hierarchy as a tool for oppression, is one first necessary step towards dismantling white privilege. White privilege will always exist as long as we reinforce the racist concept of “whiteness.” This will take generations, so we better get cracking.
Refuse your whiteness. It’s a disease that feeds on Black lives. Claim identities that speak to your truth, not to a history of oppression.