What is “white?” From the abstract concept of “acting white” to the view of race as a biological reality, there are a lot of ideas floating around about whiteness.
There is a long and often troubled history running into the heart of this issue.
There is a lot to unpack about white identity. This is an examination only: no soap box, no Kumbaya, no call to action. A lot has been said already about white supremacy and pseudoscientific racism, and arguing against these things to a bunch of college students would be pretty condescending. Let’s move right into it.
Whiteness hasn’t always been what it is now. Historically, immigrants from two different European countries would both be considered white, but a Saxon would be thought of as superior to a Greek or Irish person.
According to the New York Times article “What is Whiteness,” the academia of the 1800s accepted the existence of multiple distinct, unequal white races.
But after changes in the scientific and legal classifications about race, and decades of immigrants living and blending together, white culture became much more monolithic.
Of course, this is very good in a sense. People getting along with each other is never a bad thing, and it’s good that we discard the silly idea that some people from other geographic locations (of any color) are inferior.
But it feels like there is something missing.
I’ve known a lot of people throughout my life who like to emphasize their very distant Native American heritage. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a little bit strange that I hardly ever hear anyone proudly declaring they are part Saxon, or that their grandmother was French.
I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable doing such things. We don’t want to be that white person who’s a little too proud, but at the same time there is a natural curiosity about this part of our heritage.
Many people, I suspect, just aren’t all that interested anyway. I couldn’t tell you my ancestral make up.
When people do draw direct attention to whiteness, it tends to be somewhat deprecating.
A black man who likes to wear preppy clothes and listens to a lot of soft rock might be accused of “acting white.” Or a white kid who is perceived as nerdy or awkward might be called “the whitest kid there.”
These phrases suggest that there is a defined set of hobbies, interests and traits that make someone white and that the person accused should change themselves to suit the accuser. Why can’t all people be the person they want to be without facing these negative judgments?
Furthermore, “Redneck” and “white trash” are socially acceptable epithets for poor and uneducated Caucasians.
And whites often wear these terms proudly (take the rock song “White Trash Millionaire”).
Could that be an attempt at “taking back” the terms? Or, struggling to have an identity, do they come to believe that even a negative one can add distinctiveness?
That’s not to say there aren’t people who genuinely are proud of their heritage. ETSU has Bluegrass and Appalachian History programs, which aren’t explicitly white by any means, but show off a kinder and more dignified history of the Southern U.S. than exists in the popular imagination.
Similarly, on St. Patrick’s Day you will hear proud declarations of Irish heritage, even though the Irish once faced horrendous oppression and racism.
Lacking any strong cultural history, do white people cling to whatever small, interesting part of their identity they may discover because they are ashamed of only being “white?” In a diverse world, why should they feel this way?
Feeling good about your ancestry, refusing to carry shame with you everyday, is not the same as oppressing those from other cultures.
There is a vast middle ground between joining the KKK and lamenting that a large portion of your own race is “trash.”