(With thanks to Minority Militant for prompting me to write this!)
Many of the world’s people understand that ‘race’ as we know it doesn’t actually exist. As the “Race Literacy Quiz” exemplifies, “there are no traits, no characteristics, not even one gene that is present in all members of one so-called race and absent in another.” Rather, race is socially constructed and maintained via societal beliefs, attitudes, and institutions. In the same way that ‘sex’ exists because we insist on defining people by whether or not they are penis privileged, so too does race exist because we insist on believing that skin color, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. are important factors of personhood. In short, race exists because we act as if it exists.
Perhaps the most distinctive racial category is that of the white race. It is distinctive because historically it has been defined as the ‘superior’ race, the ‘deserving’ race, the race that should inherit the earth. Due to this historical championing of whiteness, we have a binary system of white and non-white, or white and black, or white and people of color. While there are myriad other racial designations, the one that carries the most weight and most strongly determines a person’s wealth, life options, treatment etc. is whether or not one is (or can pass) as white. For example, due to generational racism and structural inequality, whites on average have twice as much wealth as non-whites.
Yet, despite what sicko groups like WAR (white Aryan resistance) would have us believe, there is no such thing as racial identity outside of the social construction of race. This is why who counts as white has changed (and continues to change) over time. Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Eastern Europeans with light/white skin have at various historical periods not been considered white. The changing rules and requirements regarding who gets to be in the white club are related to systems of power and privilege. This is why whiteness is defined by exclusion rather than inclusion.
By preventing various ‘Others’ from being construed as white, white privilege translates into better jobs, better treatment, better legal protection, and on and on. Whiteness functions as a system that confers entitlement, power, and privilege on some, and oppression, disenfranchisement, and lack of power on others. Thus, racial oppression is the key reason behind the construct of the white race and, as Judy Helfand writes in her piece “Constructing Whiteness,” this translates into white people benefiting “disproportionally from the race and class hierarchy maintained by whiteness.”
Historically in the US, whiteness has been defined and maintained by a number of key factors. Firstly, immigration and naturalization policies have worked to benefit anyone defined as white. Secondly, laws regarding who could own property and who could vote helped to consolidate white wealth and power. Thirdly, labor laws and practices defined who would get the best jobs and who would own the vast majority of wealth.
In what follows, I will discuss how Irish, Italians, Greeks, Jewish, and Eastern European peoples are “not quite white.”
The book How the Irish Became White documents Irish emigration before and after the potato famine, or from about 1840 to the Civil War . Detailing how Irish Catholics “came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks,” the text reveals that who counts as white changes depending on labor needs and profit motivations.
In the case of Irish immigrants, for a substantial period of time they were defined as a non-white laboring class and performed the same work as blacks. As Art MacDonald notes,
Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as “Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish.” A famous quip of the time attributed to a black man went something like this: “My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman.” Free blacks and Irish were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery.
While I think the claim that the Irish chose to embrace whiteness is a bit simplistic, MacDonald’s argument here touches on a key historical factor: that one’s racial categorization is intricately linked to one’s labor. When one is excluded from the category of whiteness, it is often due to economics and labor. In early colonial times, the terms ‘free’ or ‘Christian’ were more often used to designate the so-called elite. However, due to the history of Tobacco farming, bonded labor, and the preponderance of African as well as Irish and other light skinned European bond laborers, the term ‘white’ began to replace the terms ‘free’ and ‘Christian’ in legislation. For example, in 1790, the Federal Government reserved citizen rights to “free white persons.” This decree had wide-ranging implications, the most prominent of which was a battle over who counted as white.
In the 1800s, a wave of Irish Catholic immigration (and the subsequent competition for jobs) led to phrases such as “Irish Niggers.” As with Italian Catholics, religious belief played a large part in who counted as white. In the early years of the US, whiteness was associated with Protestantism due to the fact that the immigrants to the 13 colonies were mainly Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Due to this legacy, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have variously not been considered ‘white’ due to their supposedly ‘non-white’ religious beliefs.
Italians and Greeks
As The Black Commentator documents,
Italian immigrants to this country suffered a long history of discrimination, exclusion and violence. There is also a long history of Italian Americans committed to interracial unity and inclusiveness. But most of the Italian American community left their darker immigrant brethren behind when they gained political clout, economic success and acceptance in white society.
The term “wop,” a once common ethnic slur against Italians, was originally an acronym for the phrase “without papers,” referring to Italians’ supposed immigration status. Many Italians arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when the largest numbers of Italian immigrants came to the U.S.) were not even considered white, but were labeled “dark” or “dark/white.” Condemned as “papists,” Italians – and Irish too – were considered loyal to a foreign power in Rome.
Italian immigrants were susceptible to the same violence, discrimination, exploitation and scapegoating that other immigrants faced. In the Jim Crow South, there were many cases of Italians lynched by mobs or the Klan, including the infamous 1891 lynching of 11 Italians by a mob in a New Orleans jail.
The recent collection of essays Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America, edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, reveals much of this forgotten history of the Italian immigrant experience in the U.S. The essays reveal that in general Italians gained white identity and the accompanying privileges only by assimilating certain white cultural and political beliefs.
In “How White People Became White,” James Barrett and David Roediger document how both Greeks and Italians were characterized as non-white and suffered discrimination, oppression, and violence due to this designation. Italians were referred to as the “Chinese of Europe” while Greeks were called “half niggers.” As Susan Raffo writes,
Italians in the U.S. are the southerners, the dark ones, the ignorant peasants who carry statues of the Virgin Mary through their neighborhoods and faint with religious passion. They are not the Venetians or Florentines, the ancestors of the deMedicis, the Michaelangelos and daVincis. No, those are Europeans. Historical moments eventually led to the creation of democracy. Italians, well, they are something different. They come in large and dirty numbers to Ellis Island. Too many of them really. Not all the way white. Certainly not white enough, rich enough, or intellectual enough to understand Faulkner. This is not about race. This is about class. About culture and history. And then it is about race.
For more on the construction of whiteness in relation to Italians and Greeks, see here.
As Abby L. Ferber notes,”The history of the Jewish experience demonstrates precisely what scholars mean when they say race is a social construction.” In her article, “What White Supremacists Taught a Jewish Scholar About Identity,” Ferber documents the changing designation of Jews as non-white or white, a designation that is still fluctuates today – to many, Jews are considered white, but, to white supremacists, Jews are not white. Ferber discusses how her research into Jewish identity and white supremacy causes her to move “between two worlds: one where I was white, another where I was the non-white seed of Satan.” Asking “Why, in some states does it take just one black ancestor out of 32 to make a person legally black, yet those 31 white ancestors are not enough to make the person white,” Ferber shows that racial designation is unstable and “always tied to power.”
As with Catholics, Jews being defined as not white was largely related to religious belief. This point seems obvious, but its obviousness is refuted when people link race to skin color, as they often do today. For example, my students, when required to give social identity presentations in which they introduce themselves in relation to race, class, gender, etc. often say things such as “well obviously I am white” to define their race. Here, they are mistakenly assuming that their white skin makes them white. However, as I hope the above discussion reveals, white skin does not necessarily mean one will be defined by social institutions and practices as white. Rather, religious belief, economic status, political affiliation, and how far ‘west’ or ‘north’ one is from are more likely to confer whiteness.
For more on the construction of whiteness and Jewishness, see here.
Massive immigration and subsequent competition over jobs accompanied by widespread poverty resulted in many Europeans being defined as “not quite white.” While US history quite clearly excluded Asians, Indigenous Peoples, and African Americans from the white category, Europeans have been excluded, included, or partially included in the white club depending on religious belief, economic climate, labor skills, etc. Historically, this has led to a bifurcated system of only two choices – white and non-white. For those whose skin color has allowed them to ‘assimilate into whiteness’ the choice has often been either remain ‘not-white’ and suffer the consequences, or try to ‘become white’ in order to attain the social and institutional privileges associated with whiteness. This is why the term “people of color” makes sense even though it is sometimes argued that “white is a color too.” What the term POC confers is the fact that historically, white people have been defined over and above those who are defined as not-white, as Other, or as ‘colored.’ (And, no, it should not be replaced with the phrase “professional victims of color”!!!) For whites, being not ‘colored’ has translated into power, wealth, and privilege. This is not to say that all whites have power and wealth, but that whiteness is intricately bound up with who deserves to have power, citizenship, wealth, legal protection, etc. (It is also bound up with sex/gender wherein white women have often been in the ‘not quite white’ category)
The construction of whiteness also links to the long historical practice to “divide and conquer.” Designating certain people as white, even when they do the same work and suffer the same levels of poverty has been deployed as a strategy to quell rebellion, as it was when Tobacco workers were on the brink of revolt in the 1600s. For example, the Beacons Rebellion of 1673 made it apparent that defining laborers as either ‘Black’ or ‘White’ created a divided group of laborers that fought amongst themselves rather than against the system. This divide and conquer tactic is still prevalent today and helps to keep the system of white privilege in place.
Whiteness in Popular Culture and the Media
Popular culture teaches us a great deal about who counts as white. Legacies of the ‘not quite white’ are readily apparent in film and television depictions of Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Irish as criminals. Such depictions are often used to argue against racist representations with claims that white people are negatively stereotyped by the media too. However, if you take a gander at all the shows and films out there, you will notice that the most positive roles often go to those of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent.
Popular culture also indicates that whiteness is a desirable, beautiful trait that will confer power and wealth. As the recent Feria ad with a whitified Beyonce reveals, popular culture continues to perpetuate the message that lighter is better and that those who are not white will be more beautiful/successful/powerful if they ‘whitify.’
The media also works to ‘naturalize’ race as a category by acting as if one’s racial designation will translate into certain ways of talking, acting, voting etc. This has been particularly apparent in the run up to the election with obsessive focus on Obama’s race. Why is McCain’s race not an issue? Well, because whiteness is the unmarked category, the category of privilege, the position that is, in a sense, outside of race. This is why, if you ask me, it is so imperative that those of us who are socially constructed as white own up to our privilege and refer to ourselves not as “just white,” as “obviously white,” as “Caucasian,” but as persons of white privilege.
It is imperative that those of us who are POWPs acknowledge our privilege so that we can dismantle them. I am thus not a white woman, but a WOWP. As a WOWP, I am dedicated to eradicating white privilege and making it apparent that race is yet another fiction that works to divide our one race, the human race.