Current events and some recent conversations, give cause for more explanation. So here goes.
The problem with “white” as a culture, is that it was manufactured at the expense of others. What I mean by this, is that white, as a race or a “culture” has only existed as a means to restrict those deemed non-white from certain rights or privileges.
For example there were once, English, Irish, Quaker, or Puritan. French were French via geographical origin and Catholics were such by baptism. These people only became white after Africans began demanding rights or intermingling too closely with English, Irish, Quaker or Puritan. In the American colonies, where people came from various nations with differing religions and motivations, to settle a land already populated with people who already had ideas of their own, these immigrants looked for ways to group themselves for protection, or to assert power. The French teamed up with the Iroquois, the Irish and Scots were lumped in with England, and Spain decided they were with the Pope. When the dust settled and the Colonies had a chance to be whatever they wanted, they decided that they were white.
I wasn’t there but the records they left seem to indicate they chose to be white in large part to make sure they weren’t obligated to share or serve anyone who was something else. So money, courts, votes, property, rights, all the things under the umbrella of “American”, could be held by those who were once Irish or English, Puritan or Anglican, but not Black or Indian. There was of course the whole issue with women, which was easily solved by saying women could have access to those things if they married a white man, and then they made it illegal for a white man to marry anyone not deemed white. Because of this manufactured umbrella, many people were maybe still a little bit Scottish, perhaps a whole lot Presbyterian, but also white- AKA American.
Over time, many, like my family, became less of one thing and picked up some others, but kept the white all the while. It was synonymous with American. My ancestors who shared my last name, came to the Americas as Scotch-Irish, were here when it became the United States, but by the time I came around all the Scottish was gone. No haggis, no Gaelic, I found myself Mormon not Presbyterian, but I was, and am, still-and-also white. For my people specifically, white needed to be named and claimed till after 1979. Things have changed since then, but you don’t drop off a part of your culture and identity in an instant, and you don’t drop it by simply shifting your vocabulary- though words do help.
But that whiteness only had to drop off once I no longer needed to prove I wasn’t black so I could have the full fellowship of my faith. Sometimes we didn’t call it white, we called it Ephraim or Joseph, but it played the same role. Whiteness meant one had rights and to get those rights, whiteness had to be claimed.
Through American history there have been waves of people, or groups of people, Irish, Jewish, even those from India or Iran, who have had to assert and fight, to be called white- so they could be considered American. In 1923 a “High Caste Hindu” from India took his case to the Supreme Court and argued that he should be considered white- so he could be American. He lost. A few years earlier, 1915, a man from Syria sued to be considered white and won. His skin was brown but “white” meant American so he had to claim and become it. He did not become Syrian-American, and the previous man wasn’t arguing to be Indian-American, and there were no English-American, because they didn’t need those hyphens- because they had the word white.
So again, whiteness only existed to separate people from blackness and brownness, to claim power. In the days of Jim Crow, because laws on the books allowed some Black people to be technically American, policy and practice were put in place to make sure power was protected, and it centered on the word white. Public schools were funded by all, but public college was only for white people. The draft for war was open to all, but the GI Bill was only to be claimed by those who were white. HUD provided affordable housing- as long as you were white. You can sit on a jury, hold an office, pursue life and liberty, no matter your Irish, or French, or Russian, or Persian roots, as long as you could claim you were white.
I am white.
There is no need for me to deny it. I was born this way and that is fine. It is my experience, I do not hate it. I do not hate my white family, or my white coworkers, or the white people I meet in the street. Due to my ancestors, geography, history, and some biology, I am American, male, straight, and thanks to my experience, I am also white. I cannot deny my whiteness because it has granted me protection and rights and assimilation without being challenged and without having to claim it. All that was just naturally gifted.
But not so for those who are born black or brown. They have and still do, need to claim those rights so naturally enjoyed by myself. Those who were and are legally deemed Black, who then came to celebrate their skin, were and are not doing so to crush anyone else. They are reclaiming their rights and their joys that whiteness was created to steal. Black is beautiful, Black and proud, Black power- none of them were created to oppress or condemn whites as people, but very much a response to why the race “white” was created and the effects it has caused. Despite what laws are written or what words some might say, Black and Brown people still have to wrench and grip and rip their unalienable rights from the historical and sociological grasp of whiteness.
And that is not God’s plan. That is not what the American Declaration says. And that is why I don’t shout white pride, yet can support black power without hypocrisy. That is why I feel no need to say “all lives matter”, when reminded that Black lives matter too. This is why I am fine with myself and all the good that I am, skin included- but will not elevate the word white.
Because that idea and that construct- must be undone.
3 thoughts on “The Problem With “White” as a Culture.”
I’ve always claimed to be ‘American’ even though I’m Black.
My mom and her family were acculturated at the Judson Academy in Scottsdale due to their Californio (Spanish not Mexican) bloodline.
My father’s side were acculturated due to their Creole heritage at Catholic institutions.
By the time I was asked to accept the responsibilities of the Melchizedek priesthood Blacks were able to hold the honor.
I couldn’t pass the interview portion of the process because I couldn’t answer two questions in the affirmative;
Am I always honest? (Nope, but I try to be) and
Will I sustain anyone called to any Church position or office? (Nope, There were some called who I knew their misdeeds and I couldn’t [with a clear conscience] affirm their calling.)
The bishop tried to convince me to just accept the calling but I respected Church values and for those two questions I felt that I wasn’t worthy of the higher priesthood. He tried to explain that if I wasn’t qualified then there were few who were. I just thanked him and said that their (those not actually qualified to take such an oath) issue was with God.
Riverside, at the time, was more middle-America than middle-America.
Church, education, military bases surrounded us, NASCAR (Winston Cup at the time), parades on Main Street, blue collar, horses, orange groves, swimming pools,….
I grew up more ‘white’ than many white people.
But I had assumed that everyone grew up the same.
I was so unused to being treated as though I was inferior that I didn’t know the practice existed predicated on one’s race.
Even at BYU-HC (I still laugh that you called me ‘onlyblackjohn’.) I wasn’t treated as inferior.
I was told that so-and-so doesn’t like Black people but they liked me.
I was used to being like Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious character (A boss in an integrated crew) so country boys from Utah or Idaho were of little consequence.
Here in the South racism is more present.
I never knew that I was supposed to be offended by Confederate symbols.
(To me it was just funny that losers were still celebrating a loss.)
I’m still learning which ones matter and why.
I am and always will be Black but I never thought of it as subordinate.
People (Blacks, mainly) get mad at my screen name but I just used it as a joke – as in; I’ll be whatever you hate but still be better than you.
I’m sure ‘white-privilege exists (everyone tells me so) but I’ve yet to be harmed by it.
I have to argue with Blacks almost daily that racism is dumb not just because they are the victims but because it’s just dumb.
I have to point out to Black leaders that they are just as accountable as their white colleagues.
That equal authority requires equal responsibility.
I’m often criticized as being from the ‘respectability politics’ school of thought – which is fine.
Honestly, I have no answers – only questions.
Interesting how I identify with you though I have experienced my share of soul biting racism, but never that I am aware of regarding my career. I am of the opinion that many of us who call ourselves Black pay more attention to our race and color than the Whites do, who if they do pay attention is for a small moment to recognize something is different. I do believe White people in general pay attention only when there is a major cultural difference rather than a color difference. Since my culture and the majority of Blacks’ (who live in America) culture is decidedly more European seeing as how we are American, that is when I notice that someone is different. I am no expert, so I cannot be sure.
I have not had the chance to read your writings as much as I have in the past, but for some reason this struck a cord with my understanding of being white. I did not have the words or understanding to articulate what you have said. Thanks for doing it for me. Your estimation of the non-Whites and the reason for the existence of those hyphenated Americans is intriguing and sadly true. I am Black, but I do not label myself an African American. Also, I do have to assert my American heritage occasionally because of my skin color. As you so truthfully indicated, I am hyphenated to others even if not to myself. I was asked recently from which part of Africa did I come. I told that person I was from Georgia!
I am a minority in thinking I know, but my slave heritage and mixed ancestry makes me uniquely American. After getting a DNA test and connecting to my relatives from across the States of differing races I can see myself as nothing but the product of this nation. I do not claim one above the other, but I identify with my European heritage more than my African or Native backgrounds. I must admit that I yearn more for my African heritage, because I look more like the majority of the people who live on the continent.
This is an reflective piece. I am link this to an article I wrote called The Truth about Being Black in America.