Becoming ‘White’.

(x-posted from U.S. of J.)

The weather in Charlottesville is kind of gloomy today, which gives me a reason to stay inside and ample opportunity to comment on the “stack” of blog posts and articles I’ve accumulated over the past few days.  One of those is Matt Yglesias’ recent post on the future of whiteness:

This, in turn, reminded me of another issue that also came to mind when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates casually refer to Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O as a “white girl.” In reality she is, as they say, “Half Korean, 100% Rock Star”. Nevertheless, I think there’s a clear sense in which it strikes people as more intuitive to refer to a half-white, half-Korean indie rock star born in Korea and raised by both parents in New Jersey as “white” than it is to refer to a half-white, half-Kenyan President born in Hawaii and raised by his white mom and grandparents as “white.”

All of which is to say that there’s a decent chance that we’re evolving in a direction where the salient divide isn’t between “white” and “non-white” but between “black” and “non-black.” [Emphasis mine]

Yglesias is correct here, but I’d add that it has always been the case  that when it comes to race relations, the salient divide is between “black” and “non-black.”  As Yglesias notes, for a good chunk of American history, the Irish, Italians and Jews weren’t considered “white” in the proper sense.  Yes, they possessed fair skin, but to a sizeable majority of Americans they were seen as little more than cultural outsiders and treated as such.  Of course, eventually those groups became white, and they did so by juxtaposing themselves with African-Americans and successfully defining themselves as not black.  It’s always worth noting that in the United States , race operates on a sort of continuum, with “white” on one end and “black” at the other.  Those racial groups closest to white (Jews, Irish, Italians) are eventually assimilated into America’s white majority, while those closest to “black” are kept on the margins (darker-skinned Mexicans are a good example of this).  Yglesias is right to say that in the near-future, certain groups of Hispanics and (probably) Asians will enter the ranks of “white America.”  But it’s critical to remember that the “expansion” of whiteness has been regular and consistent for most of American history.

25 thoughts on “Becoming ‘White’.

  1. SEK April 13, 2009 at 1:35 pm Reply

    There’s also a geographical component to this: in Southern Louisiana, for example, I can tell you that Jews aren’t considered remotely white. This came up inthe comments to my post on the Jena Six case two years back, but I wanted to add to that one little item: seems like the community of bloggers tends to homogenize certain groups by dint of being a community of bloggers. That is, because we’re post-state? pro-federal? because we think in national terms more often than not, certain distinctions get obscured because they’re inextricably local. As I said in the Jena Six post, it’s difficult to imagine David Duke successfully winning a seat in the Louisiana House, and mounting damn-near successful runs for Governor and US Senator outside of the South. But in the South, there’s a sort of resignation to this aw-shucks-who-me? racism. All of which is only to say, I can’t see Hispanics becoming white in, say, Texas anytime soon, but I can see them becoming white somewhere like Florida.

    • Grump April 13, 2009 at 2:22 pm Reply

      be careful, you’re using “Hispanics” in broad strokes.

      • SEK April 13, 2009 at 2:29 pm Reply

        No comment’s complete until its author’s hoisted by his own petard. Gah.

  2. Grump April 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm Reply

    Really, the worst that could happen is to call one(Mexican) something else(Cuban).

  3. Big Word April 13, 2009 at 2:42 pm Reply

    Honestly mentioning Southern Louisiana as evidence of a geographical component to this argument leaves a person on really shaky ground. I don’t the Irish or Italians are considered really white there either. They don’t consider themselves black either, thats fer damn sure.

  4. SEK April 13, 2009 at 2:49 pm Reply

    Really, the worst that could happen is to call one(Mexican) something else(Cuban).

    I wasn’t thinking about Cubans in Florida so much as the quasi-middle-class of Hispanics from Texas who moved to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Andrew and established a number of small businesses devoted to post-hurricane reconstruction. (I don’t remember where I read about the phenomenon off hand, but it likely had something to do with the intersection of class and race, how class feeds into and off of conceptions of whiteness, &c.)

    Honestly mentioning Southern Louisiana as evidence of a geographical component to this argument leaves a person on really shaky ground. I don’t the Irish or Italians are considered really white there either.

    New Orleans ain’t Creole country, though, so I suppose I should’ve been more specific about which areas of Southern Louisiana I meant. (I can’t tell now whether this is self-petard hoisting or a case of my sloppiness unwittingly supporting my argument.)

    • Grump April 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm Reply

      Creole or Cajun?

      • SEK April 13, 2009 at 3:45 pm Reply

        Both, or maybe neither. Self-identifying Cajuns usually consider themselves white, because they assert French-Canadian ancestry, whereas white people typically lump Cajuns and Creoles together into the category of “non-white,” with Creoles sometimes falling under “black.”

        • Josh April 13, 2009 at 9:59 pm Reply

          Whoa, whoa, whoa, SEK — I see you went to LSU, but you’re way off on some of this stuff.

          First off, you gotta define your terms. Southern Louisiana can mean New Orleans, or it can mean small-town Cajun country. Terms are different in each; “Creole” means something very different in each.

          I’ve never heard of a single person who would consider Cajuns “non-white.” Cajuns are the descendants French Canadians from the Maritimes, sometimes intermarried along the way with Irish, Anglo, German, or other European descendants. They (we) may have weird names and speak with an accent, but by that standard Cajuns are no more “non-white” than Angela Merkel or Charles de Gaulle.

          To say Jews in south Louisiana “aren’t considered remotely white” is also untrue. You may remember that, when David Duke was running for office, the strategy that his opponents were able to use against him successfully was setting aside his anti-black history in favor of emphasizing his anti-semitic comments. (Duke hates Jews much more than he hates blacks.) That was the result of a specific calculation that many rural Louisianans had racist sentiments against blacks but either no opinion about Jews (many had probably never met one) or positive associations tied to patriotic sentiments around WWII. Certainly New Orleans has its own longstanding parallel aristocracies (old-line Creole and Jewish), and I won’t pretend that they are 100% integrated with one another, but “not remotely white” isn’t the right descriptor for how Jews are perceived.

          Unfortunately, during segregation, Louisiana had its own natural experiment about who was considered white — and both Cajuns and Jews counted as white for purposes of public services.

          It’s odd to single out Louisiana would have particular trouble rendering Hispanics as “white” when it probably has the largest proportion of its Spanish-descended population considered “white.” I’m talking about the large number of Romeros, Miguezes, Rodrigues, Seguras, and such who descend from Spanish families in the 1700s and now identify as Cajuns or just plain white folks. Not to mention todos los Canarios.

          Finally, to say that “New Orleans ain’t Creole country” is just nuts. Creole can mean a bunch of different things — typically “French-speaking black” in rural southwest Louisiana, typically “old New Orleans and mixed race” or just “old New Orleans” in New Orleans. But whatever definition you use, New Orleans is the very center of Creole culture in Louisiana.

        • cicely April 13, 2009 at 10:19 pm Reply

          orleans parish ain’t cajun country, but there’s creoles all over. and of course, when you start to talk about creole it gets real difficult, since that word can mean any mixture of native american, african, spanish, french, and even italian.

  5. thinking of a name April 13, 2009 at 3:00 pm Reply

    So … where will the dark East Indians and Sri Lankans fall? Will they become “white”?

  6. the black scientist April 13, 2009 at 3:03 pm Reply

    beyond establishing oneself as not black, ‘whiteness’ is also inextricably linked to property. a large part of european ethnics becoming white in the early 20th century had to do with them being accepted into unions, as well as new deal-era suburbanization and the drive for immigrants to own homes. who is white i think is still largely dependent on class performance.

  7. thinking of a name April 13, 2009 at 3:20 pm Reply

    So, can an individual who is visibly dark and of African decent who is of upper-middle or higher class become white? And does it matter if the person is American by birth or American by naturalization (such as someone who migrated from Somalia)? Can Ethiopians and Somalians ever become white? Can an individual African-American become white? Has Tiger Woods become white?

    • the black scientist April 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm Reply

      i mean, what is ‘whiteness’? i feel like this conversation could easily slip into a postmodern farfaround because race obviously isn’t ‘real’ (there’s no way to determine one’s race other than negotiating our perceptions and constructions of what race is) and ‘whiteness’ varies according to how you define it, where you are, who cares enough, and so on. then there’s the question of white to whom? is it really going to matter that i call myself white when pulled over by a racist cop? mm, no. so i guess i’m asking, what’s your point?
      i have the feeling that you are trying to make a point with your questions (although maybe not). it seems like you’re pointing out that color has an impact on who is considered white. true. and even rich colored folk are still colored. to quote kanye who i think was paraphrasing malcolm x even if you in a benz you still a nigga in a coup. who becomes white is relative, as pointed out above, to multiple factors. it’s not solely whether or not we choose to call someone white that makes them white, it’s their access to power, and — because of the social construction of race as being a matter of melanin (colorism being an issue more transnational than the black-white dichotomy that america is obsessed with) – the color of their skin.

      • thinking of a name April 13, 2009 at 9:27 pm Reply

        I was not trying to make a point as much as try to understand the idea … I tend to question everything in general by nature. I tend to think of what is being called turning “white” as complete assimilation into American culture. When I have gone over seas I have always been identified as American first and black second, so I think that everyone that lives in America is part of the American culture. However, not everyone is seen as fully American in America. In my opinion, those that are considered fully American are considered white. To that end any group of people who is willing to give up its individual subculture (speaking Spanish, speaking Cantonese, speaking Creole, dressing in traditional Muslim dress, eating roti, ect) and accept the culture and values of the “larger American culture” can become “white”. The new non-white white would be the Russians, who have been migrating to the US in very large numbers, I am sure that over time they will give up their language, traditional foods, and become white whites. I am torn, however, if this can be applied to any people of African decent specifically (and very dark people in general) due to the history of African slavery that America was woven out of. This thus leads to my questions.

        • the black scientist April 14, 2009 at 1:27 pm Reply

          i don’t know about whiteness as assimilation. i think its more than that.. but also, and maybe this is because i’ve recently chosen to identify as american, i feel like the label “american” is more flexible now (albeit usually with a qualifier) than it was, say, in 1880, or even 1960. mexican-,asian-, and caribbean-americans in particular are the groups i’ve noticed most often being treated as recent immigrants, or non americans.

    • SEK April 13, 2009 at 3:51 pm Reply

      Can an individual African-American become white?

      I don’t have my sources with me now, but in legal terms, African-Americans could become “white” by crossing a state line until well into the 20th Century. One of the unanticipated effects of the folk-wisdom that color of a child’s skin speaks to that of his or her parents was that state officials assumed a lighter skin tone indicated more “white blood,” and that that distinction would be reflected in the ancestry. So if, for example, you were black in Mississippi if your mother’s line of descent was black and black in Alabama if your father’s line was, you could become “white” by moving to Alabama. The absurdity of the situation points to the legal fictions required to bolster equally specious cultural fictions, which were themselves based on their own absurdities, &c.

  8. Brown Man April 14, 2009 at 1:43 am Reply

    I know I’ve been doing this too long when I can excerpt my answer from one of my own posts on my blog.


    One of the more curious features of American life has been the ability of our citizenry to merge common customs of certain ethnicities – in particular, the characteristics of the Irish, the Italians, the Croations, the French, the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedish, the Russians, the Polish, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Austrians, the Danish, the Finish, the Romanians, the Norwegians, the Ukrainians – into an über whiteness, a self image purer than the reality of those who wear its mantle.

    Whiteness is as much a property, a state of being, as much as it is a trait – within the Big Tent of racial and cultural amalgamation we know as “White America”, it is a badge of membership, of belonging, that supersedes individual differences.

    Obama and Racial Ambiguity: Acting White

  9. socgrad April 14, 2009 at 9:44 am Reply

    And this is exactly how white people in America will maintain power as they become a numerical minority. The boundaries of whiteness will shift and expand so that some of the groups we think of as racial / ethnic minorities now (Asians and some Hispanics) will become white.

    But the salient point is that even as “whiteness” expands and changes, “blackness” will remain as its polar opposite. That’s why, thinking of a name, prosperity for native born black people and African immigrants will most likely not translate into becoming white. In this new version of the old American hierarchy, someone will still have to be the Other, and native born black people, dark skinned Hispanics, and African immigrants will most likely fill this role as some sort of pan-black group.

    It’s incredibly depressing when you think about it, because at a time with the influx of many non-white people (Asian, Hispanic, African) we have the opportunity to fundamentally change America’s racial hierarchy. Unfortunately most people, including immigrant populations, simply accept the hierarchy and ask, how do I get to be white?, rather than, does “white” have to be at the top?. Because of this, we fail to recognize the real possibility of change.

    • thinking of a name April 14, 2009 at 10:41 am Reply

      With all due respect, when you have some black people that do not want to be black why should anyone classified as non-black want to be black? The honest truth of the situation is that people who are migrating to the States are doing so to have a better life and dine on the bountiful fruits that the States have to offer and being “white” offers the possibility of boundless access. Who are these white people that will maintain power? Is this something that is consciously done? Haven’t the Afrikaans of South African maintained power while still being a minority without expanding the definition of what is white?

      In my mind there are two problems with this issue of black and non-black and blacks becoming “white” … bear with me as I no doubt make a lot of folks mad. First, the issue of African slavery has forever tainted the way in which people of African decent of viewed in America (making racism very acceptable). I am thinking this may be roughly akin to the way in which Jews are looked upon in Germany and possibly the way Muslims are viewed in Israel. Second, the way in which many blacks (big generalization coming) want to be seen and acknowledged as separate and different and having issues that are separate and different and at the same time wanting to be seen as the same as. I know that this is the way in which some blacks cope in the larger society. I am guilty of it because I will only buy black dolls for my daughter and will only buy books for my children that have some black characters in them. This is my way of coping with a larger society that does not show the value and beauty that my children possess, but there is a point in which it goes from being helpful to destructive, such as when individuals questioned if Obama was truly black because he did not “champion black causes” or “come up through the black ranks” or “was not the son of slaves”. Obama was successful because he ran as politician who happened to be black. If he would have run as a black man who had different issues he would probably have gotten less votes than Jessie Jackson because more people knew of Jessie Jackson. Additionally, Obama is now being called a puppet and a sell out by some because he is not addressing the universal black issues in office and Michelle Obama is not wearing African-American designers.

    • Winslowalrob April 15, 2009 at 12:25 am Reply

      soc, I get what you and a lot of people thank think like you (if I can make that assumption *gulp*) are saying, perhaps best articulated with Dyson wanting us to get post-racist rather than post-racial. However, if you could let me get all rationamalizing (winslowism!) for a second, lets say that race is a social construct (something I am pretty sure we both agree on).

      Now, lets say that race is a shifting and contested ideology that inherently inferred one group with power at the expense of another (something that I am pretty sure we will agree on again). However, the point we will disagree on is that there is no simple, neat dichotomy between race and racism. Race is inherently imbued with hierarchy, therefore the idea of race is inherently racist. That is not the same as seeing prototypical difference, mind you, but that race and racism are both sides of the same coin (to use a popular analogy 😉 ). You cannot erase power differences without erasing race, because as long as race exists it will always have meaning because it is constructed to have meaning. Postracism and postracial are part and parcel of the same process.

      If I may, allow me to take some of the current discourse on race and show how it would work if followed through. Lets say we take the concept of White Privilege (as an unearned benefit of White Supremacy that all whites enjoy) and then deconstruct it. We can either ELIMINATE it or GRANT it to everyone. Lets say we eliminate it, meaning that everyone is treated equally… wait, what does that mean? Does that mean that whites will be treated like blacks? Which whites? Which blacks? What if we grant it to everyone, will that mean that blacks will be treated like whites? Which whites? Which blacks? How will gender and class fit into all of this? If privilege is unearned and it is eliminated, that means that everyone will be treated equally terribly (which cannot function as long as race exists because hierarchy is built in). If privilege is unearned and it is granted to everyone, well, everyone will be treated equally awesomely (which again cannot function because hierarchy is built in to race). Yet given both these unlikely scenarios, I find extending whiteness to as many people as possible is a far better option than attempting to ‘change the racial hierarchy’, because thats basically a race war waiting to happen (in which I will side with the Antarticans, founders of civilization!).

      This thinking does not challenge racial hierarchy, it basically wants to usurp power with a grand non-white alliance. And if that alliance actually knocks down the whites, then the daggers will come out as the racially conscious groups duke it out for supremacy. This is why I can never be part of any sort of Anti-Racist organization or believe in Critical Race theory, because while I agree with a lot of their stuff, they do not seem too interested in ending the salience of race altogether, just its negative or positive side-effects (they pay lip-service too it but too often get into essentialism).

      Hell, this might be my first post on Colorblind Anti-racism :)!

      Sorry to threadjack. There is a ton of stuff on white studies, Iggy just has the best title. I always liked the Wages of Whiteness myself. Oh, and all the writers writers are anti-racist so I am horribly misappropriating their stuff :).

      • mute April 15, 2009 at 10:28 am Reply

        Note: Your reply struck a nerve. I’m not sure if I entirely comprehended your statement, but I tried to respond coherently. I have no idea if I succeeded. If not, apologies in advance.

        “This is why I can never be part of any sort of Anti-Racist organization or believe in Critical Race theory, because while I agree with a lot of their stuff, they do not seem too interested in ending the salience of race altogether, just its negative or positive side-effects (they pay lip-service too it but too often get into essentialism).”

        I don’t know enough about anti-racist activists or ppl involved in CRT to comment on their tactics, but what bothers me about what I heard of post-racial perspectives is that they don’t seem to take into account the conscious personal stakes that people have in race that go beyond people’s place in a caste system. I am black American or African American ethnically/culturally. My racial designation due to my parentage and my phenotype is also black. Who I am as Mute, an individual, has a lot to do with former and certainly cannot be completely distinguished from the latter. This means that while it is a label that is placed on me, it is also my choice to accept it and engage it, for better or for worse (social construct or not–but what isn’t?). There are many positive things that have resulted from my culture, and thus my caste, since the creation of a global blackness that I am not ready to be “relieved” of for the interests of post-racialism. I feel that would mean eradicating a significant portion of who I am as an individual.

        I have no idea what is a “right” or “wrong” answer as far as social progress is concerned. I may very well have the “wrong” perspective when it comes to eradicating racism. I just find myself at a loss when I hear talk for the eradication of race as a concept and its not because I’m in love with the social hierarchy. If we jump several centuries or even millennia into the future and this eradication has actually occurred, what forms of social organization come into take its place? Post race, is there any supreme form of transnational social orientation or designation or are we just stuck to our political borders?

        At the start of this post-race project, how do you work to sever people from their race? And I don’t mean race as “just” a caste ranking. I also mean race as an amalgam of peoples and histories*, as a legacy of intellectual work to try and understand it all–that is engaged, digested, and becomes a real part of the people who come afterward? For people like me, how do you surgically operate around the spots that racial designation (what i can’t control), racial identity (in my case meaning positive acceptance of the designation), cultural/ethnic identity and individual identity mix? Are there particular post racial model societies we are supposed to be taking after? Or Particular beings that construct their lives without the slightest “touch of essentialism”? Where do they grow up? Who are their people?

        i hope this made sense. i just have mad questions. i don’t know. i’m tired of rereading and editing this. i’m just going to press ‘submit’.

        *but this is not to say, of course, that these mixes don’t cross racial lines, whatever they are at the time.

        • Winslowalrob April 15, 2009 at 11:47 am Reply


          That reply was pimpin, you replied correctly. Gotta get back to you on that.

  10. socgrad April 14, 2009 at 9:21 pm Reply

    @ thinking of a name

    you say that “being white offers the possibility of boundless access” and then ask “who are these white people who will maintain power?”. Your first comment answers the question. In a society, like America, where access, opportunity, and privilege are distributed disproportionately based on race, white people, in general, are the recipients of disproportional power and rewards, even without conscious efforts on the part of most white people to maintain power. Accepting the racial hierarchy is enough.

    In an example, many white people who lived in segregated neighborhoods up through the 1960s did not have to actively work to keep their neighborhoods segregated. All they had to do is turn a blind eye to the federal policies and discriminatory practices of lenders and brokers that kept non-white people from buying homes in their neighborhood. A tacit acceptance of the racial hierarchy was enough to help most white people maintain the privileges (in terms of better schools and better city services, among other things) that went with residential segregation.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone become black. What I’m suggesting is that since demographics are quickly making non-white people the majority in America, we have the real possibility to critically ask: “why do we have a racial hierarchy that places white people on top?” and “do we really have to have this racial hierarchy?”.

    Also, if African immigrants and other immigrants of African descent don’t want to be considered black in America because it doesn’t reflect their cultural heritage that’s one thing. However, when immigrants of African descent reject being considered black in America because they effectively don’t want to be lumped in with a low status group, well then they’re really just accepting the racial hierarchy that’s in place (with its denigration of black people in general), rather than pushing back against the racial hierarchy that denigrates black people in the first place. To be perfectly blunt, it smacks of self-hate.

    Finally, I tried to follow your second paragraph, but it really didn’t make a lot of sense.

  11. socgrad April 15, 2009 at 9:53 am Reply

    @ winslowalrob

    I think we actually agree more than disagree and the confusion is due to the fact that I didn’t make myself clear about what I mean by changing the racial hierarchy. When you say, “Race is inherently imbued with hierarchy, therefore the idea of race is inherently racist. That is not the same as seeing prototypical difference, mind you, but that race and racism are both sides of the same coin (to use a popular analogy ).”, I agree with you.

    What I mean by changing the racial hierarchy is recognizing and accepting difference between people in America without automatically assigning status to these different groups. Kind of like the issue of white ethnicity in America. We recognize that Irish and Italian descent is different, but both of these groups are considered equally part of the larger white group (now).

    Where I disagree with you is on the consequences of expanding “whiteness” to as many people as possible. Whiteness in America works (abstractly and in terms of the material privileges of whiteness) only in so far as there is a group that remains categorically not white. If we expand whiteness to include many currently non-white groups, this will only work as long as some group is designated the Other, not white people. This expanded whiteness will be great for the newly incorporated groups, but will *really* suck for the group that gets designated as the Other. They will be on the bottom of society and will be there for no other reason than the fact that they’re not white.

    The only way to avoid this is to effectively do away with whiteness as a racial category (decouple whiteness from race), since as a racial category it is therefore inhererently a part of the racist structure of American society (see your comment above). If this is possible (big if), I think whiteness would revert to a shorthand for class, with people who are economically successful or secure considered white and poor people considered not white. This opens up a whole other can of worms. But it has an advatage over the current system where race is effectively a shorthand for class, so that most white people are assumed economically successful by virtue of being white and (more to the point) most black and dark skinned non-white people are assumed poor by virtue of their race.

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