I read a white person saying that labeling white people as white was perpetuating “the problem.”
Colorblindness has been discussed over and over. If you are new to the idea that “not seeing color” contributes to racism, please dig a little deeper. While sure; in an ideal world we would no longer recognize the color of our skins as separating us, it is deeply problematic to pretend the differences don’t carry real life consequences for people today.
But what about whiteness? Let’s be very clear. There is a difference between “Caucasian” and “white.” According to Wikipedia;
“The Caucasian race (also Caucasoid or Europid) is a grouping of human beings historically regarded as a biological taxon, including some or all of the populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. The term has been used in biological anthropology for many people from these regions, without regard necessarily to skin tone. First introduced in early racial science and anthropometry, the term denoted one of the three purported major races (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid) of humankind. Although its validity and utility are disputed by many social scientists, Caucasoid as a biological classification remains in use in forensic anthropology.”
While Caucasian as a biological classification is problematic by itself, it is not the same thing as white. Whiteness is a social/political label originating in the 17th century. This coloring of Caucasian descendants in European colonies had and has a purpose. Namely; identifying a class of people with priority over all others. White cannot exist without its binary; black. Whiteness is inextricably linked to anti-blackness.
The hyphenation of African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, Mexican-American, etc., is a response to whiteness. Because; the word “American” is specifically used to define cultures and values which are “white.” Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and yes, Chevrolet, are all symbols of white culture in America. The history of this country tells a tale of white domination and supremacy over all others. The Founding Fathers were all white (men). The captains of industry; white. This country has its roots in white supremacy.
Of course, we do have the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution which serve to legally include non-white people into the community of America. And of course, no person is legally barred from participation in governmental, economical, or educational institutions based upon the color of their skin. This is widely known and perhaps part of the root of why white folks often have a hard time being called white folks.
Despite the legal framework which is supposed to create equality in our country, equality does not exist. There are historic reasons for this. There are contemporary reasons for this. The most evident and easily identifiable reason is bigotry. On an individual level, bigotry does not have a lot of power. However, backed by white supremacy, white bigotry does indeed have power. And everything that is “American” is backed by white supremacy.
One way that whiteness works is to define what “normal” is. From the beginning of our history, the Indigenous have been portrayed as “savages” and “un-civilized.” The project of Manifest Destiny was born from a belief that it was white folks natural right to occupy this entire continent; despite the cultures that already existed here. The “Kill the Indian; Save the Man” project of Indian boarding schools, was an effort to erase Indigenous cultures and replace them with American (white) culture. Slavery created a binary of free vs. non-free based upon skin color (granted; there were white slaves, however this practice did not last as long nor have the same impact as the enslavement of African people). Jim Crow provided a normalization of white culture and a further “othering” of non-white peoples. Black folks sat at the BACK of the bus, because this was less desirable than the front. It continues to be expected of African-Americans (and all other hyphenated identities) participating in education, business, and government, to adopt mannerisms and language patterns that are “normal” to white Americans.
As Europeans immigrated to America, they were often discriminated against as hyphenated peoples. Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans were possibly the most notable. However, by a neat little trick, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans were able to de-emphasize their ethnic heritage and center their whiteness in order to gain acceptance into American society at large. This option has not been open to Indigenous and African-American peoples, because of the phenotypical markers (read; skin color) which can not be overlooked. So while an African-American may assimilate entirely into American (white) culture, they continue to be black, and thus subject to violence and discrimination. Simply review the incessant criticisms of President Obama which center around his blackness. Achieving the highest office of the land should be an indication of his complete assimilation into American (white) culture. But he is still attacked based upon his skin color.
Identifying whiteness does not create or perpetuate division. The division was made long ago. The problem at hand is that whiteness has been made invisible to white people through framing it as “normal.” What we regard as American today is a product of historically white economic, governmental, and educational institutions. Who knows what America would look like today if Africans had been accepted equal to Europeans? Who knows what America would be today if Indigenous Nations had been respected as sovereign, equal to our respect of European Nations? We can’t know what results that would have produced. Certainly; it would not be the America we know today. What we can know is that today’s America is born from European values, systems, ideas, philosophies, traditions, and such, permeated with white supremacy which excludes, devalues, destroys, or assimilates anything which is not white.
(I can just hear someone pointing to rap music as proof that America values blackness. This is another conversation about the commodification and consumption of black culture for white appetites. It does not indicate that Black People are equally regarded in our society as White People.)
For healing of racial division to occur, for the oppression of People of Color to be alleviated, for the violence to end, white folks MUST learn about being white. That which has been invisible, must become visible. We need to understand how our whiteness is preferred in America. We need to understand why. It is only with this understanding that we will be able to disrupt white supremacy and focus on the project of equality. This can not be achieved by simply eliminating the labels of color from our vocabulary. Because those labels are naming actual divisions in our society that continue to oppress People of Color to the benefit of white folks.
Just as any illness can not be cured by simply ignoring it, whiteness must be understood in order to be healed. We must name it and interrogate it. We must actively subvert whiteness. This is our task as white people in America today. It is only through these efforts that we will be able to abolish the oppression of non-white people, once and for all.