The Curious Nature of Whiteness

What does it mean to be white?

A friend of mine said to me that I “pass as white.” Curious, I asked him what that meant. Whiteness, he told me, is about privilege. The privilege to walk into a store without getting a funny look. The privilege to not have to worry that someone’s going to gun down your kid because he’s holding a toy gun. The privilege to get a job, have your credentials believed, get a loan, etc.

Obviously, that’s all true, as aspects of whiteness in North America and Europe. But, I asked, I pass as white? Yes, he implied, because you’re not really white. You’re not really part of white culture.

That led me to question whiteness. There’s a lot of talk about whiteness, lately, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the indigenous water protectors of the NoDAPL movement. The alt-right movement is drawn from the same bunch of shitbags who’ve been pushing “white power” (as if we already didn’t have enough) forever.

But what does it mean to be white?

Becoming White

My grandparents were immigrants. Where they came from, they were the equivalent of Appalachian mountain people. The Appalachian folk are hardly viewed as white. They’re nominally Christian, but the practice of hoodoo is alive and well. Originating with the Pennsylvania Dutch, merging with a mix of folk practices from the Scots and Irish immigrants, and the indigenous ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯ people (what most folks call the Cherokee), hoodoo is pretty damned weird stuff to be doing while calling yourself Christian.

Like the Appalachians, my ancestors certainly weren’t viewed as white by their neighbours. When they came to Canada, they weren’t viewed as white. They were immigrants. They moved and worked in a section of my hometown that had seen successive waves of immigration. They faced prejudice on a regular basis. On occasion, it was violent prejudice. They were denied jobs, homes, and bank loans. They got targeted by authority in the form of police who’d stop them on the street, an education system that put my father in a class with deaf kids because he couldn’t speak English, and so forth.

My parents’ generation were sort of white. Not quite 100%, because they still did weird things. My generation is definitely white. We’re fully integrated. We don’t have accents and we have university degrees and all the fine banners of whiteness.

And yet! Some of us maintain the folk practices from the old country, like some of the Appalachian folk. Some of us still speak the old language. Some of us still eat the food that our WASP neighbours either won’t eat or think is so quaint!

And yet! We remember that there used to be more of us, before the German war machine rolled on through, figured we were Romani, and imprisoned and killed us out of hand.

And yet! I don’t think like other white people, because I was raised in a highly introverted family. Despite their university educations, my parents didn’t trust outsiders. The family came first.

What a shock it was for me to go out into the world and have my essential whiteness go unquestioned. All I had to do was shut my mouth, and nobody would realize I wasn’t particularly Christian, or straight, or monogamous, and that I didn’t share their values. They just gave me stuff. Stuff like safety and jobs and respect and the assumption of fellowship. As a bonus, I had a penis, which apparently meant I was even better!

Losing A Bit of Whiteness

That changed a bit when I moved to the U.S. I was still white, but not quite as white. The process of enwhitening was stalled and reversed a bit. My family had gone from outsiders in Europe because they were the equivalent of mountain people; to outsiders in Canada because they were foreigners; to accepted in Canada; to outsiders in the U.S., again, as foreigners.

In the U.S., my whiteness got me the usual perks, with a few drawbacks. People could make jokes about me being Canadian (something I didn’t really consider myself until then), and I was expected to laugh. I was not, under any circumstances, allowed to criticize the U.S. If I didn’t like it there, I could go back home.

Eventually, I got sick of not enjoying the full perks of whiteness, so I went home, where I could continue to be white.

Whiteness is Not About Your Skin

The interesting thing about whiteness that my experience has taught me is that it’s not about the colour of your skin. I know olive-skinned Italians who are considered white. I know people whose grandparents are Lebanese who are considered white. Whiteness is about acceptance. For those of us without centuries of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ancestors, whiteness is about being silent about your heritage, your gender identification, your sexuality, and/or your religion.

The genetic base of whiteness is just a story bigots like to tell themselves to warm their black little hearts on long, cold nights in front of reddit and Twitter. I had a friend in high school who had very racist parents, and he picked up some of their bad traits. He’s an odd duck, my friend, because he says the stupidest shit in the world, but doesn’t seem to know if he should believe it or not.

A while back, he did a 23andMe test. Turns out he’s got indigenous ancestors mixed in with the usual British Isles mix. I thought this was sort of interesting in passing. He basically imploded. His cherished whiteness, such a huge part of his identity, was suddenly in question. Then he went to the other end of the spectrum, trying to adopt an indigenous identity that was 1/16th of his genetic heritage and to which he had no right nor connection.

His experience and mine taught me that being white is about passing as white. It’s about being able to claim the privilege of being white.

I think my friend who said I passed as white is wrong. I am white. What I choose to do with the privilege that grants me, even though it’s privilege based on lies of omission, is what defines whether or not I’m a good white person or a bad one.

But I Don’t Feel Privileged!

So many white people clamour against the claim they have privilege. The poor whites don’t see much privilege in their daily struggles. The guy who saw his job outsourced to a country full of brown people doesn’t feel like his whiteness bought him very much. These feelings are understandable.

But even the poorest white person can walk into a store and not get looked at like a thief, unlike many successful Black folks. Even the poorest white person isn’t going to have someone assume he’s an alcoholic, unlike even the most successful indigenous person. Even the poorest white person won’t have someone make fun of his accent in his own town.

Walk into a costume store, and find me a costume based on your heritage. There isn’t one. But you can dress up as a native chief! Got any dark-skinned friends who cover their face with white makeup and make fun of the way you talk? Probably not. But I bet you know somebody who has a dreamcatcher in their window, or smudges with burning sage, or wants to be a rap star, or has appropriated somebody else’s culture without even thinking about it. I bet there aren’t any sports teams with logos and mascots that are supposed to be about your ancestors.

That’s called appropriation, and it’s ugly. It’s one of the perks of whiteness. You do that, and your white friends applaud, while somebody else is made to feel like an object of ridicule. Whiteness is so often about disrespect.

Oh, but you claim you’re doing these things because you respect their culture? Theft isn’t respect. Mockery isn’t respect. Respect isn’t taking the remnants of cultures white people all-but destroyed and slathering them over you like a costume.

White people have power: the power to be treated with respect. The power to not be instantly judged by the way they look or talk. The power to be integrated into their local culture seamlessly. The power to be accepted by all other white people at a level that non-whites may never reach in their lifetimes.

The question then becomes, “How do you use this power?”

Privilege is a Tool

You can use your whiteness for the benefit of others. You can dismantle whiteness from the inside out. When your friend says she wants to dress up as “sexy Pocahontas,” you can point out how utterly damned offensive that is.

When your friend starts smudging his house with sage, you can point out that his European peasant ancestors had similar rituals, and how it’d be fascinating to learn more about them. Europe has a long, beautiful, and rich history. Learn about it. Find your family’s ancestral roots and celebrate them.

When your friend goes on about how those damned foreigners stole his job at the plant, you can point out that the person to blame for that is the CEO of the plant and the board of directors, who are very likely white males.

When you hear somebody talking about how refugees get a free ride, you can remind them that moving to another country where you don’t speak the language and will get treated like an outcast, likely living in poverty unless your work your ass off, is a pretty big price to pay just to stay alive.

When somebody is going on about how Islam is a religion of hate and all Muslims are the enemy, you can point out that hundreds of millions of Muslims are just like you, doing their jobs, loving their families, and have zip zero to do with terrorism.

When you see Black Lives Matters activists on the news, instead of grousing about how your buddy the cop is a great guy, you can sit back and ask yourself how you’d feel if it was your brother who got shot while he was holding his hands in the air and had no weapon on him. How you’d feel if it was your son who got shot by a cop within two seconds of stepping outside his cruiser. You can wonder how you’d feel if you realized that any son you had was three times more likely to be killed by police than somebody else’s son.

You can use your money and time to support minority causes. As I write this, thousands of indigenous people from many tribal nations have gathered to fight for the protection of water. It’s winter, and it’s cold. Send help.

You can think and learn. You can speak up. You can even act, but when you do, be sure you ask first, because your whiteness precludes you from understanding the totality of the minority’s situation. And besides, it’s always polite to ask before sticking your nose in somebody else’s business, isn’t it?

Being white does not mean anyone expects you to own guilt for the actions of other white people. Put that out of your head. Maybe some people do, but seriously, screw them. Guilt isn’t helpful. Guilt for things you didn’t do, for the accident of your birth, will only serve to alienate you.

What reasonable people hope is that white people will use their privilege to help dismantle the unhelpful aspects of whiteness.

Whiteness is an Illusion

Chances are, you’re like me. At some point in history, your ancestors weren’t considered white. Maybe they were Irish, barred from jobs and brought over as slaves, in some instances. Maybe they were Scots, treated like animals by the British. Maybe they were Italians, for whom the mobster stereotype still exists. Or Poles. Or Jews. Heck, even the British weren’t white enough, if you go back far enough.

Whiteness is an illusion promoted by people who want to maintain their power at the expense of others. Whiteness has been the justification for the attempted genocide of the western hemisphere’s indigenous people. It was the justification for the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans. It was the justification for the Nazi death camps.

Embrace your privilege. Don’t let all the suffering whiteness has caused be for nothing. Use your power to help.

It will cost you nothing, and make our world a far better place.