What are white people?

Religiosity in/around Europe; Blue=Catholic, Purple=Protestant, Red=Orthodox. Green=Sunni Islam, Dark Green=Shia Islam

When someone refers to “white people”, they generally mean Europeans, or people whose ancestors came from Europe. But the idea of the continent having its own racial identity sprang largely from the development of western civilization, whose borders were drawn largely by Christianity’s reach. Swedes and Greeks are both historically Christian and culturally European, but Greeks are more ethnically similar to their Muslim neighbors in Turkey than they are to their blonde chums up in northern Europe.

The Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 aimed to reduce growing immigration from southern and eastern Europe, in favor of traditional immigration from countries like Germany and Britain. It was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that immigration restrictions were eased not only on non-northern Europeans, but also on the rest of the world’s inhabitants. The US had largely been a northern-European nation since its founding, with a sub-Saharan west African population in the South and cities. Following efforts in the 1960s to reform immigration, the racial makeup of the country began to change forever.

So much of how we view race has been shaped by the black/white experience in the US. The disparity in social standing has improved since the dark age of slavery, but blacks and whites are still at opposite ends of society’s totem pole. However, there has been a growing grey area in the middle, with interracial relationships and immigration from every corner of the planet. In the old world, it has always been hard to tell the difference between a southern Italian and a northern Tunisian. American society is beginning to now reflect this blurring of separate “races”, but in more concentrated urban pockets. These days, the US census does not even include a separate category for North Africans and Middle Easterners; instead they are all compiled under white.

Centuries ago, only northern Europeans with a wholesome Protestant background were considered white. Today, Libyan Sunni Muslims are white as well (though they might not be waving the flag anytime soon). Together with increasing rates of interracial marriage and steadily-diversifying immigration backgrounds, the boundaries between seemingly-distinct populations are eroding. The US is still a relatively young country, and it’s racial makeup has never stopped evolving. Nonetheless, there has always been a clear distinction between the descendants of light Europeans and dark Africans. Bridging that gap is the most pressing matter for the country, and has been since its founding.