This Whiteness Thing
I watch a lot of old television shows. They’re my guilty pleasure. On many a Monday morning colleagues ask me how I spent my weekend and I have to avert my eyes while I confess to watching a That Girl marathon. What’s worse is I usally have to explain who That Girl is.
I’ve come to see it as research. These were the stories white society told itself in the mid-20th century and they provide a glimpse into the societal context that nurtured me. Sitcoms, talk shows and game shows all document the era’s prevailing notions of race, women, and social status. I’m sure my elders consumed these concepts, considered many of them true, and passed them down to me.
This morning I caught an episode of the Dick Cavitt Show featuring a comedy team named Bob and Ray, who were known for satirizing talk shows. Their routines consisted mainly of pretending to interview one another about boring subjects, delivering both their questions and the answers dryly.
One sketch started out like this:
Q: What’s your name?
A: I can’t tell you that.
Q: Why not, are you hiding out from the police or something?
A: No. It’s because my name is completely unpronounceable. It’s spelled WWQLCW.
Q: I can see why you have trouble. What nationality is that?
A: My grandfather came from Iraq. When he translated our name into English he goofed something awful. It’s been a problem all my life.
Q: I can imagine.
Putting the problematic jab at written Arabic aside, this joke lead me to think about the experience of whiteness in the mid-1900s. The comedians — two men in my grandparents’ generation — knew their audience. They were in a transitional identity space — shedding anything that made it difficult for them to mainstream with the prevailing American culture.
My own grandfather was born in 1909 in Western Wisconsin and died two towns over in 1999. He had a massive stroke just before his death. Upon waking, he spoke in what sounded like gibberish to his children. They thought he’d completely lost it until an attentive nurse said, “Oh my, he’s speaking Swedish! I don’t know what he’s saying, but that’s Swedish!”
Until then, I hadn’t realized that my grandfather knew Swedish. The only foreign words I’d ever heard him speak were American swear words, which he used only when we trolled through sacred treasures (old junk) in his basement. My grandmother had banned vulgar language in the rest of the house. Somewhere in my memory banks I’d stored the fact that he taught his mother to speak English, even though she was also born in the States. I never connected the dots to realize that meant he knew only Swedish before kindergarten.
But, there he was, third generation American, 89 years old, and his own children couldn’t recognize his native tongue.
This brings me to whiteness and how it not only became a thing, but a cultural aim for European immigrants.
Matthew Frye Jacobson in Whiteness of a Different Color describes three epochs in American whiteness. He dates the first from 1790 to 1840 when whiteness determined who could own property and who was property. The Naturalization Law of 1790 ensured full citizenship rights to whites, stating:
“all free white persons who, have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.”
The second epoch began around 1840 when waves of famine and instability sent Europeans across the Atlantic in search of better conditions. The earlier Naturalization Law allowed this “second wave of whiteness” to flow through our borders. Swedes — and my grandfather’s grandfather — among them.
My own experience says that many of us of Swedish extraction are pale, blonde and blue-eyed. But our ancestors’ whiteness was a subject of debate, even from a visual standpoint.
Jacobson quotes Benjamin Franklin’s earlier observation that “The number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small.” He continued with:
“All Africa is black or tawny; Asia chiefly tawny; America (exclusive of the newcomers [that is, the English]) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans, also the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased.”
As Jacobson reports, “the Irish, Armenians, Italians, Poles, Syrians, Greeks, Ruthenians, Sicilians, Finns and a host of others…came ashore in the United States as ‘free white person’s under the terms of reigning naturalization law,’” but their “racial credentials were not equivalent to those of the Anglo-Saxon ‘old stock’.”
Despite the racial hierarchy within the white population and debates over each group’s ability to join a democratic republic — in other words their fitness to self-govern — they all eventually amalgamated into one white race.
As purveyors of white supremacy reported in the Caucasian Weekly, “Irishman, Germans, Frenchman, etc., come here, settle down, become citizens, and their offspring born and raised on American soil differ in no appreciable or preceptible manner from other Americans.”
The end of slavery occurred during the second epoch. The third dawned in 1924 when the Johnson-Reed Act restricted European immigration and banned Asian and Arab immigration. This coincided with the emergence of of the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the north. “The dominant racial configuration” was now re-aligned with a “strict, binary…of white and black.” Black people were, ostensibly, no longer property and according to law they were citizens, but Jim Crow saw them as unfit to participate in the rights of citizenship. The hierarchy within whiteness gave way to the superiority of whiteness and assimilation became socially advantageous.
My grandfather’s recollections of childhood seem to mirror this shift in racial consciousness. He often reminisced about the French boys he played with and the Indian boys he fought with in Wisconsin’s farmland in the 1910s. There was specificity and distinction of culture. But, by adulthood whiteness was not only a thing, but one worth the forfeiture of names, language and cultural memory.