My hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia—like so many cities across the South—is engaged in a heated discussion about Civil War memorials, place names and public memory. For the most part, we’ve conducted ourselves with decorum and all sides have had the chance to be heard. This summer, however, the discourse has boiled over thanks to a handful of rallies hosted by unsavory groups like the Ku Klux Klan. On a recent Saturday, two dozen or so lonely and fearful folks traveled from their home in North Carolina to protest the renaming of a park that previously honored General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. This decision, they claim, is an attack on white identity. An attack which they evidently feel can best be thwarted by harkening back to the politically- and racially-motivated terrorist attacks of the Jim Crow era.
One word in particular—and all of its myriad implications—has been bandied about on all sides. In reporting on these rallies, descriptions have included “the protesters identify themselves as white nationalists,” “the counter protesters were majority white,” and “white agitators were taken into custody.” And then there are the inevitable posts on social media that begin, “Dear White People…” I’d like to humbly suggest that perhaps an effective tactic in combating this worst sort of bigotry is to stop using of the word white to refer to a group of people.
I ignorantly assumed that white has its origins in preserving and advancing the interests of light-skinned people. Perhaps the entrenched networks established by and for the Anglo-Saxon colonists sent over from England. But this origin story is not a full accounting. It would be bad enough if white were rooted in a racial purity or a supremacist movement, but the truth is even more repulsive.
To have and to hold
The first laws forbidding intermarriage between races—as opposed to tribes or religions—were created by British colonial governments in America beginning around 1691. Were these laws created to protect the good names and bloodlines of soldiers, peasants and prisoners? On the contrary, the colonists were apparently quite fond of marrying Spanish and Native women. The “problem” was that they were also fond of marrying the beautiful brown-skinned women who had begun arriving from Africa and the Caribbean. The first statutes segregating black and white were not to protect the purity of the white race, but rather, the purity of the black race. They were written to protect the commercial interests of slavers and slaveowners and they specifically intended to categorize black Africans as sub-human to prop-up a wretched economy around chattel slavery. Allowing black people to make babies who weren’t black babies was bad for business. (At this point, it’s okay to feel nauseous.) And if they were going to litigate using black, well then they needed to fabricate white.
A flexible framework
In short, white is an elaborate mythology designed to sustain the sub-humanity of blacks in order to justify the continuation of slavery in North America. This helps explain why the 18th and 19th centuries were a “melting pot” in which Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Russians and Irish all became white. It was never about pigmentation or origin or ethnicity—it was about subjugation and property. White exists as a shorthand for the majority controlling interest of the American population, and we are evidently quite willing to move the boundary lines to keep it that way. You can see this reflected even now in the demographic data that lumps Hispanics (in part or in whole) with white.
By the middle of the 19th century—one generation into nationhood, America was working to rid itself of the institution of slavery. The abolitionist movement swept through New England and started heading south and west. When the Confederates surrendered, Americans preserved the status quo and simply moved everyone up a notch. The general response (in both the North and South) appears to have been, “well, if blacks are fully human now, I suppose that means whites are some sort of pure, master race.” Enter eugenics, national socialism and the hit series Vikings.
The very idea of a cohesive white identity is complete fiction, but every time we use the word white to describe a group of people, from Mein Kampf to Stuff White People Like, we affirm the existence of a discrete tribe with its own values and interests worth preserving. Cue the sweaty Klansmen. Journalists do it. Pastors do it. Civil rights leaders do it. I do it every time I fill out a government form.
But don’t a lot of good things come from having the category of white? Don’t we need to keep tabs on these people? Is this some Keyser Söze trick where the devil tries to convince the world he doesn’t exist? In this case, I think the devil stands to gain the most when good-hearted people inadvertently espouse the language of black subjugation. Words matter, they’re inherently democratic, and our common speech is a lot easier to change than mandatory sentencing or police training or even park names. My own language—and the social pressures that shape it—actually stands a chance of making an impact within my relatively small sphere of influence.
Privilege theory insists that we recognize, disclose and operate from inside our identity groups, while at the same time a vegetative white power movement is stirring. I don’t think this is a coincidence. We should continue to confront hatred wherever we find it, while also thoughtfully considering the potential consequences of saying—or not saying—white.
But why just white?
A reasonable assertion can be made that as long as we’re fantasizing about a post-racist American wonderland, shouldn’t we dispense with all race-oriented labels? Maybe so. No matter who’s saying what, it’s always a cheap, brown paper bag test of an adjective lobbed across the room. This is 2017. For 80 bucks, you can know your specific ethnic cocktail, if you so choose. Guess how many people’s results are white?
Knowing all that, I’m still not prepared to suggest that minorities—and particularly those with evidence of legitimate shared ethnic heritage—abandon the language of a racial identity. In the past couple of weeks in a snoozy Southern college town, I have become convinced that the origins of white in America matter, that we should work to stop the false paradigm—and that perhaps now is a good time to start stopping.