How White People Became White Paula S. Rothenberg William Paterson University of New Jersey Abstract Biologically speaking, it’s just as possible for a given white person in Florida to have genetics similar to his neighbor down the street as it would be for the same white person to have genetics similar to a black person in Nigeria. We could just as easily disregard skin color and pay attention to hair and/or eye color. Sociologists make this claim because they argue that the definition of what constitutes a race is something that is arbitrarily decided by society.
Additionally, what it means to classify yourself or someone else as a particular race carries social meaning. Sociologist claims that race as a biological concept does not exist. However, the consequences of classifying someone as a certain race as certainly real enough. It needs to be said, though, that not every discipline agrees that race is merely a social construct. Forensic psychology absolutely identifies at least three racial categories. Some geneticists and epidemiologists also recognize race as a legitimate biological category.
Race can be biological and socially constructed at the same time. The big difference is sociologists emphasize social definitions and meanings, rather than the biological aspects of race. By the eastern European immigration the labor force has been cleft horizontally into two great divisions. The upper stratum includes what is known in mill parlance as the English-speaking men; the lower contains the “Hunkies” or “Ginnies. ” Or, if you prefer, the former are the “white men,” the latter the “foreigners” (Barrett & Roediger, 1995).
Skin color (whiteness, blackness, yellowness, etc. ) remains a concern in the late 20th century, not because it advances the mission of multiculturalism, helps us to understand different people, or allows us, as individuals to congratulate ourselves on our “color blindness,” but because skin color has been used to rank order people for practical things like jobs, promotions, loans, and housing (Condit & Lucaites, 1993). Whiteness refers to a historical systemic structural race-based superiority (Philip C. Wander).
You might think that because skin color was so central to the law, that “whiteness” and “blackness” were carefully defined and easy to understand. They were defined by law, but they were not easy to understand in practice. The inferior were, by God’s will, destined to be enslaved by the superior. Slave property became totally identified with people who happened to have black skin, the color that had always horrified the West (Kovel, 1984, p. 21). Abraham Lincoln believed in the racial superiority of white people, although he felt blacks should be paid a fair day’s wage for their work.
People in the South thought he was an abolitionist in disguise. The confusion and the horror surrounding these complexities emerged, after the Civil War, in Jim Crow laws designed to keep the “races” apart. The law, pressured by the leaky nature of racial categories, devised a “one drop” theory-if you had one drop of “non-white blood” in your veins, you could not qualify as white. Throughout our history, “whiteness” has legally speaking, been a form of property (Harris & Wander 1971)
In the twentieth century, these fears gained a great deal of social legitimacy thanks to the efforts of an influential network of aristocrats and scientists who developed theories of eugenics—breeding for a “better” humanity—and scientific racism. Key to these efforts was Madison Grant’s influential Passing of the Great Race, in which he shared his discovery that there were three or four major European races ranging from the superior Nordics of northwestern Europe to the inferior southern and eastern races of Alpines, Mediterranean’s, and, worst of all, Jews, who seemed to be everywhere in his native New York City (Brodkin).
Creating a separate ethnic category within the racial category of White seemed to solve the problem of how to count Hispanics without racializing them as non-Whites, as it had done in 1930 (Neil Foley). To identify oneself today as a “Hispanic” is partially to acknowledge one’s ethnic heritage without surrendering one’s whiteness—whiteness with a twist of salsa, enough to make one ethnically flavorful and culturally exotic without, however, compromising one’s racial privilege as a White person.
The majority of Mexicans in the United States were therefore recognized by the census, if not the courts, as non-Whites. Although having their whiteness restored did not lessen discrimination, the Mexican government and Mexican Americans fully understood the implications of being officially or legally recognized as a non-White group (Foley). Segregation statues consistently defined all those without African ancestry as “whites. ” Chinese and Mexicans in Texas were thus White under state laws governing the segregation of the races (Foley).
After World War II, a French reporter was asked, “If there are any Negro problems? ” The author replied, “There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem. ” By inverting the reporter’s question, Wright called attention to its hidden assumptions—that racial polarization comes from the existence of blacks rather than from the behavior of white, that black people are a “problem” for whites rather than fellow citizens entitled to justice, and that unless otherwise specified, “Americans” means “white” (Lipsitz). Whiteness is everywhere in U.
S. culture, but it is very hard to see. White power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular. ” Race is a cultural construct, but one with sinister structural causes and consequences. Conscious and deliberate actions have institutionalized group identity in the Unites States, not just through the dissemination of cultural stories, but also through systematic efforts from colonial times to the present to create economic advantages through a possessive investment in whiteness for European Americans (Lipsitz). References
Wander, P. C. (1971). The savage child: The image of the Negro in the proslavery movement. Southern Speech Communication Journal, 57, 335-360. Condit, C. , & Lucaites, J. (1993). Crafting equality: America’s Anglo-African world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Roediger, D. (1991). The wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. New York: Verso. Lipstiz, George. (1998) The Possessive Investment in Whitness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.