Saturday, October 20, 2012

Race, Ethnicity, and a deconstruction of "White"

Races, as descriptive terms, are nearly useless. But, "white" is by far the most meaningless, loaded term among them and we, as a society, need to do away with it entirely.

Ok, let me back up a bit.

What may surprise most people is that the concept of "race", as we know it today, didn't exist until around the 1680s as a way for European Americans to distinguish themselves from natives and the now racially specific slaves. So, yes, the foundation of "white" largely came out of racism... but, obviously, racism existed long before this. The different European nations all hated each other, the different Native American nations all hated each other, the Romans hated anyone who wasn't Roman, as did the Greeks, the Persians, and just about every nation before... for as long as there has been small tribes of humans wandering around, those different tribes hated each other. The difference was that this was based on ethnicity, referring to specific places of origin or culture. What made the new concept of "white" unique was that it suggested that the varied European ethnicities were close enough to each other that they could be grouped into one larger "race", as could other ethnicities into other broad races.

So, what does the term "white" literally mean? Anyone of European, Middle Eastern, or North African decent. That's how the term was defined in the 1600s, and that's how the US Census still defines the term today.

Now, of course you're thinking "Wait, Middle Easterners and North Africans are white? And doesn't that make Hispanics white too?"

Yes, it does. And, it's in the discrepancy between the word's definition and the word's usage that we can begin the analyze the true meaning "white".

So, if there are white ethnicities that aren't thought of as white now, have there been others in the past? Turns out there have been several. Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Slavs, Germans, and Scots were all considered non-white at some point in history. Jews are still a bit hit-or-miss as to whether their considered white now. And Irish... Ok, racism against Irish in America is going to have to be it's own article here at some point, so for now I'm just going to have to tell you to look it up. Some of the things you see will seem pretty familiar.

What's the most interesting, however, is the similarity between the "non-white whites" of today and those in the past. They were all considered "non-white" at a point when there was a large migration of that ethnicity to the US, and most of the population were 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, in the same way that Hispanics and Middle Easterners are today.

Now we're getting somewhere.

There's always much talk over the way the media portrays "white" as the default, or as a neutral lack of race. But, it seems that the actual usage of the term "white" may actually mean nothing more than that. "White" seems to simply refer to ethnicities that are acclimated into the American culture, where "non-white" refers to ethnicities that are predominately foreign, having their own culture or language.

So, the question I then have to ask is... why aren't black people considered white? They're as common and acclimated as any other ethnicity. Well, there are 2 major hurdles, both of which are overcomable. The first, like I said back at the beginning, is that "white" has become a very negatively loaded term over the centuries, especially to black peoples. The second is the the whole concept of "celebrating diversity", while well intentioned, ultimately reenforces the idea that different races need to stay different.

That's why we need to get rid of the term "white". If it doesn't refer to any specific ethnicity, but to the culturally "close enough" ethnicities common through out America, shouldn't the racial term then be.... "American"? Shouldn't we be focusing on what makes us all the same and not what makes us different? The idea that "Americans" are culturally distinct from "non-Americans" and constitute it's own pan-ethnic group isn't going anywhere, but we should at least expand the idea to encompass all Americans. The disparity of some American ethnicities is the disparity of all Americans... as well as the privilege of some American ethnicities is the privilege of all Americans. To say other-wise is to say to ignore the fluidity that race has always had in America.

And, of course, in abandoning the concept of "white", it also means abandoning the concept of the "white christian heteronormative male".

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