No, White boy, that is not true.
What’s Whiteness? What’s wrong with it?
Whiteness is a rigid ideal. It’s meant to racially categorize different Americans of European descent. But when we really think of White people, does it help or hurt to apply the same rigid understanding?
The article “What Is Whiteness?” written last June by Nell Irvin Painter in the New York Times points out these flaws in our understanding of race. “If you investigate that [European immigrant] history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “African-American,” we draw a blank when it comes to whiteness. To the contrary, whiteness has a history of multiplicity.”
Take a closer look at any dominant social group and you realize that it, just like any other social group, has its fair share of inconsistencies. There are poor White people, gay White people, White people with strong relationships to other racial groups, White people that support Black Lives Matter, and so on.
Breaking down the idea of Whiteness would be to breakdown the foundation of race. Belief in Whiteness, intentionally or not, is belief in a large, clean canvas which reduces non-White people to splashes of paint on it. This is how the idea of race works, but it’s not the reality of it. The canvas, the backdrop, is just as fragmented and awkwardly put together as the colors thrown on it to make it look pure in comparison.
Communities of color still need individualized attention, as American society moves toward greater integration and equity. Issues of identity among people of color, like how it is suppressed, made, or changed in relation to dominant culture, are all necessary to highlight. But what is implied when we call those of underrepresented racial groups the “diverse” ones?
Singling out people of color as the different ones says non-White is not normal. This viewpoint, ingrained in the United States’ public subconscious, doesn’t work with the popular notion of this country as a melting pot. More simply, it’s wrong.
Why should we break it down?
Estimates from the Census Bureau in 2014 are consistent with 2008 estimates made by the Pew Research Center which say the mixed-race population is growing faster than all racial groups and that White people will be outnumbered by other racial groups by 2050.
Continuing to view the White population as one large, uniform blob will only become a larger issue given time.
Whiteness is too often viewed as bland or meaningless. These views don’t help to deconstruct it. Allowing people to think of White as the boring default gives White people a pass to not think about race. Painter points this out in the article saying, “The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.” The full picture of racial dynamics can’t be considered without giving an honest look at Whiteness.
The protection of White identity is also mentioned in the book Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity. Thomas Nakayama and Judith Martin explain how the history of racial formation in the United States protects White identity, proclaiming, “Whites just “are”,” and, “Whites, who have historically held power, have no need to define themselves.”
Viewing White identity as critically as the identities of people of color requires a joint effort. White people who have yet to take a glimpse at their racial identity have to willingly reflect with others further along in their formation of racial identity and work to shatter the plain backdrop. Understandably, many White people are not prepared to engage in that level of reflection. It evokes feelings of guilt, anger, and defensiveness toward perceived unfair treatment. It also threatens a White individual’s self-understanding, but is necessary in order for Americans to see themselves outside of strict racial categories in the future.
Why won’t it be enough?
Destroying race and removing its influence in society sounds cool and all, but the process would not be over should Americans succeed in getting rid of it. Even if we got past interpersonal issues of identity and social formation, it would not solve issues of race in institutional settings. A great example of this problem is Brazilian society, where the country embraces its multicultural and mixed-race heritage but fails to address socioeconomic gaps caused by cor (‘color’ in Portuguese, equivalent of ‘race’).
For instance, when asked to racially self-identify in a federal household survey in 2003, more than 130 answers were given across the Brazilian population, ranging from acastanhada (somewhat chestnut-colored) to rosa-queimada (sunburnt-rosy). Complexion weighed into racial self-identify more than heritage, demonstrating a common belief in the multicultural heritage of the nation. The wide variety of answers also indicates a much more fluid understanding of race relative to American public, a huge reason for the comparatively healthier race relations.
Despite Brazil’s acceptance of its multiculturalism, it clearly hasn’t solved the more deeply-rooted problems.
According to British news source Latin America Bureau, Black or mixed race Brazilians make up more than 70 percent of the national population below the poverty line. Non-white Brazilians earn an average wage less than half that of White Brazilians. Black Brazilians make up less than 10 percent of elected representatives, and only one of the 38 members of President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet is Black. Likewise, in the private sector it is brancos (White Brazilians) who dominate senior positions. Around 97 percent of executives and 83 percent of managers are White.
That being said, removing race as a guiding principle of identity in this country is still a necessary step. Addressing systemic issues of race requires a collaborative effort, but active resistance from White people to delve into Whiteness and their identities significantly slows the deconstruction process down.
Why is it still worth it?
Despite pain that comes with taking the first real hard look at how Whiteness works, White people stand to benefit greatly from shining light on the foundation of their White identity. Not only would it help White individuals see diversity within their group, those revelations would aid in having more accurate views of those outside of their racial groups. Breaking down something as homogeneous as Whiteness would make it easier to see how “Black,” “Asian,” and other racial groups are awkwardly lumped together.
Following from that, Americans being able to collectively dismiss current racial categorization would make the treatment of systemic racism easier. The guilt, shame, and defensiveness that usually accompanies reactions of some White people to the idea of White privilege would subside as White people collectively improved their understanding of racial identity.
Whiteness is the foundation of race. Though it seems unchangeable, it can be broken down and disposed of properly if Americans do it together. White Americans have a large role to play in taking a second look at Whiteness, and it won’t be long until it’s necessary for the social health of this nation.