Archive for Monday, August 19, 2002

White’ a troublesome term

August 19, 2002


Last year in Chicago, 44 Italian-American women competed in the Miss Italia USA Pageant in Chicago. The black community did not erupt in protest.

Last month, the Irish-American Heritage Center, also in Chicago, had its annual Irish-American Heritage Festival. The PC police didn't stage a raid.

Indeed, an untold number of ethnic organizations The Southeast Scottish Amateur Athletics Inc., the German-American National Congress, the Polish-American Assn. stage sundry pageants, fairs and competitions everyday. All without blacks or keepers of political correctness paying much attention one way or another.

I mention this for the benefit of Mr. Abell's U.S. history class. He's an Indiana teacher who told me in an e-mail that students at his "predominantly white, upper-class suburban school" have been asking him a question I probably hear once a week, in one form or another. In this form, it goes like this: "Why is it OK for them" meaning blacks in Indiana "to have Indiana Black Expo? If we had Indiana WHITE Expo, we would be called racist and politically incorrect."

Mr. Abell wants to know what I think. What I think is that it's time to parse a troublesome word. "White."

Historically speaking, white is an artificial construct, perfected if not invented in the United States. It was, and is, less a race than an Anglo-Saxon ideal. Fairness of skin alone did not allow one access to that ideal. To the contrary, Irish immigrants, Jews from Eastern Europe and others who came to this country in search of better lives were given instead dirt, degradation and discrimination, because Anglophile America did not see them as "white."

That's why many of the newcomers changed their names, cast off distinctive styles of dress, hid their religion. They understood that if they were to be accepted in America, to have their best shot at success in a racially stratified society, they would need to embrace the ideal. Find a way to assimilate. Become "white." Because white was privilege sanctioned by law and entitlement enshrined in custom. White was manifest destiny.

Now, if you were black, separated from America's ideal both by stark physical difference and blood-soaked history, you understood that white was one thing more. It was the door an immigrant could open, but you could not.

Even today, although to a markedly lesser degree, this is true. Consider the headline from a recent story in the Los Angeles Times: "The Great 'White' Influx; Regardless of color, two-thirds of immigrants choose that designation on census replies. For some, it's synonymous with America."

Those immigrants understand what many native-born Americans refuse to. I'm reminded of what happened to a white academic named Matt Wray. Five years ago, he and a group of like-minded educators organized a conference. Their stated objective was to evolve a new definition of "white" that depended on neither bigotry nor guilt. Critics jumped on the guy like a trampoline. He was accused of white bashing. A talk-show host referred to the educators as "self-hating fools."

But those fools were onto something.

They understood that "white" carries baggage, the weight of all the years it was used to encode unearned privilege and justify unearned pain. They knew that the word makes people nervous, gets them looking over their shoulder, implies a threat it never even has to speak.

We all understand this, if only intuitively. That's why a Caucasian fellow who professes a love for Scottish music is understood only to have a fondness for bagpipes, but the one who says he prefers white music is understood as a racist. It's why an Irish-American Heritage Festival threatens no one, but a White American Heritage Festival would require a police presence.

And it's why that question I hear once a week at minimum always sounds specious to my ears. Always sounds like people of privilege looking for some means by which they can feel themselves misused.

The truth is, "white" hasn't changed, but America has. Changed enough that all of us understand again, if only intuitively the weight of a troublesome word.

So kids, the reason there's been no Indiana White Expo is pretty simple. It's not just that black people would take offense. It's that white people would stay home.

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