The Construction of Whiteness

I was browsing around the blogosphere last week when I found a very good blog called The Primary Contradiction which is about:
the examination of organized systemic power, especially as it operates in the United States. A special emphasis is placed on the intersectionality of dominant systems of power. My analysis is influenced by radical feminism, Marxism, post-colonial theory, and anti-imperialism.
In it I found a blog called “Whiteness, Plain and Simple” which was posted in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and in response to “Blog Against White Supremacy Day” which fell on Martin Luther King Day. In her blog Yolanda stated:
On the day that we celebrate the life of one of human history’s greatest freedom fighters, I would like to say that it is high time that we name and expose whiteness for what it is—an oppressor ideology that distorts and corrupts the worldview of human beings.After
commenting on the ideology of whiteness Yolnda perceptively exposes the very construction of whiteness, instead of being biological construct she shows how whiteness was constructed out of the power structures that were set up in American society and how whiteness was constructed out of privilege.
Before whiteness was invented, we were all human beings. Before whiteness was consecrated by law and custom, we were human beings. And before whiteness became an unnamed spectre that invaded our hearts and minds, we were human beings. And human beings we will remain, long after the ideology of whiteness is gone.
This got me thinking about how whiteness essentially took over ethnic European identity starting in the mid to late 19th century and how whiteness, constructed over many generations through the oppression and subjugation of people of color, was built upon privilege. I’m not going to go into huge detail here about the intricacies of whiteness and how whiteness came to be viewed as just White-Anglo-Saxton-Protestants to later encompass (especially after Reconstruction and World War II) all of the European ethnicities, that can be left to latter blogs which will detail more specific cases of this. Right now I just want to lay the groundwork and go over a brief overview of how whiteness, in today’s society, came to encompass all of European ancestry and how it gave former European immigrants, who had very little power (socially and economically) in the beginning, much of the power they now have in today’s society. This is especially important when one is answering questions as to why, for example, the Irish (who were once considered legally Black) were able to “make it” and why Blacks, who also came from poverty after Reconstruction, still are in poverty and haven’t (as a ethnic group) “made it.”

Essentially, from the founding of the first colony in the Americas in to the founding of the United States of America under the Constitution, Europeans have always been on top of the “food chain.” Whether it was through the destruction of Native Americans by the European settlers the creation of the transatlantic slave trade which helped build up massive amounts of capital for the ruling white class to further build upon, Europeans have always gained in society through the subjugation of people of color, whether they be Native Americans, Blacks, or Asian immigrants. Yet, in the beginning, the only European immigrants to experience much of this prosperity where European immigrants who were Anglo-Saxton and of the Protestant religion (Puritan, Anglican, Methodist, etc.). When the Irish first came to the United States in the mid-19th century, due to the Potato Famine, they were treated less than human and were even considered better labor t use than Black slaves because the Irish cost less than a Black slave. When the Italians started coming to America they too were also treated less than human, as where Eastern Europeans, and Jewish immigrants. Yet these waves of immigrants had one large advantage over the other immigrants from Asia, Latin American, and Blacks, they were of light complexion (i.e., they were white). While many in mainstream society were lamenting the “lose of culture” due to these Eastern European immigrants and the “attack on Christendom” through the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants one thing that the politicians didn’t do was to exclude many of these immigrants from the county. Which is what they did to the Chinese immigrants through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was just a precursor of how white immigrants were to latter fully benefit from the whiteness. The WASP politicians saw many Eastern European and Catholic European immigrants as threats but they didn’t enact a total ban on immigration, as they did on immigrants of color. This is one important fact to note about the great immigration wave of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American dream (immigrants flooding Ellis Island) was for Europeans only. Ellis Island was considered a gateway to freedom. But Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, was the complete opposite, that island was for Chinese immigrants, and unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island was built like a prison where Chinese immigrants (many of them not even ten years of age) would be grilled and interrogated by white immigration officials to see the “truthfulness” of their immigration stories. They would also be held in prison like barracks for weeks (if not months) until the immigration officials decided whether to allow them into America or to ship them back to China.

Along with the differences in immigration policies there was a change in whiteness in America that wouldn’t be fully complete until after World War II. Many immigrants who had been considered non-white, even Black, were now being considered white in the eyes of many in society. In How the Irish Became White author Noel Ignatiev goes over the history of how “the Irish rose up in American society on the backs of Afro-Americans. By choosing to become members of the white overclass, the Irish abdicated their historical mission of liberating American workers of all races.”(1) Instead of siding with Blacks in their labor struggles many Irish decided to take on the mantle of whiteness in order to move up in the social ladder. Because of their light complexion the Irish were able to side themselves with the WASP ruling class in contrast to Blacks. Because of there whiteness the Irish were able to gain an edge in labor and in politics. By 1960 America would have its first Irish-Catholic president, a mere 80 years or so after the Irish began their transformation from the Irish ethnicity to the image of privileged whiteness. In contrast the situation of Blacks had barley changed from the Era of Reconstruction to the election of Kennedy. Unlike the Irish who could take up the mantle of whiteness, Blacks couldn’t.

The same was also happening to other white immigrants who benefitted from not having the American boarders close on them. Where during the era of World War I a white mob was exonerated by a judge for lynching a German immigrant because the judge considered the fervor against the German “war machine” enough to excuse the lynching since it aroused much passion with Americans; in World War II Americans of German ethnicity were considered 100% American due to their white skin while Japanese Americas were considered “potentially dangerous” because they were people of color. It was the Japanese who where interned, not the white Germans.

After World War II it was the G.I. Bill of 1944 and 1952 that latter give whites a greater advantage over people of color and its effects are still being felt in American society today. The bill gave returning G.I.’s money to go to college as well as financial loans to help buy houses in the newly created suburbs (this is what helped create “white flight”). While this was a good bill to help G.I.’s returning home from war it was a bill that only benefitted whites. People of color were excluded from the bill (or in some instances didn’t receive near the benefits that their white G.I. counterparts did) and therefore people of color were not able to receive the financial aid and government loans in order to get a better education and a better living situation. While during World War II platoons were considered diverse because they had white Latinos (or Landinos as some people call them), Italians, Irish, and Jews, after the war these ethnic groups would be fully melded into the category of whiteness and they would receive in full all the privileges that went with being white.

I’ve left much out of this blog that needs to be addressed, especially when talking about the privileges that whites have in this society and especially when talking about the creation of whiteness through privilege in American society. But what we can see is that European immigrants who were originally at the bottom of the social ladder were able to gain the upper hand over other people of color who were also at the bottom by rejecting their European identities and by accepting the white identity. By becoming white, whereas before whites were only considered WASPs, these immigrants and their decedents enjoyed all the benefits of a white supremacist society and whites today still enjoy these benefits, among them social, legal, and economic. With this we can see how the power structures of American society have always been geared towards the benefit of whites and were set up to benefit whites. This blog is only laying the groundwork for future blogs on the construction of whiteness and the privileges that whites have had, and continue to have, in American society. What comes to mind off the top of my head is white privilege in the legal system, in immigration, in mainstream media images, in the education system, etc. All of these privileges stem from whiteness and the construction of whiteness through the oppression of people of color and through the power structure of American society.

1. Janet Nolan, review of How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, International Migration Review 31, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 486.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that was an excellent and informative post! I guess you can say the same is true for people of African descent. The ones who 'act White' have better chances of being successful, especially when they distance themselves from other Black people. Acting White leads to more so-called success and power in North America and the world.