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Separating ‘Whiteness’

September 8th, 2021 · No Comments · Danblog

There’s a piece in The Guardian with the headline “Is the White population in the U.S. really ‘shrinking?'” and I’ll summarize it broadly: Changes at the U.S. Census Bureau mean more Americans are now identified as “mixed race.”

It’s worth a read for the data-curious, but in the parlance of the news business, it also misses the lede: Race in the United States is less about genetics and more about a very peculiar form of social identity.

I’m in my fifties, so I grew up in a world with no name for the concept of “Whiteness.” In that world, your identity was either black, white or Mexican, with supplemental conversations about having “Indian blood.”

That reads a little crazy as I type it, but you have to understand: This was progress. Ours was the first generation of Southern kids to grow up in de-segregated public schools.

One of the great social developments in my lifetime is that “Whiteness” and “Blackness” became topics. What’s the difference between “Whiteness” and just being White? It’s subtle, but important: You can talk about Whiteness, and the history of Whiteness, without bothering with genetics. Whiteness is a concept within a society, and our relationship to Whiteness affects all our lives, all our institutions, all our relationships, yada yada. Same with Blackness.

There are plenty of other identities, obviously. Racial and otherwise. But what I consider unique in American society is its ad hoc history of Whiteness and power. Why do we celebrate Columbus Day? Because Italian immigrants in the 19th century weren’t considered “White” by the previous “White” residents of the Republic. The movement to make Columbus Day a national holiday was a big step toward establishing Italians’ Whiteness — a.k.a., their legitimacy — in the United States.

Yes, this had something to do with skin and hair color, but you know what other European ethnicity wasn’t considered truly “White” by our 19th-century White American Establishment?

The Irish. The ginger-haired, frequently freckled, easily sun-burned, famously pale, fresh-off-the-boat Irish.

There’s plenty of nuance we can argue over here, but let’s set that aside for the larger point: Whiteness in this country is basically a club, at least generally defined by appearance. And membership has its privileges.

I know most of you know this. I’m not breaking new ground. But I woke from a dream about a friend this morning with one idea front and center: My Trump-voting, conspiracy-believing, Culture-War fighting friend is the product of some seriously weapons-grade cognitive dissonance.

From his perspective, White people and their values are under attack. From my perspective, White people aren’t under attack in America at all. We’re still doing better than most, tbh.

But Whiteness? Different story. Whiteness is having its time in the barrel, y’all.

I doubt my friend has the conceptual tools to separate White people from Whiteness. He’s certainly smart enough to use those tools, but he’s been socially conditioned against picking them up in the first place.

I’m not saying my friend’s cognitive dissonance is our nation’s only problem right now. But yes, I’m proposing that’s it’s a big part of the problem. Until you can separate Whiteness as a social identity from your lived experience as a White person, it all just feels … personal.

Most of us probably have some sort of “What Whiteness Means to Me” file stored somewhere in our subconscious, and I really don’t want to compare them. I propose instead that in America, Whiteness came to represent a social order that stood apart from the words recorded in our Republic’s founding documents.

And there’s the root of my friend’s cognitive dissonance.

Why does he feel threatened? Here’s my answer: Most Americans now live outside the unwritten Rules of Order implied by American Whiteness, and it’s driving the people who consider themselves “conservative” right out of their collective tree.

The American majority is now racially non-compliant, sexually non-compliant, gender non-compliant and religiously non-compliant. Some of us are all of those things at once. Our attitudes toward America’s various traditional establishments are disrespectful, impudent and destructive… from the perspectives of those who still lives their lives within the walls of those establishments.

So not only does it *feel* personal, it doesn’t help that we’re using words from The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution — words written solely by White men for an audience composed solely of White men — against them. American democracy springs from many sources, but the United States was a White invention built to benefit White people.

No wonder the MAGAs feel so defensive.

The fact that the system is no longer operating as originally intended — from the MAGA perspective, anyway — helps me understand why people who claim to love freedom and democracy so much are quite stridently demanding all manner of authoritarian and downright fascist policies these days.

But no, I don’t know how to fix it. And no, I don’t have an advanced degree, so I’m not truly “authorized to speak” on this topic (this is an on-going problem within Team Blue culture, but let’s save that fight for another day).

Anyway. I woke up this morning with the feeling that my understanding of my personal friend and our mutual problem had clicked one incremental notch forward.

So I wanted to share that.


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