Whiteness: The Great Erasure

What I Mean When I Say ‘White’

by editor of  Healing from Whiteness: remembering the larger story of history.

 

On the Invention of a White Race

  • In the 17th century the term white was first used to distinguish people by physical features in regard to economic, political, and legal rights.
  • Race is fluid, and changes from one country to another.
  • Race is socially constructed.

White people as well as people of color

  • Live racially structured lives.
  • Are shaped by race.
  • Have a racial experience.

Whiteness is  

  • A location of structural advantage.
  • Race privilege (racism disadvantages people of color, and advantages whites).
  • A standpoint from which white people view themselves,
    others, and society
  • A set of cultural practices, usually unmarked and un-named.

One of the things that makes conversations around racism hard is this term ‘white’.
As soon as a conversation about ‘white people’ emerges there is bound to be some push back.
And that’s understandable.
How can it be okay to make sweeping generalizations about an entire group of people based just on their skin colour? Isn’t this the height of racism itself? After all, sure, the KKK might be white but so are Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Starhawk and Deena Metzger.
How can we lump people together and, so confidently, talk about them as one entity?
And why is it that, in radical circles, these conversations are so often angry in tone and seemingly shaming of ‘white people’?
These are fine questions to ask and questions that must be asked.
The crux of the matter comes down to the understanding of the history of what is meant when the word ‘white’ is used.
First of all, what’s not being referred to is skin colour. Or, at least, not exactly.
Here’s the history that we are taught: white people came over from Europe on boats to North America and built up society together. There were some rough spots with the indigenous people here and with black people but that’s all over now and we’re all equal and so why is anyone still talking about race when we’re all one big happy human family?
Of course, that never happened.
White people didn’t come from Europe. Europeans came from Europe. More specifically, French, Dutch, Slovenian, Croation and Austrians etc. came over from Europe.
They became white here. And they became white for a particular reason.
This is crucial to understand.
The short story is this: whiteness began in North America. But it did not refer to skin colour. It was a mark of status and privilege. The rich British were white. The poor Irish, Scottish, Jews, Ukrainians were not. This is critical to understand. Whiteness began as a club into which you were born. Only later, and as a tactic to divide the lower classes along ‘racial’ lines, did everyone with my skin colour become ‘white’.
So, being ‘white’ (as opposed to Polish, Italian etc.) began as a system to privilege. And it continues to be this.
It’s easy to imagine that European = white. That those two have always been the same. But it’s not true. Whiteness is what was used to cover up any remnants of European indigeneity.
The term ‘white’ comes from particular places and time in history and many laws, institutions and policies came from those times and places that were designed for the benefit of white men.
Whiteness is inseparable from white supremacy. White supremacy is the father of whiteness and notions of ‘race’, created from and driven by a desire to justify the hungry-ghost urge to rule the world and to dehumanize those who were in the way of this happening, are the grandparent. This is where ‘white’ comes from. The notion that humans are divided into different races and that the ‘white’ race is the best and most beautiful of them all.
 
“… the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
This does not mean all white people are, in their hearts, racist as much as it means that all white people have become ‘racialized’. It doesn’t mean that white people are bad as much as it means that they have been on the receiving and conceiving end of a very bad culture.
This culture is much more easily seen by people of colour and indigenous people of all skin tones than it is for people of my skin colour living in North America which was built by and for white men.
And so I have no interest in shaming white people. But I have a deep interest in naming ‘whiteness’ for what it is: a trauma visited upon Europeans that led to a trauma on everyone who was not white.
One of my friends wrote to me, many months ago to say, “I don’t consider “whiteness” something to be healed from anymore that I consider “femaleness” something that I need to be healed from.” And, of course, most don’t.
If you were to ask me, “Do you think that there’s a sickness inherent in people of European descent? Are they bad?” I would say, “No,” very strongly.
If you asked me if I thought that white people should feel guilty, ashamed and berate themselves for what their ancestors did, I would also say, “No.”
Should white people grovel and apologize for their very existence? No.
If you were to ask me if I thought that the social construct of whiteness was something from which we needed to heal? I would say “yes”.
Should white people reject the colour of their skin or their ancestors in an attempt to run from their privilege? No. Better to use it to change the system that granted those privileges to them.
White people should not be shamed but whiteness must be named for what it is.
Whiteness is not the core of how you or I showed up on this planet. It’s the lable that was put onto us. It’s a system into which we were born. This is vital to understand: racism isn’t so much something inside us, it’s something we’re inside of.
When I say ‘white’ I do not mean skin colour. I mean the result of the system which decided to break the world up by ‘skin colour’ and ‘race’. When I say ‘white’ I’m trying to tether a rope from history to  this conversation make sure it can be followed back to the place and time from whence it came.
The heartbreak that white people must face is that we are all treated better by this society at large because of the colour of our skin and people of colour are, on the whole, treated worse. This is invisible to white people. We don’t see the privileges we live with and we don’t see the privileges from which they were borne. Whiteness was the mark of privilege when it came into the world. It still is.
And so the road ahead for white people is a difficult one: how do you contend with the reality that you are seen as better and more worthy than people of colour? What does it mean when we want to come together and put down false notions of race and the rest of the world won’t let us? What does it mean when we are seen as ‘white’ in a society that values white people above all else – even when we don’t want to be? When white people say they want everyone to be treated the same regardless of their skin colour well… amen. That’s what many people have been fighting for for years. And so, what are you going to do about it beyond moaning and wishing it weren’t so? And what is ‘it’ that you want to change?

If you hate being lumped into a group of people, don’t look at me. I’m not the one who lumped you into it. I’m the one trying to name the lump into which we’ve all been thrown and then asking, “What do we want to do about this?”

We may have had nothing to do with the history of this and yet we still benefit from it. We might not have created the systems of racism and yet, we remain on the receiving end of the benefits they create. And so, what are we going to do about it?

White identity came from privilege and was extended to preserve that privilege.

Whiteness was and is a system that privileges white men above all else.

If you agree with me that such a system exists, do you want to stop me from talking about it because you wish it weren’t so, or do you want to change the system itself?
How can it be okay to make sweeping generalizations about an entire group of people based just on their skin colour? Well, it’s not, but that’s what this culture does.
How can we lump people together and, so confidently, talk about them as one entity? This culture does it to us all of the time. It lables us all as ‘white’ and then treats us better because of it.
How can we lump people together and, so confidently, talk about them as one entity? Because white culture does have certain hallmarks to it, because it is, on the whole, recognizable to those who are not white.
Is it possible to have white skin and not act in accordance with the roots of ‘white culture’? Yes. The fate of our world depends on it.
Why is it that, in radical circles, these conversations are so often angry in tone and seemingly shaming of ‘white people’? Because there are centuries of pain there. It’s understandable.
What do we do when we realize that ‘white’ culture bears almost no resemblance to the indigenous European cultures from which we all came? What do we do when we realize that the world ‘white’ does not mean what we thought it meant?
When I say ‘white’ I’m not just talking about skin colour. I’m talking about why skin colour came to mean what it means in the world today so that we can do something about it.
Additional Resources on the History of the White Race:
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