Thursday, April 10, 2008

'Whiteness' as the Third Rail

The following are all real quotes that I have either heard directly or heard second-hand.

"I'm not white, I'm Italian."
"I'm not white, I'm a Lithuanian-American."
"I'm not white, I'm Jewish."

People's rush to declare their non-whiteness seems to suggest that they're associating "white" with "bad" and probably comes from a natural tendency in people to side with/identify with the underdog.

But guess what? Among the many benefits of 'whiteness' in America is the everyday benefit-of-the-doubt that your skin color confers on you. It doesn't matter who you're dealing with -- bankers, police officers, teachers, judges, neighbors, real estate agents, store owners, etc. People are less likely to typecast and/or stereotype white people than they are others.

Let me give you an example. Let's say I'm upset with AT & T over my Internet service. I come in to complain, they're rude or unprofessional in return, and I then get more upset than when I started. Let's say I raise my voice or cuss. What are people in the store going to say? My guess is it would be something like this:

"Wow, that guy seems angry. I wonder what happened to get him to that point."

But if I were black or Latino, what do you think the chances are that someone would say or think, "Seems like just another angry black man," or "There goes another fiery Latino."

In other words, people of color will be stereotyped based on racial identity but I (a white person) get seen by most others (who are presumably white themselves) as just "a guy."

You can multiply that times a myriad of other everyday situations and start to see the advantage that whiteness confers on us European-Americans.

And you can quickly see how asinine the three statements at the beginning of the entry are. The first two, in fact, are so stupid that they don't deserve further analysis. But trust me, people really said 'em.

The third one is slightly more interesting (in reference to Ashkenazim, not Sephardim who may really not be white), but I still don't buy it.

For one, my sister is Jewish (she converted w/marriage). So by that reasoning, is she now non-white although I came from the same parents and am white? It seems like all the day-to-day benefits of 'whiteness' would still accrue to her.

Second, if 'whiteness' means inclusion to America's elite institutions, it again wouldn't hold -- let's play a safe hand here and count the Senate, the Supreme Court, Harvard, Yale, Wall Street, academia, and the medical/legal professions as elite.

Third, if people can say "Well, I'm still not white because there are some places in America I wouldn't be welcome/feel comfortable," then guess what? By that logic alone, there isn't a single white person in all of America.

If the point is about historical exclusion, however, it does carry much more weight. Here is an excerpt from Mark Penn's essay "Pro-Semitism" from his book Microtrends.

"It wasn't always this way. America has had its share of anti-Semitism; in 1939, a Roper poll found that only 39 percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted." Ten percent actually believed that Jews should be deported. In the 1940s, several national surveys found that Jews were considered a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group."

In noting how the times have-a-changed, however, Penn writes in the next paragraph:

"Compare that to a Gallup poll taken in August 2006. When Americans were asked how they feel about people of different religious or spiritual groups in the United States, Jews ranked the highest of any group in America, with a net positive of 54 percent. No one -- not Methodists, not Baptists, not evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Atheists, or Scientologists -- scored higher in the view of Americans nationwide.

Penn goes on to use other statistical evidence (hey, the guy is the leading national pollster) as well as significant anecdotal evidence to make his point about the sea change in mainstream American attitudes towards Jews over the past two generations.

But enough about this inclusion/exclusion thing. I'm getting away from my original point. 'Whiteness' in America is a system of advantage that works in favor of Caucasian people in millions of little ways, in millions of little places, every single day. It doesn't matter if your ancestors were on the Mayflower or if they just stepped off the plane at LaGuardia from Vilnius. It also doesn't matter whether your grandfather was an exploited Irish or Italian wage-laborer. And it also doesn't matter whether your holy day is Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or no-day.

The cab drivers, policemen, bankers, and neighbors that you deal with on a day-to-day basis neither know, nor care, about any of these things.


Matt said...


on a lighter note, if you haven't seen this it's kind of funny:

The New Englander said...

Just checked out the "white people" site -- it's hysterical.