Are your ancestors from Europe? Have you always thought of yourself as white if the subject came up? On an employment form? Or a census questionnaire? Listen. You don’t have to be white. Even if your skin color is light, if your eyes are blue, if your hair is blond, it doesn’t matter. These things don’t make you white. They tell you a little about where your parents, and their parents, came from. But they don’t make you white.
The way you look doesn’t make you white. It’s the way you act and think. James Baldwin said, “White is a state of mind. It’s even a moral choice.”
Please don’t be offended. Giving up being white doesn’t mean giving up being you. White isn’t about music or dancing or about food or language. White isn’t about customs or names or about religion. Those things are your path heritage, the jumble of stories and relics that make you who you are.
Tracking your story backward, through the past, is like walking into a thicket. Just past the edge of the opening, where you live, the thicket quickly becomes dense, the twigs and stories so complicated and tangled it’s almost impossible to get through. Try this. Track your kinship tree and the journeys it produced. Include both your mother’s and father’s families. Within two generations, the branching becomes incredibly complicated. It is a wonder. And the story it tells is all about you.
Each twig and branch has its own cultural bark and buds–language, customs, work, smells, food. The shape of the thicket, if you push way back through time and over the curving earth, is your path heritage, your journey to here and now. It might lead back through Asia into India and Afghanistan, or down through Indonesia across the Banda Sea to New Guinea, or from the southern tip of the Americas up through Alaska into Siberia and down to Iran, or into the welling foothills of the Carpathians, then over the Asian steppe. Together we claim five billion paths over millions of years. But each of those paths seems to lead to our ancient home in Africa.
Your path heritage–all the richness of who you are–records the road your ancestors traveled and the meetings they produced. The idea of whiteness is a recent addition. It stands alone and separate from your ethnic past. Whiteness is unique. It is about racism. Whiteness has no meaning except as a way to maintain racism.
When scientists talk about race, they mean a subset of a species: populations of plants or animals that are distinct because they’re physically separated from others of their species but capable of interbreeding if the barriers are removed and the populations commingled. Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard biologist and well-known essayist, argues that race as a biological concept is valuable only in taxonomy and ecological studies. Race has no other scientific meaning. But the human species long ago broke through any range limitations and geographic isolation. There’s no scientific reason for racial classification of homo sapiens. Its use in describing humans is political and cultural.
In the new United States, European immigrants needed time to adjust, to let their own cultures and histories fade or linger on like an appendix: a functionless, sometimes interesting, sometimes bothersome appendage. What replaced ethnic identity was a white identity. And biscuits of privilege were handed out for taking on the new, white American identity: citizen status (for men), free land, categoric superiority over African slaves and native peoples. Needing some way to justify their aggression against Africans and Indians, the country’s ruling class invented the idea that white people were made superior by God. Black people and red people were cursed and inferior. Racism fulfilled a ruling-class need during the time of slavery and the theft of the continent. And it still does today.
But you don’t have to agree to be white. In our country, white isn’t about path heritage or culture. It is about power and supremacy. A huge mythology has been assembled to keep racial distinctions intact.
Yet all racial constructions crumble at their edges: Nazi formulas for Aryan purity (what makes a Jew or a Gypsy), the equations that defined race in the antebellum south, apartheid, and the ever-changing rules of the U.S. census. In each case, racial ideologues and apologists have scrambled for a system to make sense at the edges of nonsensical racial divisions. And human populations are full of edges, edges where Semites blend in with Greeks, Arabs with Nigerians, Spaniards with Moroccans, Caucasians with Tartars, and southern gentry with African slaves.
In 1982 I worked on Harold Washington’s campaign for mayor as an area coordinator, organizing several precincts. After the election I was invited by a colleague from my ward to attend the founding meeting for an organization of “progressive white people” to be called Commonground. Slim Coleman, a member of the mayor’s new cabinet and longtime social and political activist, initiated the meeting.
My colleague explained, “Blacks got their organizations, Latins got their organizations. White people need an organized way to support the progressive changes happening since the Washington election.” But wait. Partly goofing around, partly trying to understand, I asked my colleague if she was aware that my mom is Mexican (she’s Polish).
She stopped to think.
I continued. “I mean, my father’s Polish and my mother’s Mexican. Does that make me white?”
“Well,” she said finally, “do you relate to yourself as being white?”
Then I had to think for a minute. I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, how do you do that? What things would make me think of myself as white? I have a friend who might be interested, but he’s Greek. Is Greek white? What about my wife, she’s Italian. But she’s dark. Is that white?”
“Well, do they relate to themselves as white?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think the Greek guy has been here long enough to think of himself as white. He thinks he’s Greek. What is it to be white?”
Racialism, the use of race to classify individuals, helps to stabilize the economic and social order by providing elaborate gradations of and pathways to “whiteness,” giving real and superficial privilege to one group at the expense of another and offering this privilege to all people if they strive to become white. This is the framework of systematic racism (the use of racialism to maintain social power relations): sustaining actual privilege, the illusion of privilege, and the hope of attaining privilege. Millions of European immigrants became white people within a generation or two of their arrival. Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America and the Caribbean are given the opportunity to reject their Spanish, African, and Indian path heritage and become “white” on the U.S. Census form. According to research done by Robert P. Stuckert, between 1861 and 1960 more than 670,000 “black” Americans took the bait, crossed over, and began to identify themselves on census forms as “white.”
Minority groups in our country have their own joking ways of referring to members who adopt the ways of the white majority: there are Oreos (black on the outside, white within), Apples (red on the outside, white within), etc. What do these appellations mean? Aren’t they evidence that whiteness is more a state of mind than a physical phenomenon?
James Baldwin: “When they talk about the progress of race relations…they mean how quickly are black people becoming white. I don’t want to become white. I want to grow up. And so should you. We are in this together.”
Pat Bearden of National-Louis University and Yolanda Simmons, who teaches at Martin Luther King High School, are my colleagues at the Center for City Schools. They run a cultural-awareness program for the Chicago public schools called “It’s a Cultural Thang.” They ask students to form pairs and interview each other, writing down the other person’s places of origin, both within this country and around the world. The format is loose: include uncles and aunties if you want. Go back one or two or ten generations. Only richness can be gained, nothing lost. Then each student has the honor and pleasure of introducing his or her interviewee to the class, and a reporter lists places of origin on the board: regions, countries, continents, cities, and states. Within minutes the board is crammed with the details of these children’s path heritages. The lists are pregnant with clues for further explorations, with hints of the journeys and migrations that have shuffled our peoples across this big earth. Later, the process unfolds into interviews of parents, adding the details of stories and journeys and intersections.
Imagine the same workshop organized around race. There would be two main categories on the board–black and white–then off to the side something called Asian, Native American, and Hispanic, each with two columns: black or white. A child gets up and says, “I interviewed Frank Pavlochek, he’s white and his ancestors were white.” The next child rises. “Interviewed Tabitha Franklin. Black. Ancestors black.” The session ends quickly with two racial columns filling up with hatch marks signifying nothing, and a few swipes off to the side for kids that don’t fit into the main groups. The effect is alienating, reductive, divisive.
Jake, my coworker at the factory where I used to work, has a beautiful daughter named Alice. He said to me one day at lunch, “They teach African history at the school during Afro-American History month. But what bothers me is it gets to the point where Alice is ashamed of being white.”
I didn’t know what to say. People are touchy about race. I wanted to ask him, “Is Alice white?” Has Alice, at age six, been placed within the power-defining superstructures of race? But I can’t think of any good reason for Alice or her dad to identify themselves as white. I can think of a lot of good reasons for them not to.
My son Jamal has widely spaced eyes in narrow slits, gifts from his Tartar-Mongol ancestors as they pillaged their way out of the Kyrgyzstan Steppe and into Poland in the 12th century. His eyes are a piece of that Asian blue sky. His hair platinum, his skin fair, his smile wide. When Jamal was in first grade at a Chicago magnet school, his teacher held up a book with a picture of a multiracial assemblage of students.
“Which one is like you, Jamal?” (I don’t know why she asked such a question.) And Jamal pointed to a small African-American boy standing off to the side.
“No, Jamal,” she gently admonished. “That’s not you. Which one are you?” Jamal picked out the same boy again.
“Why do you say you are that boy?” she asked, bewildered.
“Because he seems shy,” Jamal answered.
But I know Jamal. And I have a hunch that he’d picked up on his teacher’s race consciousness and was resisting her efforts at racial identification. Without realizing it, we often take part in this relentless process of racialism–by our choice of neighborhoods, dolls, TV shows, and books. It’s a process, it seems to me, that’s not natural or healthy. It is one of the subtle and insistent ways that European-Americans are acclimated to the idea of identification with the white ruling power. The incessant prodding to identify ourselves racially weans our children away from the natural solidarity that makes children unaware of race.
Jamal wasn’t the only child directed to remember what color he was: so were his African-American classmates. However well-intentioned the teacher might have been, these students were being prepared for racial hierarchy and their roles within it.
The Puerto Rican people’s racial characteristics span a broad range of possibilities. The main ethnic origins of Puerto Ricans are Africa, Spain, and the indigenous Taino peoples. The words to a song by a folkloric group called Bayoan capture this mix: Salen Indios de las cuevas, viene el blanco de Madrid / De Africa trae el negro, se forma Jibaro asi (“The Indians left the caves, the whites came from Madrid, / From Africa the black was brought, in this way the Jibaro was created”).
Physically a Puerto Rican may resemble one of these peoples more than another. Most display some blend. But when Puerto Rican history is taught in Puerto Rican schools, students are not separated into racial groups and assigned a corresponding history. Every Puerto Rican child shares a history with every other, and each identifies as a combination of Spaniard, Indian, and African.
Isn’t it odd that our children are not taught to identify with our aggregate history? As European and African, Native American and Asian? It seems to me that when our children are taught about the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears and the Irish potato famine, we ought to allow each child to claim ownership of those memories, those sufferings and resistances. African-American history and the Cherokee Trail of Tears are part of the personal history of every American child. Light-skinned, European-ancestried children need to fully internalize their identification with African and indigenous peoples, their tragedies, struggles, and heroism. Not as something bad that happened to “black people” and “Indians.” But as something bad that happened to us.
How can it be otherwise? What else does it mean to live in this country today? As a child I was taught to identify with the icons of power who founded the nation, although I have little in common with Puritans, aristocrats, and slaveholders. But because I was in an American school I was expected to identify with them. And I tried. I remember my new sixth-grade teacher calling off the roll and exclaiming, on coming to the name of my friend Jack Madison, “Now there’s a good American name.” I shouted out, “So is mine! Leki is an American name.” “Yes, of course,” she said, looking as though she smelled something bad.
We can learn to identify with George Washington, a complicated historical figure: the fighting general, the slaveholder, and member of the gentry. But if we’re American, we also need to identify with our ancestors who worked his land, who struggled and died in slavery, and our ancestors who were dispossessed of their land, who struggled and died resisting. The American identity includes all of these. But to be taught that America is English and white, as I was taught, ingrains the country’s endemic racism.
So, what if you’re European-ancestried but reject being white? You’ll still have all the benefits of white privilege: “skin privileges” as Robert Starks, associate professor at the Center for Inner City Studies, Northeastern Illinois University, calls them. You can walk into a bank, an employment office, or a construction shack and make your inquiries without tripping racist switches in the head of the person in charge, usually a man, usually white.
This is a scenario that unfolds every day. White people don’t even notice. For black people, it is a relentless, oppressive reality. But what about for mixed-blood persons, for metis Americans who can pass themselves off as white? The reality of survival in a racist world pushes that person to take advantage of white privilege. Lacking an alternative to that kind of opportunism, the metis may do his or her best to be the kind of person who is wanted–in a word, white. Still, every instance of privilege also offers an opportunity to challenge and testify.
Skin privilege is not just a question of appearance. It’s also a question of who we are: where do personal honor, human solidarity, and dignity fit into our being? If these concepts aren’t part of the discussion on white privilege, we just fortify the corrosive power of racism. In the system’s crushing racist jaws light-colored African-Americans, mixed-race children, blond Latinos, etc are forced to decide whether or not to accept white privilege.
A friend once said to me, “White people should admit they have privilege, admit their guilt, and take responsibility to work for systemic change.” But that challenge assumes that light-skinned and European-ancestried persons will accept their skin privileges and remain “white” while working for change–an unlikely proposition in my view, because of the poisonous effects on working to improve racial problems when one is identified as the oppressor.
In Chicago, if you pass for white, you may benefit from skin privileges every day, but you’ll also have opportunities to demonstrate solidarity. How a person handles these opportunities is a matter of personal integrity. Rather than thinking of him- or herself as privileged and white, a European-American could think of him- or herself as metis and challenged to act with honor, understanding that his grandfather is African, his grandmother Tlingit, and that he’s married to an Eritrean Jew. Or that her uncle is Haitian, her mother is Hmong, and her child’s father is Taruman.Whether this person can pass for white or not is someone else’s hang-up. His or her choice is whether to seek and accept privilege every day, or to daily challenge racist practice.
Sometimes people try to reassure each other about their own self-worth and their mutual acceptance by dumping on some group whose members are not around, some less-than-us, other people. A Filipino neighbor said to me in passing, “One thing I don’t like, it’s niggers. All they do is trouble.” Why does he choose to say these words to me? To see how I’ll respond?
A Jewish-Italian foreman and a white coworker talk around the lunch table. The coworker says, “I went out Friday night to a bar. I walked in and it was dark and I couldn’t see anybody in there.” He talks hushed and with a giggle. “Then I realized I couldn’t see anybody because all the people in there were…dark.” He makes a scared, funny face. Like, how scary, how bold to be in a bar with all black people.
The foreman likes this story. “Were they niggers? Was it full of niggers? He too talks hushed. Full of insider’s delight. Later that day, the foreman will give hands-on tests to job applicants black and white.
White people do this all the time. They send out toxic little messages of hate, then wait for a toxic answer back. How aggravated they become when these spitballs are batted down, rejected–when someone refuses to appreciate a Polish joke or challenges some unfairness toward Jews or Arabs or Haitians. These spitball communications are feelers for racist camaraderie. Rejection of them is seen as a kind of betrayal. Rejection of them makes these situations tense and uncomfortable, because a deeply ingrained racial mythology is being challenged from within, from an externally similar person.
A friend told me that when someone tries to tell her some ugly racist or ethnic joke or story, she interrupts and tells them that she’s a part of that group. That she’s related. And she’s witnessed jolting reactions. Apologies and corrections–because she was there before them, a human who heard their ugly, weak, and mean burp. She doesn’t argue anything.
“You know my mother is African-American.” She says these words and then watches a schism open up in the person who’s just let loose some racist flatulence. “My husband is Puerto Rican.” She says these words clearly and honestly. As the Lakota saying goes, Mitakuye oyasin–“We are all related.”
I’ve tried this too. And I’ve found that this response works better than any lecture. Arguments about racism and ethnic hatred have been heard before. But an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation destroys the notion of otherness. Persons of European descent who are mistaken for whites, who instead self-identify with the whole world that’s come here, can disrupt the ripples of whispered racism. Just as the presence of a woman changes the dialogue between men, and the presence of an African-American changes the timbre of a discussion between whites, so the presence of “world-identifying” people who look European can affect speech, thus thinking, thus behavior. European-looking people are in a unique position to play a powerful role in dissolving racism.
Is it possible to teach our children to identify with the various paths that have led to our mixed communities? I was taught to identify with our country’s forefathers, with white men who wore wigs, and what did those men have to do with me, a Polish-Tartar-Gypsy boy? Aren’t my ancestors also Africans? Isn’t Sojourner Truth my great-grandmother? Aren’t the Indians my ancestors? Isn’t Sitting Bull my great-grandfather? And General Custer, too? By making these stories and images part of our collective identity, we undermine racism. Because children who have internalized Tecumseh and Toussaint Louverture as their ancestors along with Ben Franklin and Davy Crockett might have a much harder time later in life retaining the pretense of stupid, naive racism. Skin privileges might persist, but they would be joined to skin opportunities and responsibilities to challenge racism and hatred. Just as opportunities might arise in life for you to defend and honor your mother and father, sister and brother.
Scott, a new hire at the factory where I worked, was of Irish ancestry and a strong believer in trade unionism. Shortly after he started, the factory had its first layoff in 50 years. The foreman called in the 15 most junior workers to let them go, including Scott. Later, he called Scott back in and slyly told him that he did, er, actually have some work for him. He would not be laid off.
Scott was junior to an African-American coworker who was to be laid off. Scott understood what was happening. He found the coworker and told him the story. Together they went to the foreman’s shack and confronted him. He pretended an honest mistake. Scott was laid off. The African-American coworker stayed. This is a true story.
So Scott was out of work, with two kids and a house payment. Why did he act against his own apparent self-interest? How was he able to summon up the courage and confidence to act right, with honor? Scott, a communist and trade unionist, had a sustaining worldview and community. His family understood. In fact, within the communist-trade union culture, his response was expected. To have acted any other way would have been self-negating. It was, in fact, an honor to be able to defend the class, the people in this way. A proud moment.
Self-identity is strong. Maybe stronger than intellectual conviction. A person who marries across ethnic or racial lines begins to internalize the identity of the mate. When such a relationship yields a child, the concept materializes, living proof of the possibility of integrating multiple identifications. The enabling mechanism is love, in this case romantic love. But it could just as well be solidarity or friendship as love.
It takes community support to sustain individual acts of courage and honor. And it is precisely community that we lack in our search for self-identity. Our communities tend to be fleeting, intentionally similar, and unrelated to geography, organized around date books rather than where we live.
We live generation after generation boiled in the sour soup of racism, which denies us time and opportunity to explore who we really are as a people, and what we are becoming.
The names of most Native American tribes translate to mean simply “the human beings.” The human beings were linked, kin to all the other parts of the world and heavens. Their place in the universe was secure and embedded in the land. They knew it intimately, its smells and tastes, its tiniest detail and most spectacular vistas. Brian Palecek, a member of the English faculty at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, said in an interview in Tribal College magazine, “Rather than seeing everything in terms of race and ethnicity, I like to see it in terms of position in regards to the place itself, the land.”
Slim Coleman told me that he believes most children of immigrants lose their identification with their homeland after a few generations. And like travelers who lose fluency in their own language before learning a new one, we find our communities floundering in an absence of self-identity. Ethnicity is sometimes viewed as an obstacle to our commonality. Our “celebrations” of diversity tend to be superficial. Parades.
Only consumption identifies us with a community. The active consumption of manufactured goods and the passive consumption of entertainment and information. The place we actually live becomes less and less distinctive, franchised from sea to shining sea. It may be this lack of connection to the land, to the place, that most alienates our people from one another. It’s hard to sink roots in a city, through all the asphalt and concrete. Transience is the norm. People’s commitment to their little patch of earth and their neighbors lasts only until the next move, the next job.
Part of the problem is that we’ve developed immobilizing fears about the fate of the planet. Yet, as Wendell Berry has noted, “The question that must be addressed is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”
Diane Reckless, coordinator of the Nature Conservancy’s three-year-old Mighty Acorns program, takes schoolkids, teachers, and parents out into our degraded prairies and woods to restore the land’s unique identity. Children work through the seasons, cutting brush, pulling weeds, gathering and broadcasting native seed. After a number of years they can see diversity and health return to the land. Speaking about Carver Elementary School’s attempt to adopt an abandoned parcel of devastated land along the Little Calumet River, Reckless said, “It’s part of the neighborhood. Part of Mighty Acorns is about social studies, how and why areas become wastelands, degraded and unavailable to our communities. And how they can be reclaimed through stewardship and study.” According to these thinkers, community and identity have no meaning severed from rootedness, from the land.
Maybe the great and central thing missing from the turbulent urban dialogue on race is our relationship to the land. The land, the air, and the sun are what sustain life on earth. Modern petro-nuclear cities totter on the verge of a constant social crisis because they’re inherently unstable features on the land. They suck in its bounty and spew out toxic rivers. They are unsustainable, filled with consumer-addicts, physically alienated from the earth.
To give up being white is no small thing. But like Scott giving up his job, it will be easier if we surround ourselves with communities that support and reinforce our best human qualities. To find our new identity as a people, and to define our community’s relationship to the land–I can’t think of anything more important or urgent, for our children or ourselves, whoever we are.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Kurt Mitchell.