Since beginning to write about issues that I’ve directly experienced because I’m pale-skinned, I’ve been writing and speaking about the “right kind” of white, and the fact that there are multiple kinds of white. Importantly, I’ve been writing and speaking about how they aren’t all treated equally, especially by whites themselves (see my previous posts some time, on white guilt, anti-white whites, whites telling each other to shut up, and North American whites). Sometimes this writing has cost me friendships with people who think I’m too terrible to acknowledge any further, simply because I acknowledge that being white-skinned doesn’t automatically make your life awesome. It certainly cost me all connections to my toxic biological family — half of whom actively tried to erase itself — before I could even begin writing, so losing a few friends hardly means much in light of that. I’ve also written about how being white empowers my voice, and now I’m going to expand on what whiteness means, exactly. Specifically, this writing is about the kind of white that is being referred to when I say (or read) “North America is a white supremacist culture.”
White Defined By Negation Of Colour
The primary definition of whiteness is achieved by Othering everything that is associated with the cultures and traditions of people of colour (i.e., called racializing). This is the underlying principle of racism at all levels of society, and is extraordinarily harmful. Nothing positive comes out of this process — just a lot of ignorance, bigotry, and inequality. That’s what it takes to promote whiteness as the objectively superior ethnic identity in a society that was created by the genocide of tens of millions of indigenous people, followed by the enslavement of multiple additional ethnic groups. And that’s really at the heart of why North American society isn’t one in which the group identity of aboriginal peoples is promoted as the objectively superior state of being: there weren’t enough indigenous peoples left to conquer the settlers and write the history of attempted colonization. And the group identities of trafficked and transplanted Blacks and Asians aren’t promoted as superior states either, because systematized starvation and deprivation of resources and rights has an amazing impact on a group’s ability to take over and revolutionize.
Now I’m no historian, and the way I am writing about colonialism and Othering is grossly over-simplifying the facts around what actually took place (and as a result, may have demonstrated some gaps in my knowledge). But the fact is that genocide, trafficking, and deprivation were methods used by Northwestern European settlers all across the world. This fact is at the crux of why the histories of colonialism have been traditionally written by Northwestern Europeans, and why those histories paint such glorifying portraits of white historical figures (such as Columbus and John Smith) while painting every out-group as primitive, savage, child-like, promiscuous, and/or even sub-human, among many other unfavourable qualities that still indoctrinate white descendants of the settlers to perpetuate Othering (i.e., the social process of racializing people of colour). All of these histories and Othering combine to create both the environment in which racialized people experience systemic oppression (so that white descendants can experience privilege), and barriers between the descendants of white people and their collective potential to organize with racialized people to dismantle these oppressions (which in turn benefits white people by maintaining their racial privilege).
Thus, white people are born into a privileged position by default, and are programmed to be blind to the collective pain and frustration of people of colour (who are born by default into an oppressed position). The white identity is defined by a negation of everything racialized. Racial inequality of the magnitude that continues to persist to this day is dependent upon racializing. But because there are multiple pathways into a direct experience of oppression, and because Europe has its own history of in-fighting, it’s not enough just to define the white identity by negation of everything colour. There will be many, many pale-faced people who can empathize because of their own experiences of oppression (or who can organize to revolt and conquer). That potential threatens one of the most critical roots of the white group identity, and as a result, the active effort to diminish that potential is another facet of what it means to be white.
White Defined By Taking Power
It’s pretty important to me, because of where each half of my family comes from, to acknowledge that not all white is, or ever has been, treated equally. This is not to suggest that this disparity is in any way comparable to the experience of people of colour, because it’s not, and I make a point of emphasizing this fact any time the subject arises — such as when someone tries to compare the trafficking and exploitation of the Irish or the occupation of Scotland to the entire collective histories of African, Middle Eastern, and North American colonialism (and the harm that perpetuated from this, and continues to this day). Trafficking, slavery, and occupation are certainly terrible things. But an occupied people who are permitted to continue participating in their traditional way of life and transmitting their culture to their children, in addition to maintaining their sovereign government, have not suffered a multi-faceted genocide, the effect of which continues to this day. This is because this experience is distinguished from a multi-faceted genocide in that other ethnic groups have experienced being almost completely wiped out (or permanently disappearing), having their system of self-governance eradicated, being taken from their families, and being trafficked across either the country or the ocean to be religiously and culturally indoctrinated out of everything that defines them as a people. The suffering of the Irish and the Scottish is not comparable in magnitude to the suffering of the indigenous peoples of North America, or to descendants of enslaved African peoples.
However, the Irish and Scottish (and many other peoples from Eastern and Southern Europe) were not stripped of power by unseen ambiguous forces. They were stripped of their power by the same peoples who colonized Africa, the Middle East, and North America. These are the same people who shipped their societies’ criminals to Australia, thinking it was uninhabited (leading to a multi-faceted genocide of its indigenous peoples). These are the same peoples who wrote the books on the history of colonialism, with special emphasis on creating stereotypes that make themselves look like heroes at everyone else’s expense. These are the same peoples who now define their group identity in North America, in large part by negation of everything associated with people of colour. These are the people who are described as WASPs (i.e., white Anglo-Saxon protestants). Thus, they also define their group identity by making pale-skinned out-groups feel powerless, creating multiple kinds of white that simply aren’t treated equally.
Half of my family descends from at least two of such marginalized cultures, whereas the other half comes from the “winners” in the history of colonialism. The half of my family that isn’t the “right kind” of white quite literally tried to wipe itself out; and the cultures, traditions, languages, and spiritualities that once were cherished were never passed down to my generation (and arguably, were withheld from my mother’s generation as well). I now grieve for this loss every day, recognizing that the “right kind” of white is constructed from stripping power away from people of the “wrong kinds”, and recognizing that this happened within my own family. It’s one of the most powerful reasons behind my motivation to even begin these conversations about what whiteness means.
White Defined By Ignorance of Appropriation
Possibly the most pervasive result of all this Othering and disempowering of pale-skinned out-groups is cultural appropriation, and an astonishing ignorance associated with it. Appropriation is a form of cultural syncretism, which is a process of meme-transmission from one culture to another (a meme being a unit of culture). Cultural syncretism flows in multiple directions. We see cooking traditions and cuisine cross oceans, and we witness the influence of cultural syncretism on mass media both in North America (where you can get Al Jazeera English or BBC, to name a couple of examples), and overseas (such as when a Muslim woman I met in college told me about watching Madonna on MTV in Pakistan when she was a child). Not all cultural sycretism is value-neutral, however, as some forms are offensive and akin to literally stealing culture — what is referred to as cultural appropriation. And just like how occupation is not equal to genocide, not all appropriations are equal in magnitude.
I personally follow a general rule of taking the word of the “insiders” of any given culture, on just how offensive the theft of their cultural symbols and traditions actually is, keeping in mind that the magnitude can be contextually variable as well. For instance, the “hipster head dress” is generally seen as astronomically more offensive an appropriation as, say, the use of the word “mohawk” to describe the associated punk hair style, which is itself distinguished from the manner in which Mohawk people accomplished a similar hair style (note: not the same); though some individuals will be closer to one of these and experience a greater sense of insult or dysphoria as a result. The “hipster head dress” is someone trying to be ironic but just accomplishing a demonstration of racism; whereas the punk “mohawk” hairstyle is trying to be an aspect of a greater counter-culture movement against Western hegemony, and by adapting an aspect of Mohawk culture to achieve this, it can hardly be said to be either ironic or blatantly racist, in and of itself. If the punk “mohawk” were worn by a white supremacist, however, it would be both.
Not every pale-faced or white person is so sensitive, as to work to be conscious of appropriation. For instance, North American society has appropriated language such as karma, and meditative practices such as yoga, from Hindu culture, and turned it them both into capitalist commodities that mean precisely the opposite as in the origin culture. In Hindu culture, karma is bad, no matter whether it was accrued through a good or bad deed — rather than accruing karma on oneself, the goal is to eliminate one’s karma all together, to be released forever from the wheel of reincarnation and human suffering. In North American culture, it’s a fucking punchline that gets printed on every possible printable surface, and is interpreted as returning on itself in this life, based on actions in this life. And yoga was a means of both demonstrating ascetic detachment, and of preparing one’s body for enlightenment by purifying the body. But in North American culture, it’s become a way of centring all of one’s attention on hir physiology. I have come to see the appropriation of these ideas and practices as a symbolic colonization of the culture from which they originate, where many of its peoples are employed for slave wages doing out-sourced work while we ignorantly work on our muscle tone and write jokes about karma and dogma. And again, not everyone is sensitive to this. It is the demand at the centre of white culture, to be ignorant of it entirely.
White Privilege, White Supremacy, and WASPs
When one is writing or reading about white privilege, white supremacy, and WASPs (i.e., as mentioned before, this means “white Ango-Saxon protestants”), it is not about virtually all pale-skinned people without exception. Even though both privilege and supremacy are projected onto everyone with pale skin (usually unconsciously), regardless of whether or not they act in multiple efforts to maintain either or both (even whether or not they are actually Anglo-Saxon and/or protestant), the word white implies a great deal of social and political values, not merely the social construct of a “race” of people with limited melanin — this blog entry is just an introduction to what those values are and what it means to maintain them.
I’ve said it before about men and misogyny, and I’ll say it again in a marginally altered iteration here: if you have pale skin and you’re in a conversation about race, hearing or reading the words “white privilege” or “white supremacy” isn’t an attack on you as an individual person. It’s a criticism of harmful social forces that benefit pale-skinned people (such as myself — an actual Caucasian) and whites without regard for the differences between them as individuals. Don’t get defensive. Just take a step back and educate yourself on what white means. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve done useful work already. If, like me, you aren’t 100% white, this is also a useful thing to explore. Doing so has helped me write stuff like this for you, to help encourage you to do similar self-interrogation. But the work never stops, so neither should you.