Personal Is Political

N. America: Where Not All White Is Equal

The more I articulate about my personal experiences with race/ethnicity and racial inequality in North America, the more I begin to realize something I’ve missed making as clear as day: there are multiple kinds of white in North America, and they are not treated with equal privilege within white communities. When a feminist writer states that the dominant culture is white supremacist, they don’t mean that any kind of white is taken as the measure of what makes a person superior. Only one particular kind of white is implied as the superior measure by which all other race/ethnicity is condemned. The white that has special status in North America as the yardstick of white supremacy is North-Western European white. This is the white that successfully colonized this continent, and subsequently wrote its entire history. But other whites followed (and continue to follow) who weren’t (and aren’t) enthusiastically welcomed by the settlers.

Conflation of Terms

The word Caucasian is wildly overused, and I personally find this very frustrating. This is actually an ethnicity, of people who descended from the Caucasus tribe in Eastern Europe, but it is used to describe the entire collective of people with pale skin. Not all pale-skinned people are Caucasian, and being part Caucasian myself, this frequent error starts to get under my skin (pun intended). There’s another aspect to why I get annoyed — Caucasians and other Eastern European people are not the “right kind” of white in this culture. Yes, we share our skin complexion and relatively distinguishing bone structure with the rest of the Caucasoids (take a quick look at the field of forensic anthropology for an understanding of what “relatively distinguishing” means). But culturally, and ethnically, we are quite different. Even forensic anthropologists, whose entire careers are built in part on the scientific study of physical traits associated with geographic regions all over the world, acknowledge that attempting to lump ethnicities with similar physical traits together, causes more problems than it solves.

This is why “race/ethnicity” is used in academic feminist writing on racial inequality. Using the word race on its own creates a lot of problems in non-academic discussion unless it is understood, as the words “white supremacist” are within feminist dialogue, that race is being analysed as a particular kind of social construct. It is my experience that the use of the word Caucasian to describe any pale-skinned person is such a social construct. Fortunately for my overall health, feminist analysis of racial inequality tends towards the use of the word white  for white people, instead of using the term Caucasian, for precisely this reason. Outside of feminist analysis, this requires further explanation. I am happy to use myself as case in point.

As an individual, I am both white and Caucasian. But people can’t see the difference, and many wouldn’t understand the difference if I told them. The confusion is a side effect of conflating white and Caucasian, as if these were interchangeable terms. I, too, was confused about this for a long time. I now know that I am socially read as white by default, because of my physical traits (this is one of the means by which I have inherited white privilege). But what this means is that I am understood as a person whose ancestors descend from North-Western Europe (which is half-true). North-Western European descent is the particular kind of white that is promoted as the ideal racial identity in the dominant North American culture. This is a direct result of the history of colonialism on this continent (and elsewhere). Thus, when the ideal racial identity is attributed to me by default, it is also assumed that I inherited a significant amount of social privilege (which is superficially true). This is the meaning of white supremacy in North America — unconscious attribution of superior value to white bodies and the white identity.

The Price White People Pay For White Supremacy (A Brief Intro)

The cost of white supremacy to people of colour is well known. What is not understood by white people, let alone spoken of, is the cost incurred against white people because of this ideology. Being part white and part Caucasian has given me some perspective on the matter. My family history also gives me some perspective, as I found myself discussing what hits me like a brick in the pit of my stomach every time I think about it: the systematic erasure of the entire history and bloodline of the Caucasian side of my family, by the Caucasian side of my family. The harder I try to avoid disclosing that this informs my insight here, the harder it gets for me to write at all. At the same time, the mere fact that I have this grief to bear makes it easier for me to begin calculating the cost of white supremacy. For those who don’t, or who aren’t yet conscious of it, society literally rewards the state of ignorance. It’s simply easier to just not go there. When you avoid privilege-checking behaviour, you experience sufficient alienation from/towards those who engage in it, that you are rewarded with fewer opportunities to be called on your shit. And thus, the cycle perpetuates ad nauseum.

So when an individual white person of any ethnic make-up projects North American whiteness onto me (see white guilt, “people of colour told me so, so shut up, whitey”, and white-on-white anti-white racism), they are doing so at the exclusion of half of my identity. I try to keep myself as calm as possible, and to engage without being defensive, at least with people who seem open to the possibility that I’m not just another privilege-blind white person. In fact, a lot of white people will experience a defensive response (as I have, and am still vulnerable to exhibiting) to being called on their social privilege, and understandably so. It’s a terrifying thing to realize that you personally and directly benefit every day from the long and on-going history of systematic subjugation, enslavement, trafficking, and genocide of multiple ethnic groups in the country you were born in by no choice of your own. But most of us realize at the same time, that no one is holding individual white people directly responsible for the entire history of colonialism. Many of us will try to engage with white privilege for ways to dismantle it, and for ways to talk back against racist dialogue.

One of the reasons the experience of awakening to white privilege is so powerful, is because it operates on shared assumptions about the positive value associated with the ideal North American racial identity. That is to say, whether an individual white person clings defensively to their social privilege or they choose to engage with it, we share the knowledge that a particular brand of whiteness is promoted by the dominant culture as a superior attribute in relation to virtually all other racial/ethnic identities. What we rarely acknowledge is that for many pale-skinned people, to whom this oppressive white identity is attributed prima facie (again, pun intended), the projected racial identity may contradict their actual ethnic identity — as is my case. This isn’t to suggest that I am in any way less responsible for engaging with the privilege that is projected onto me for the simple fact of my skin colour, because I’m no less responsible for this difficult work than anyone else. I am equally as capable of internalizing all forms of racism as the next person, and neither skin colour nor ethnic make-up change that fact. However, that I’m also conscious of my blended ethnic make-up (and the fact that this is even possible in a culture that conflates half of my ethnicity with the other half) does have an effect that is also rarely acknowledged.

Caught In The Middle

Because I am both white and Caucasian, I find the privileging of a particular white identity in North America very alienating. I can relate to the experience of other marginalized and oppressed ethnic groups because of the cost of racism in my own family (which I have been significantly clearer about in this blog entry, as well as where I have posted images of the tattoo on my left hip). But I am also always going to be a pale-faced person who is half-white. Thus, when I face a person of colour, I have learned to anticipate that I am not immediately trusted until I speak. And when I speak to a white person of any ethnicity, I have learned to anticipate that if I start to speak about any form of racism, I may erode what trust we have with every word that comes out of my mouth. I am caught in the middle, and this just one of the many faces of the cost of maintaining white supremacy in North America. Many people who aren’t conscious about race/ethnicity in the same ways as I am, also find themselves caught in the middle — recognizing the cost of colonialism to multiple marginalized ethnic groups, and consciously acting from the desire to dismantle white supremacy.

6 thoughts on “N. America: Where Not All White Is Equal

  1. Now I’m confused – from the name of your blog, I thought you were from Germany – so are you German, living somewhere in North America?

    • Funny thing about assumptions — they can be wrong. I was born in North America and continue to live here. You can click on the link at the top, that says “über: haifisch” to understand in depth how I chose to name my blog.

  2. Pingback: Freedom From Gendered Violence « HaifischGeweint

  3. Pingback: The Right Kind of White « HaifischGeweint

  4. Pingback: Pour les blancs qui s’opposent au racisme : comment arrêter d’avoir tout faux! | Ms. DreydFul

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