Whiteness

The Road to Resilience

290

In the 1950’s, I grew up in Chicago on the far south side, about 5 miles south and about 2 miles west of the southside black neighborhood.  It stretched from just south of downtown to 20 to 30 miles south, with occasional islands like the University of Chicago.  I can guarantee that there were no black families in our neighborhood.  There was no law prohibiting it, but if a black family did manage to defeat the redlining, then everybody would know that our neighborhood was in the process of “turning,” and white people would be panic selling before the bottom dropped out of the property values.   We drove through the black community once in a while but never stopped there except to see a White Sox game at Comiskey Park or go to the 79th Street beach.  As a kid, I didn’t have any bad feelings towards black people. They were strangers because we never interacted with them, and, as a result, they were a little fearsome too.  White and black highschool sports teams competed but very little other social contact occurred.

Hispanics were unknown to me then.  The only Asians I knew were at the laundry where I delivered my dad’s shirts, the “Chinaman’s” (our name, not theirs).  In our house, we occasionally used, but didn’t delight in, the usual crude terms for all the minorities.  My parents didn’t teach us to hate, but there was definitely a white superiority implied.

By the late 1960’s, I was against the war and for civil rights. That was counter to the popular culture at the time, but very in if you were a college student.  I was also into the Blues, and there were some legends that I saw in Chicago at that time.  I thought that I had left racism behind even though my world was still predominately white.

I have had social and business connections with black people throughout my life, but it wasn’t until within the last five years that I realized that I still carried racial prejudice.  I can say that I never felt ill will towards black people, but I do feel some fear and guilt, and my unconscious tendency is to feel that they are less capable, if only because of hundreds of years of disadvantage.  Then, consciously, I feel more guilt for having that unconscious preconception.  Given what Europeans have done to them over the last 400 years, my fear is somewhat justified, but I have continually been touched by their willingness to treat me compassionately or at least civilly as another human being, and ask only the same in return.

I’m hoping now that my own feelings at this incredible time are a microcosm of those of our larger society.  I yearn for this wound to be healed, and if that is the general feeling, then maybe this time we may get somewhere.

I have been pondering “whiteness” over the last few years.  It started with the census and other surveys and applications where they ask you to indicate your race.  All the categories are associated with geographical areas except one:  “white.”

Sometimes the term “Caucasian” is used.  This term was meant to give scientific status to the idea of white supremacy.  In the 1780’s, it was thought by Europeans that Noah’s ark settled in the Caucasus and the world was repopulated from there.  Noah’s immediate descendants, of course, were white people, who were the superior parent race of all the others.  Later skeletal and cranial studies associated Caucasian with not only Europeans but the peoples of South, Central, and Southwest Asia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.  In all these groups, the facial features are similar but the skin colors cover the full spectrum of light to very dark.

What does white mean anyway?  As near as I can tell, it is any person with European-like facial features whose skin color is “white.”  The actual point at which a particular shade is considered “white” is what we traditionally refer to as “passing” for white.  The facial features figure, too, as many African people with African features are whiter than some considered to be white, yet society definitely considers them “nonwhite.”

So, a white person is somebody with the right facial features and the lightest skin color, and (I’ll be darned!) it looks like Europeans and those of European descent are the only ones that fit the bill!  I’ve written enough words to describe the irrationality of the European fever dream of superiority.

I propose that, since nobody is actually white, and that skin color doesn’t seem to describe any distinct group of people, that we abandon entirely the term “white” to describe anybody.  When you come to another question about your race, and you happen to be one of those so-called “white” people originally from Europe, go to the “other” category and write in European.  In the long run, the category of race needs to be eliminated or replaced maybe with culture.  An American citizen of European descent that was born in Africa is an African American, right?  But we all know that that designation would mislead those who are asking the question.

Comments?  terry@vashonloop.com