What makes a person “white?” For minorities, like myself, the idea of a monolithic characteristic called whiteness is all too real. Whiteness in the U.S. can be defined as a social system through which the presence of phenotypic characteristics which are characteristically European allows for an artificial or undeserved sense of superiority and elevated social standing. This definition of whiteness is of course only one of many, and as the issue has been discussed more openly in the public forum with the proliferation of identity-centered politics and the increased visibility of racist hate groups, the public consciousness has never been more divided regarding what it means to be white.
Whiteness has often served as convenient shorthand for colonialist forces from Europe. Under the powerful European empires of the 15th century and onward, people of Spanish, Portuguese, French, British and Dutch heritage introduced themselves to the rest of the world through invasion and subjugation. It is this history from which the very idea of whiteness is derived. To add clarity to this point, imagine that there are two groups of European colonists who each claim ownership over the same parcel of land in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the groups is Spanish, the other British. If both arrive at the same time, each believing that they have a right to the parcel, there will inevitably be competition over who truly has a right to the land. To the British, the distinction between their claim and that of the Spanish couldn’t be clearer (and vice versa). However, despite any potential differences in the two European groups’ cultural expression and the tactics they use to acquire the land, they become unified within the native person’s mind as invaders and are thus rendered extensively indistinguishable. Add on top of this that both invading forces are of a similar skin tone and the stage is set for the creation of a “white” race.
It is this loosely shared external identity that creates, in part, the modern definition of whiteness. The combination of roughly similar geographic origin and European physical features thus allows for the use of “white” as a generalization of people who originate from a region spanning 3.9 million square miles.
This definition of whiteness arises more out of convenience than malice. However, self-defined whiteness is much more complicated, and often much more damaging. Whiteness as an identity manufactured by “white” people themselves has historically been used to separate those who are privileged as a part of the European dominated establishment from those who are not. That’s not to say that such benefits are conveyed to all members of the “white” race, but rather that in a system based around racial subjugation, the Atlantic slave trade for example, racism becomes interwoven with what it means to be white. This is because simply by being white, one is exempt from the possibility of slavery. This artificial brand of whiteness that slave-owners labeled themselves with in order to justify their own exclusion from bondage and crimes against humanity is still at the core of our social systems today. For those who fail to understand how history can manifest itself in a country’s systems over 152 years later, keep in mind that the racist systems the U.S. has employed in the last several hundred years have often been used as the roadmap for more contemporary injustices around the globe. Any U.S. citizen can see clearly that the stain of apartheid (inspired in part by Jim Crow laws in the U.S.) has left a permanent imbalance in the way that white and black South Africans are treated. Yet, it is somehow harder for many white Americans today to see the racist systems that surround them everyday.
While it is true that whiteness is a manufactured concept which has been created by non-white and white people alike, it is a fundamentally damaging concept in so far as it is used as a rallying call to unify people against others on the basis of their appearance. In no way do I wish to denigrate individual European history or culture. To point out the flaws in the purely skin-deep concept of whiteness is not to criticize the cultural identities of the 62.6% of U.S. citizens who identify as white. European identity is as nebulous and frankly non-existent as South American identity, African identity or Asian identity. While it is certainly not wrong to celebrate one’s own European heritage as a Spaniard, Italian, Brit, or any other combination of nationalities, to form one’s identity around a shared history of colonial rule, pseudoscience and exploitation will only lead to further injustice.