Friday, June 19, 2015

The Powerful Association of Whiteness With American Identity

In the larger scheme of things, being "white"- however you define it- should not mean all that much. Europeans come in a wide variety of complexions, as do peoples from other continents and other parts of the world But when you study the history of the United States, you realize that the term was so powerfully woven into the identity of the emerging nation that people with that designation assumed it was the part of the unspoken, and occasionally explicit definition of what an American was. Moreover, this association of "whiteness" with "Americaness" lasted long after slavery was ended and indigenous peoples throughtout the continent were conquered, and not only in the South, where "white supremacy" was written into law as official policy. Dark skinned European immigrants such as Jews and Italians struggled long and hard to have themselves defined as "white" both in the census and in the popular imagination and Mexican Americans in Texas sued successfully to have themselves classified as "white" while Jim Crow was still the law in that state. Well into the 50's and 60's people all over the United States would say " I'm free, white and 21, you can't push me around" as though whiteness wa one of the fundamental criteria for the unique freedoms the United States appeared to grant its citizens.

Given this history, it is more than a little chilling to hear that the young killer of 9 in the Charleton church shouted "you're taking over our country" as he poured bullets into the peaceful worshippers. The word "OUR," combined with the deadly actions, reflect the still potent, and ever more toxic, association of "whiteness" with American identity. All too many "white" people- however they define themselves, whoever they actually are- see the election of a Black president, and the huge influx of immigrants of color- as threatening not only their own security, but the very identity of the country they love. Most, of course, do not pick up a weapon and shoot down innocent people; they express their resentments in private conversations and occasionally in social media and comments on talk shows. But anyone who underestimates the rage and confusion many feel underestimate the danger of the current momement, especially since many of the people who feel "racially" displaced are also being economically marginalized as the American middle class shrinks.

This is a very difficult issue to face and one for which there will be no easy solution. But one thing I can do, as an historian, is expose people to writing which helps break the association of "whiteness" with "Americaness" and help people see all the different cultural traditions and peoples who shaped this country's development

In that spirit, I close with a quote from the chapter "The Sorrow Songs" in
W.E.B. Du Bois "The Souls of Black Folk:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?