Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

I recently attended a fundraiser event for Oyate Nipi Kte, an organization dedicated to the recovery of “Dakota traditional knowledge, including Dakota language, spirituality, ecology, oral tradition and life ways.”  At the event, Waziyatawin, Ph.D, called on White settlers who live on occupied Indigenous land to consider what it means to participate in resistance to White supremacy and continued colonization.

During a small group conversation, my friend Lex said something that has stuck with me, running through my mind daily since: “As White people, it’s important that we do the work to figure out who our people were before we were colonizers.”

It’s notable that Lex said this the day before St. Patrick’s day, during a weekend when countless people of all ethnic backgrounds donned green and drank green beer until they puked a verdant mess.

For me, reclaiming who my people were before we were colonizers means understanding my Irish, German, and Dutch heritage, yet I know next to nothing about my people and the cultures from whence they came.  Why?  Well, because they became White.

Whiteness as a Construct

Despite the way it’s often discussed, race is not a biological concept, and it sure as hell isn’t static.  First, “Whiteness” didn’t exist when Europeans first came to North and South America.  There were simply European landholders who held tight to power.  Over time, though, these European landowners needed a way to stave off slave and proletariat rebellions, so they invented this common “race” for some Europeans.

As laid out in Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” at first, only certain Europeans (read wealthy men from north-western Europe) were considered worthy of being in the club.  In the early-to-mid 19th century, though, the wealthy “White” folks realized they needed more allies who could serve in slave patrols and in menial labor positions, so groups like the Irish were slowly allowed to become “White” in order to offer these European immigrants/colonizers a pittance that would keep them from uniting with enslaved African people and Indigenous people.

From there, Whiteness was expanded again in the early-to-mid-20th century to include most Europeans and even to include Jews who, no matter where in Europe they were from, had been traditionally excluded from the “White” label.

The Wages of Whiteness

What this label offered was access: access to land (through things like the Land Grant Acts which was almost totally denied to anyone not considered White), access to education (both through better-funded public schools and the G.I. Bill, which was systematically denied to soldiers of Color), access to jobs (though anti-Irish and anti-Italian job discrimination did exist, it didn’t have the widespread impact that policies like Jim Crow did), and access to countless other little and big legs up in American life.

IrishNeedNotApply

Despite common refrains from modern White people of Irish descent, these signs were rare.

But Whiteness came with a cost.  Becoming White meant leaving behind the cultural heritage of our people so that we could access the economic benefits, sometimes ones desperately needed, of the “American Dream” (aka the “Dream of White Supremacy”).

There’s a reason that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, Dutch, or German.  There’s a reason that I know next to nothing about the cultures from which my people came.  There’s a reason that I don’t know the true reasons for why my people fled the land they always knew to see opportunities as colonizers in North America.

That reason is Whiteness.

When we look at race through this context, it is easier to understand Whiteness as more than a racial identity: it’s a system of privilege and oppression better known and understood as White Supremacy.

Privilege and Reclamation: Holding the Tension

We shouldn’t fool ourselves though. I’ve heard countless well-intentioned White folks say, “Well, if race is a social construct, then I’m not White. I’m human. Race is over!”

Just because race is socially constructed doesn’t mean that it’s not very real in the ways that it impacts nearly every aspect of our lives.  Those of us who come from Europe and have light skin can wish all we like that we were just “human,” but society will still see us as White.  Our name is likely to give us a leg up in job applications, and our skin color ensures us privilege in everything from the criminal justice system to representations in the media.

Thus, it is important that White people who strive to be anti-racist hold a tension: we must get in touch with our cultural heritage to understand our stake in ending White Supremacy through a connection to what we lost, but we also have to understand and remain accountable to the privileges that Whiteness affords us every day of our lives.

In some ways, this is a complex tension to hold.  After all, self-avowed White supremacists (lowercase because we’re referring to the individuals who espouse this ideology rather than the system) like to talk of “White genocide” and call for “White pride” by harking back to how few European-Americans understand their heritage.  While they are correct that this is a problem, they use this sacrifice made by Europeans in becoming White to uphold the system (Supremacy with a capital S).

In turn, it’s tricky to call for White people to reconnect with their heritage, for if it’s done without a commitment to anti-racist action, it can simply serve the cause of White supremacists.  After all, some who are calling on White people to reconnect to their heritage are the same ones wearing “White Pride” t-shirts, as they conflate Whiteness with the cultural heritage that had to be abandoned in order to become White.

Note the use of the Gaelic Cross to encourage White Pride

Note the use of the Gaelic Cross to encourage White Pride

That’s why I love the work of my friend Ryan Williams-Virden.  Strongly connected to his Irish heritage, he calls for more than shamrock hats and green beer on St. Patty’s Day.  He calls for an investigation of the roots of Irish emigration and for an understanding of Irish resistance to British colonial oppression in hopes of helping Irish-Americans find empathy for and solidarity with racially oppressed people of Color in the United States.

Acknowledging and acting against the system that privileges my identity while reconnecting with who my people were before they were oppressors, colonizers, and/or beneficiaries of White privilege allows for a powerful transformation of my understanding of identity.

Knowing my cultural heritage helps me grasp one more thing that I have at stake in ending White Supremacy, yet I still am able to remain accountable to the privileges my White identity affords me.  As a result, I can better ensure that my anti-racist actions are not paternalistic (something I’ve surely been guilty of plenty of times in my life).

In my own family and history, this means understanding my family as settlers who built their lives on land in South Dakota and West Virginia that was stolen from Indigenous people and who, in buying into the system of Whiteness, have built the “Dream of White Supremacy” for ourselves.  But it also means understanding that my people came here for a reason, and uncovering those reasons has the potential to deepen my commitment to ending White Supremacy.

Not All White People are Bad, but Whiteness Surely Is

Last night, I had the incredible pleasure of sharing space and time with some powerful activists and the students of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School here in Minneapolis in processing the film Crash.  After a few students of Color qualified their statements about racism with, “Not all White people are bad, but…,” activist, therapist, and educator Harry Ford gave the students permission to stop qualifying their truth.  “You don’t need to say ‘Not all White people…’ when talking about Whiteness,” he implored the brilliant young minds.

Harry said it perfectly.  We must make a distinction between individual White people and Whiteness.  As an individual White person, I can surely act against White Supremacy, but I also benefit every day from its existence as a system of oppression.  However, this doesn’t preclude me from connecting to my cultural identity beyond the poisonous system of Whiteness.

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9 thoughts on “Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

  1. YES!!!

    White is not a race.

    My skin may be pale, but I am Ukrainian and Dutch and Polish.

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • I disagree that White is not a race, in that it is a racial identity that is very real as part of a system of oppression, but I do think it is important for White people to find identity outside of White racial framing.

      • There are hundred of differnt cultures under the banner of “white” and I think to lable a societal norm as a race does a disservace to all races.

        It is comming around that to refer to someone as brown or black is disrespectful. As there are many, many, MANY differnt types of brown and black people. We call out those that stereotype other colours of skins; But we allow the world to group all lighter skinned folk under “white”

        Now I am not under any impression that the stereotyping of whites and “white culture” doesnt exist. But it IS not a race. It is a social construct that is damaging. Not only to other races (through the need to become more ‘white’, but also as a way for ‘white’ people to abandon their traditional culture and values without any guilt or reprecussion.

        I think that by contuning to use condone the use of “white” as a race word, allows for the systematic destruction of all cultures. If an Italian boy is brought up to beleve he is “white” rather than Italian, than that boy will think it is ok to use words such as brown, or black, or yellow. When an Indian girl is taught that she is Indian, but that white people are just white.. That girl has just been robbed of the opportunity to see that no matter ANYONES skin colour, that person has an individual story that needs awcknowledgment.

        Thank ou

      • I agree with your point about how labels like “White” and “Black” can erase the depth of someone’s cultural identity. My point, though, as I state in the article, is that no matter how I want to view myself (Irish-American or something of the sort), I am still White in the sense that we live within a system of Whiteness and White Supremacy and I benefit from the privilege therein not because I am Irish and German and Dutch in my heritage but because my people gave up our cultural heritage to BECOME White.

        Thus, I am White because my family gave up who we were to gain access to the benefits of the system. And as such, White is a construct that is also a racial identity because of the way in which race is a construct and a system of oppression in the United States and in many places around the world.

  2. “As an individual White person, I can surely act against White Supremacy, but I also benefit every day from its existence as a system of oppression. However, this doesn’t preclude me from connecting to my cultural identity beyond the poisonous system of Whiteness.”

    Apparently what it doesn’t preculde you from is the mythologization of a past and people you have no connection to other than whiteness. The very fact that you might be able to track down these places and people is a very product of that privilege. But that is neither here nor there. The creation of an origin myth that places your ancestors beyond the pale of whiteness (excuse my pun) is of course useful for your narrative. Specifically, the claim that your ancestors “fled” from Europe is useful for some one who sells the cure all ideology of diversity and multiculturalism. How better to really demonstrate your cross racial and class solidarity with POC than a wonderful story about, a long long time ago in a far away land, how your ancestors were just treated horribly by (insert rival european group), so you really can feel for their plight here in the USA two-hundred years later.

    • To be clear, never did I say that it would be possible for a White person to equate what their ancestors experienced with what people of Color experience in the United States. Instead, it was a call for new ways to understand my own reasons for acting for racial justice. Part of the problem is that I don’t know if my ancestors in Europe were part of a ruling class of oppressors or those who were oppressed for their religion, language, or ethnic identity, and as such, there is a tremendous mythology about who “our people” are and were.

      And yes, it is a HUGE privilege when people are able to trace their ancestry. My people were not brought here as slaves, and my people were not targeted for genocide, so I can trace my lineage if I so choose.

      But the alternative is for White people to simply live within and continue to uphold Whiteness as a system, as otherwise we have few alternatives for who and what we are, particularly when our people gave up our cultural identity to become colonizers and oppressors.

    • danielleparadis

      Out of curiosity if not diversity and multiculturalism then what other option do we have? As a Metis woman I am a creation of colonialism. My very body is a complex amalgamation of cultures. Through the blending of white and First Nation ancestry my people created a whole new culture. To presume everyone should stay inside their own race erases and marginalizes biracial people more than we already are. At this point I don’t see what other option we have but to work it out–through multiculturalism and diversity.

  3. After reading a lot of your work, a few articles by Sam Killermann, and a lot of good rebuttals against “Men’s Rights Activists,” I’m wondering if the tension you describe might be universal to all privilege instead of just white privilege. It seems like if we don’t analyze our own privileged identities, we’re living in the hegemonic system instead of figuring it out and dismantling it. We’re also accepting the ways in which it harms us. But if we do analyze it, we run the risk of forgetting that our privilege is still privilege, and we end up marginalizing the system’s direct and primary victims even more by making their social justice movements about ourselves and how we hurt too. It all seems very high-risk-high-reward.

    Do you think that this might be the case?

    • Please ignore what I said above. I apologize for all of it. I could be wrong, but back when I said that, I think I was ignoring that oppressive forces aren’t all the same, that oppression is a matter of real people’s lives and well-being and not just a way for me to show off my “enlightenment,” and that “self-aware” upholding of white supremacy (like through self-serving “I’m sad about my privilege” white guilt) isn’t any less dangerous.

      I also endorsed Sam Killermann, a cis man who, among some other things, copyrighted someone else’s description of “the Genderbread Man” and tried to speak as the voice of the trans community.

      Again, please ignore what I said in my original comment. If what I just said just now was problematic itself, please tell me, if you can, and I apologize in advance for it.

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