Originally published at Everyday Feminism.
I once wrote an article on how affirmative action doesn’t actually disadvantage White people – despite how many of us believe the opposite.
And a few members of my family weren’t happy about that article. Quite sure that affirmative action for people of Color is “reverse racism,” they gave me an earful.
In their reaction lies the tremendous irony that hangs over most White opposition to programs designed to help people of Color access the schools and jobs from which they’ve been historically excluded.
After all, while affirmative action programs, which have been shown to help White women more than anyone, are a recent creation, there have been systems and structures designed to benefit White people at the expense of everyone else for hundreds of years.
In fact, that which we often call the “American Dream” is built fundamentally upon violent affirmative action programs for White people.
And I’m not just talking about the overt (though coded) forms of affirmative action that we White folks benefit from today.
The entire history of European settlement in North America is a story of unearned benefit that comes at the expense of people of Color.
This notably sets it apart from formal affirmative action programs for people of Color, such as those in admissions to universities, as they haven’t been proven to systemically disadvantage White people in any way.
To understand the White “American Dream,” though, we need to understand the history of Whiteness and its ever-changing and evolving nature.
In fact, prior to the 1690s, “White” people were unheard of.
Wealthy, land-owning Europeans created the category of Whiteness as a tool to divide poor, light-skinned Europeans from enslaved African people and Indigenous people in North America.
Since that time, it has taken on a life of its own and been embedded in every single structure of the US.
This club, known as Whiteness, was designed to offer advantages, some small and some large, to light-skinned Europeans in exchange for their complicity in the theft of Indigenous land and the enslavement and exploitation of non-White people.
Notably, not all light-skinned Europeans were initially considered White (Italians and the Irish didn’t join the club until well into the 20th century, and European Jews have only recently been able to join).
Whiteness has evolved over time, but its singular aim has been to ensure that certain people (wealthy, White men mostly) hold power built upon the exploitation of people of Color and, to a lesser degree, poor White people.
It’s important, then, that we as White people understand this identity creation story because in this history lies an understanding of the privileges so many of us call the “American Dream” – something disproportionately available to people considered White.
Does this mean that people of Color haven’t realized this “Dream?” No. It just means that this “Dream” has been a nightmare for most people of Color built upon genocide, exclusion, and slavery.