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.
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.