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.


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.

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4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing) [UPDATE]

A few years back, I published a post titled “4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word.”  Since it’s publication, it’s been one of my most popular posts.

Well,  I gave it a bit of a reboot over at Everyday Feminism.  Check it out below…

New debates are springing up in a long-contentious dialogue about reclamation of oppressive language.

During the recent ESPN “Outside the Lines” special discussion of a proposed NFL rule to penalize the n-word, Twitter erupted in critique, criticism, and debate.

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In the midst of this debate, though, there is generally one rule when it comes to the n-word on which there is almost total consensus among Black people:

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Yet White people don’t seem to get it.

I’d likely be a wealthy man if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a White person ask “If Black people can just throw the n-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”

I can only imagine the number of dimes Black people would have. Innumerable.

And despite how important listening to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people is to social justice work on the part of those with privilege, White people on the whole really seem to have hard time with this one.

Perhaps this is because we don’t like being told that anything is off limits to us.

Or perhaps we just have trouble hearing the voices of those we consider, at some basic level, to be lesser, not fully human.

Regardless of the reason, maybe it’s time for a different tact.

Perhaps you can hear it better or differently if a White person explains why exactly we don’t get to use the n-word, regardless of what Black folks are doing.

So here is my message to you.

Dear White Folks,

We have to stop using the n-word.

Like really, really.

And I know what you’re thinking, “But—But—‘They’ get to say it all the time!”

Well, tough cookies.

Here’s why it’s not okay for us to say it, no matter what Black folks are doing:

1.  We Lost the Privilege

You know that whole 600 year time period when White Europeans were buying and selling Black Africans as chattel?

And remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?

Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”

Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks. And it was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spat upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.

Thus, I really don’t care how much White folks want to use that word.

I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t.

Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.

2.  Why Should We Get a Say in the Conversation about That Word?

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

What’s in a Name? White Silencing and Name Identity

I had originally planned a Halloween post for today, but this morning I messed up, and it’s been hanging with me enough that I decided I should write about it.

One of my mentors once told me that, as a person of privilege, if I wanted to be involved in struggles for social justice, I had to recognize that I was going to “mess up . . . a lot.”  She said, “Knowing this, you have to be prepared to apologize earnestly, humble yourself, and move forward, attempting to do better and live more accountably.”

Well, this morning I made an ass of myself.  I recently reached out to some consultants in the DC area to see if they could help a non-profit that I regularly work with.  As far as I know, all of the consultants are people of Color.  Well, in the initial email, I messed up one of their names, taking a name that is not “normative White” and making it, well, as “normative White” as you can get.

The woman politely corrected me in an email, and I responded apologetically.  But get this: I responded in a hurry, and I DID IT AGAIN!

Now, I know how a lot of White folks are going to respond to this.  “It’s a simple mistake!  It’s easy to accidentally mess up someone’s name.  I do it all the time!  Why do you have to make everything about race and social justice, Jamie?!?

Well, I agree that it’s a simple mistake, but it happens quite often for not-so-simple reasons.

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I Can Haz Rant? “That’s So Ghetto.”

Most of the time, I try to create well-reasoned and carefully-crafted blog posts about pressing social issues.  Today, though, I’ve gotta rant.

There’s a lot of common language that bothers me for its oppressive and prejudiced implications.  With some of that language, though, I find a lot of allies in ending their problematic use.  For instance, I know of at least one school that is hosting an “End the R Word” rally to stop people from calling people and things “retarded.”  I hear more and more young people speaking out against “That’s so gay” and “You’re such a fag.”  That gives me hope.

However, there’s lots of hurtful and messed up language use that seems to go unchecked an awful lot.  So going along with my posts on White people using the “n-word” and on the word “bitch,” here goes my rant…

People need to stop using “ghetto” as a synonym for shitty, low-class, ugly, cheap, scary, or otherwise undesirable.  Seriously.

I mean, what does it even mean when we call something “ghetto”?  After all, the word ghetto refers to the outcome of isolating a particular population (often one that is oppressed or marginalized in society) to a specific area, often forcibly or through economic policy.  That might be a specific area of a city or to a camp or prison.

So when some sunglasses break and you call them ghetto, does that mean that there is a tiny population of people living in your sunglasses that have been placed there by racist and classist policy?

No.  What you are saying is that your glasses were made poorly and that they break easily.

Can I get a little precision of language please!?

Because let’s be clear: every time you call something ghetto, you’re communicating one of three very specific, very messed-up messages.

  1. The item or person you are calling “ghetto” is low-class, cheap, or otherwise associated with those who don’t have access to wealth and wealth mobility.
  2. The item or person you are calling “ghetto” is (most often) Black, Brown, or associated with African American or Latino culture (or occasionally other racial or ethnic minorities).
  3. The item or person you are calling “ghetto” is a combination of 1 and 2.

No matter how you look at it, when you use that language, you’re either using some pretty classist language or some pretty racist language that positions certain items, people, and spaces as beneath you.

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Chick-fil-a: Censorship or Freedom of Speech?

In the United States of America, you can say pretty much whatever you like.  You can march in a Gay Pride Parade or march with the KKK.  So long as you are not causing direct harm to another person as a result of your speech, you can say damn-near anything without fear of being arrested or sanctioned by the state.

And while that may be true, the right to free speech doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be seen as an asshole for the language you use.  Just because you can say just about whatever you like doesn’t mean that you are free from castigation or criticism for your language.

Therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech that’s quite common today.  More and more, when people are criticized publicly for, say, intolerant language, they complain about the “thought police” who are trying to “censor our speech.”

For instance, I recently shared this photo on Facebook:

A clever way of calling out Chick-fil-a for their anti-Gay agenda, it appeared as part of a recent public backlash against the fast food giant for their public support of Prop 8 and for their CEO’s anti-gay stance.  In the comments on my Facebook, one young man lamented the “level of censorship” we are seeing in this country, referring to calls for a boycott against Chick-fil-a.

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On Bitch: Hyper-Sensitivity or Resisting Oppression?

I hate the word bitch.  While I am at it, I hate the word cunt.

It sound sort of silly, hating a word.  I guess that it’s just that those words make my skin crawl.

I guess I should clarify further.  I hate when men use those words.

I used to say the word a lot.  I remember once when I was a first year in college, a female student was being kind of rude to me, so I said, “You don’t have to be a bitch!”  She turned to me, her expression exasperated, and said, “No matter how rude I have been to you, you have no right to make me less than yourself.  I am not your dog.”

That hit me.  From that moment forward, I decided I had no right to use the word.

During an rousing game of Dungeons and Dragons (yes . . . I play . . . on a weekly basis) on Monday in which all of our players are males, our characters (also all male) were fighting a female creature.  Multiple times during the game, frustration was expressed with, “That BITCH!” or victory was savored with, “Take That, Bitch!”

The first few times, I didn’t say anything.  After allowing my frustration to boil over, I yelled, “PLEASE Don’t Say That Word.”  Folks sort of laughed, and we went on with the game.  A little later it was said again, and I just shook my head.  Another player said, “Just don’t say it, if for nothing else, to avoid THAT.”  I responded, “It’s just disrespectful.  If I don’t like the word, it’s disrespectful to use it.”  The game proceeded with an air of tension.

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“Speak American” – Multilingualism and the English-Only Movement

“Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.” – Cesar Chavez

Before offering a blessing on the first day of the White Privilege Conference, Lakota Elder Dave Larson warned the crowd of more than 2000 that he was going to be offering the blessing in a language not native to this land, a language that comes from a small island in the Atlantic.  The island is called England.

Let’s be clear.  The United States has no official language.  It was quite intentionally left out of the constitutional process by the founders.  In fact, those states who have chosen to declare English as their official language can find themselves in a sticky situation if they hope to receive federal funds for citizen services because Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires that public entities receiving federal funds must offer vital documents in every language their clients speak.  That’s right.  The U.S. officially endorses your right to have a voter’s ballot in any language you like, and it is the responsibility of the state or federal agency to provide such a document.

322 languages are spoken in the country, with 24 of those spoken in every state and the District of Columbia. California has the most languages, with 207, while Wyoming has the fewest with 56. Declaring an official language would abridge the rights of individuals with limited English proficiency, individuals who are paying taxes and who are entitled to the same rights as those who speak English (Source).

Despite this reality, there is a growing “English Only” movement in the U.S..  I grew up in Grand Junction, CO, not exactly a hub for progressive and inclusive thinking.  Growing up, I cannot tell you how many times I heard people say, “Speak English or get the hell out. If you can’t speak English, you don’t belong here.”  Until I had some amazing mentors start to question some of the things I thought and did, I am ashamed to say that I even believed the sentiment.  I even was known to tell Spanish-speaking people to go back to where they came from.  How could I not?  It’s something that was taught to me by those I trusted, even those in my family.  “They need to learn to speak English” is a common statement when “those illegals” come up at family gatherings, and the anti-immigrant, anti-Spanish-speaking sentiment is undoubtedly tied to the deep-seated racism against Latinos that I, unfortunately, have to struggle to uproot from my subconscious.

Understanding the problematic nature of this sentiment means understanding the history of white, Anglo supremacy in this country.  To say that people must speak English is not an innocent statement rooted in a desire to have a functioning society as is often asserted by those who argue for English-Only legislation.  Demanding, mandating, and forcing those who don’t speak English to do so has been a tool of cultural genocide in the United States for a very long time.  In an effort to “kill the Indian, save the man,” indigenous children were stolen from their families and forced into boarding schools where they were beaten if they spoke their first language.  English was the only language allowed in these boarding schools.  African slaves who spoke the same indigenous languages were separated upon sale to ensure that they could not hold onto their native culture and could not communicate to conspire for freedom.  Those who were found speaking their indigenous language were savagely beaten.  The Chinese Exclusion Act only allowed for Asian immigration of those with high levels of formal education, part of which had to include English-language instruction.

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