Friday, February 23, 2024

Defining Whiteness

Racism cannot be reduced to skin color.

by Ben Hein
128 views 10 minute read
Slovenian immigrants in Haughville, Indianapolis, c. 1920s.

Intertwined with the pernicious, adaptive concepts of race and racism in the United States is that of Whiteness. Similar to the popular conception of racism, to be White is widely considered to be a static variable. That is, all White people in the United States must have always enjoyed the same social privileges of being White. However, just as race and racism adapt along power structures, so too do the operations of Whiteness in our country’s history. Many European immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because of their country of origin and Catholic religion, were not considered White until social systems and laws evolved to give these immigrants full status as White. A grasp on this evolution of White status and Whiteness is essential for understanding the history of race and racism in the United States.

In their book White Evolution: The Constant Struggle for Racial Consciousness, Drs. Christopher S. Collins and Alexander Jun define Whiteness as a “socially constructed status” that works itself out in a social system. This system has “constructed such a dominant reality that it narrows our sense of choices and beliefs relating to race.”[1] The way our society sees individual actions, behaviors, or attitudes are all governed under a social system “that predisposes these attitudes and grants privileges and accessibilities to core members of a dominant group.”[2]

As racism and Whiteness adapt with changing power structures, the targets of racial discrimination change as well. Racism in the United States has never been as simple as those with light skin discriminating against those with dark skin. As Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has observed, “Caucasians are made and not born. White privilege in various forms has been a constant in American political culture since colonial times, but whiteness itself has been subject to all kinds of contests and has gone through a series of historical vicissitudes” (emphasis mine).[3] He further articulates how “American scholarship on immigration has generally conflated race and color,” and what is needed now is to see “a system of ‘difference’ by which one might be both white and racially distinct from other whites.”[4] He continues, “[j]ust as it is crucial to recognize the legal whiteness undergirding the status of the white races in the United States, so it is crucial to reckon seriously with the racial othering that overlaid its whiteness.”[5]

In the Naturalization Act of 1790, Congress enacted that “all free white persons” who migrate into the United States would be granted the full rights of citizenship after residing in the United States for one full year. This law is noted for its exclusivity, which even a century later would deny Chinese immigrants the political power to stand up against exclusionism and discrimination. This law, still in effect in 1942, left Japanese immigrants so vulnerable in our country that they could be forced to submit to a federal policy of internment.[6]

However, the inclusivity of this law also created a growing political and cultural crisis. From roughly 1840 to 1924, Jacobson documents how growing divisions of whiteness and racial othering created new forms of racial discrimination in our country. This period had three dominant currents. First, industrialization in the United States created a gross appetite for cheap labor, an appetite that was satisfied as unprecedented numbers of European immigrants came to this country. Second, there was a “growing nativist perception” of these migrants as a “political threat to the smooth functioning of the republic.” Third, a “fracturing of monolithic whiteness” resulted as eugenics and politics created concerns for these migrants “fitness for self-government.”[7]

The evolving concept of Whiteness created varying levels of racial and ethnic discrimination, often cutting in two different directions. On the one hand, there were fears that immigrants from places such as Ireland, Germany, or Italy would lead to the decline of “Anglo-Saxons” in the United States. These immigrants were considered a degenerate stock that would taint the White race in the United States. On the other hand, whenever questions of slavery arose, White people were viewed collectively as greater than those of African origin.[8] Race, racism, and Whiteness will always adapt to benefit those in power.

Evidence of discrimination toward European immigrants can be found during this period in profound moments of violent and civic unrest, in economic systems, and in personal prejudices. The Irish uprising in the New York City draft riots (1863), the lynching of eleven Italian prisoners in New Orleans by a white mob (1891), and the lynching of a Jewish man named Leo Frank by a mob in Atlanta (1915) are all examples of the hateful, often-violent, outright discrimination experienced by many European immigrants.[9]

The pernicious nature of racism and Whiteness is also found in the way labor, trade, and economic systems were constructed. Professor David R. Roediger has made significant contributions to our understanding of how Whiteness has evolved in our country’s history. He notes how discrimination against different groups of European immigrants was often used to drive labor competition, keep wages down, and determine who was fit for undesirable positions. He writes, “In the early twentieth century, employers preferred a labor force divided by race and national origins. As radicals understood at this time… work gangs segregated by nationality and/or race could be made to compete against each other in a strategy not only designed in the long run to undermine labor unity and depress wages but also to spur competition and productivity every day.”[10]

For example, in the Great Steel Strike after World War I, an antilabor detective agency instructed its followers to “Spread [information] among the Serbians that the Italians are going back to work. Call up every question you can in reference to racial hatred between these two nationalities.” Similarly, groups of varying national origins would be played against each other in want ads and inaccurate employment statistics.[11]

Hiring and promotion decisions also worked off changing conceptions of Whiteness. Roediger gives several examples that are worth quoting at length:

When a native-born labor investigator asked for a “hunky job” on the blast furnace, he was told that “only hunkies work those jobs, they’re too damn dirty and too damn hot for a ‘white’ man.” In a smelter in Black Eagle, Montana, work in the tank house was so undesirable in the early twentieth century that one employee recalled “it was hard to get a white man to do it.” Slavs did the tank house jobs that “white men” refused. Lumber companies in Louisiana built what they called “the quarters” for black workers and (separately) for Italians. For white workers, they built company housing and towns.[12]

As Jacobson noted above, economics and cheap labor were a driving force of European immigration. Racial difference was used among employers to create hierarchies, conflict, and prejudice, all for the sake of bottom-line profitability.

Roediger notes in his examples how personal prejudice also showed up, particularly in individual attitudes and language. European immigrants were often referred to with derogatory slang such as “hunky,” “Polack,” “wop,” “bohunk,” or “mutt.” These names had attributes of being “uneducated, unskilled” or even “intrinsically dull and stupid.” To be “hunked” would refer to someone who became disabled at work. Thus, these terms were used to describe “the brawny and the broken, the inferior and the damaged.”[13]

Whiteness would continue to evolve into the twentieth century and is still evolving alongside concepts of race and racism today. As our country entered two World Wars, and Jim Crow segregation took hold of laws, institutions, and individual hearts, Whiteness became a more monolithic concept as some of the older ethnic and racial distinctions faded away. However, the discriminatory legacy of Whiteness among various White communities can still be seen in the way lower- and working-class Whites are often neglected and discriminated against to this day.


[1] Christopher S. Collins and Alexander Jun, White Evolution: The Constant Struggle for Racial Consciousness (New York: Peter Lang, 2020), 15.

[2] Collins and Jun, White Evolution, 19.

[3] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998), 4.

[4] Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 6.

[5] Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 7.

[6] Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 39.

[7] Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 40-41.

[8] Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 44.

[9] Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, 52-68.

[10] David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, Second edition (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 72-73.

[11] Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness, 73.

[12] Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness, 74.

[13] Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness, 43-44.

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