With the vice president attending the funeral of one of America’s most famous civil rights opponents, I think it is worth while taking a look at the word “white” as a racial category. In the afterward to the revised edition of his book “The Wages of Whiteness” David Roediger cites Amoja Three Rivers:
White people have not always been “white,” nor will they always be “white.” It is a political alliance. Things will change.
Rodiger is responding to critics of his book who think that he is down on white people. What he was in fact doing in this book was arguing that labor and immigrant groups (especially the Irish) came to see themselves as “white” as part of a process of coming to see themselves as “citizens” and “free men.” The Democrats specifically reached out to groups like the Irish who otherwise had no reason to believe that they might fall into these categories. Of course, the implication of this definition of “whiteness” is that the opposite (lack of freedom) was associated with dark skin.
What is interesting about the field of “whiteness studies” which Rodiger spawned, is that not all groups became white in the same way. Brodkin’s book on “How the Jews Became White Folks” argues that many of the Southern European immigrants, who were not considered “white” before World War Two, became so only after they benefitted from the G.I. Bill, and the government subsidized establishment of suburbia after the war — both of which African Americans were systematically excluded from. These same groups (especially Greeks and Italians) are now struggling to become white in Australia. And some argue that Asian Americans are possibly on their way to becoming white in the United States, although I think it is more likely that they will permanently be, as Shashwati likes to say, “on probation.”
Of course, whiteness does not mean the same thing everywhere. In Taiwan women spend millions on all kinds of creams to keep their skin white, and many only go out in the sun with a UV protecting umbrella, a good idea if you ask me — but for different reasons: they aren’t concerned with skin cancer as much as getting dark. Women obsessed with their whiteness however, could never pass as Northern European. The color their skin gets is an absence of color — a pearly white (advertisements compare it to Tofu), not the pink hue that characterizes Caucasian skin. I believe that this white obsession, although now influenced by Hollywood, is actually a more traditional association with the fact that working in the field makes one dark. Being dark therefore implies that you are poor. Of course, the wide popularity of breast enlargements and eye-widening operations shows that it is not possible to completely separate this phenomenon from that of race.
This is from a Norman Mailer article in the latest New York Review of Books. He argues in the spirit of Roland Barthes, that much of the war in Iraq was the equivalent of a professional wrestling match for the purpose of restoring the self-confidence of the American White male:
As a matter of collective ego, the good average white American male had had very little to nourish his morale since the job market had gone bad, nothing, in fact, unless he happened to be a member of the armed forces. There, it was certainly different. The armed forces had become the paradigmatic equal of a great young athlete looking to test his true size. Could it be that there was a bozo out in the boondocks who was made to order, and his name was Iraq? Iraq had a tough rep, but not much was left to him inside. A dream opponent. A desert war is designed for an air force whose state-of-the-art is comparable in perfection to a top-flight fashion model on a runway. Yes, we would liberate the Iraqis.
…And there were other factors for using our military skills, minor but significant: these reasons return us to the ongoing malaise of the white American male. He had been taking a daily drubbing over the last thirty years. For better or worse, the women’s movement has had its breakthrough successes and the old, easy white male ego has withered in the glare. Even the consolation of rooting for his team on TV had been skewed. For many, there was now measurably less reward in watching sports than there used to be, a clear and declarable loss. The great white stars of yesteryear were for the most part gone, gone in football, in basketball, in boxing, and half gone in baseball. Black genius now prevailed in all these sports (and the Hispanics were coming up fast; even the Asians were beginning to make their mark). We white men were now left with half of tennis (at least its male half), and might also point to ice hockey, skiing, soccer, golf (with the notable exception of the Tiger), as well as lacrosse, track, swimming, and the World Wrestling Federation—remnants of a once great and glorious white athletic centrality.