While it may seem like the concept of Whiteness has remained fixed for centuries, the groups of people who have historically been considered White have fluctuated over time. Today, the term has a markedly different meaning from what it was only 100 years ago. Ultimately, the expanding definition of Whiteness has proven that race is a social construction that changes depending on political context, as well as a tool to maintain white supremacy.
The Social Construction of Race
The notion of race as a means of categorization can be traced back to the 16th century when Anglo-Europeans applied outdated methods of organizing people into superior (White) and inferior (Black, Indigenous, Asian, etc.) groups. While this categorization has no basis in science, it did result in the creation of racial identities that were used for political means. For instance, a racial hierarchy helped justify the Atlantic slave trade, which saw the shipment of enslaved Africans to the Americas to labour for White slave owners. According to racial categories at the time, Blackness was associated with enslavement, while Whiteness was instead associated with freedom.
Despite the fact that Whiteness is a racial identity within the hierarchy, white people often consider their race to be “neutral” or “irrelevant.” Although race is socially constructed and the categorization of racial identities frequently shifts, that does not mean that our perceived races don’t have real-life impacts. Understanding Whiteness as a “neutral” identity undermines the fact that institutions were built to benefit white people and perpetuate discrimination against BIPOC in America.
The Revolving Door of Whiteness
In America, immigration has always been highly politicized, and this was no exception throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. After 1790, only “free White persons” were able to migrate to the US. According to the racial hierarchy at the time, the definition of White only included people from northwest Europe and excluded eastern and southern Europeans who today we largely consider to be White.
For example, southern Italians were considered to be dark-skinned and innately criminal, and as a result, faced discrimination in housing and employment. However, protests in 1892 following the lynching of 11 Italians helped launch the passing of anti-lynching laws and the slow integration of Italians into the category of Whiteness. Meanwhile, it is important to note that similar anti-lynching legislation was not granted for African Americans until the 20th century.
Further, Jewish people in America have had a particularly complex racial history. Due to anti-Semitism throughout the 19th century that saw the persecution of Jews, they were considered to be a racial anomaly in America and were seen as blurring the lines between Black and White. Similar to other ethnic groups at the time, this “racial indeterminacy” made it difficult for White America to determine the placement of Jews in the racial hierarchy.
Yet, the categorization of Jews as less-than-white shifted due to political strategy. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party wanted to secure the votes of many ethnic minorities to expand its constituency, under the promise that they could be considered “fully American” and thus White. This shift into a (mostly) White identity helped propel many Jews to attend post-secondary school and become skilled workers, paving their way into the middle-class.
However, while today Jewish Americans experience many benefits of White privilege, they also face increasing levels of anti-Semitism that designate Jews as inferior, and oftentimes non-White. This is a revealing example of the ways that racial categories shift throughout time, and highlights the flexible nature of Whiteness in different contexts.
The Consumption of the “Other”
In the last decade, the perception of Whiteness has once again shifted. However, instead of new ethnic or racial groups politically transitioning into Whiteness, White people have started appropriating the features and cultures of non-White communities.
While the concept of cultural appropriation is not new, Wanna Thompson’s coined term, “blackfishing,” describes an emerging form of blackface. Blackfishing occurs when White people attempt to mimic the features of Black people, especially Black women, by having fake deep tans, cultural hairstyles, lip fillers, etcetera. These aspects of Blackness have become regarded as cool and trendy by White people, but when Black people have those same features naturally, they are called “ghetto,” “ratchet,” or even ugly. As such, Whiteness has expanded to include the features of Blackness without regard for Black people themselves.
bell hooks refers to this type of appropriation as the “consumption of the Other.” This phrase refers to the phenomenon of White people, and particularly White entertainers, attaining acceptance and monetary gain by consuming the culture of a racialized “Other.” However, White people do not experience the systemic racial oppression that Black people face, turning Blackness into a costume that can be taken off at any time. Consequently, this evolving perception of Whiteness that now includes many Black features without the liberation of Black people from oppression magnifies the racial hierarchy, by “disempowering communities that are already marginalized.”
Assimilation and Resistance
The results of the 2020 U.S. Census revealed that the number of White people in the country decreased for the first time in recorded history. Some projections also show that, in terms of numbers, White people may become a racial minority in America by 2045. However, this does not fully take into account the ability of Whiteness to bend and mold according to changing political and demographic landscapes.
Over the last decade, a growing number of Hispanic people in the US have been self-identifying as White for a number of reasons, including the loss of familial ties to their cultures. Some predict that as the US becomes more racially diverse, White America may feel threatened and capitalize on this shift to expand Whiteness to include new groups of ethnic minorities.
On the other hand, the 2020 Census actually saw a downswing in the number of Latinx who identified as White. Many point to America’s racial reckoning following the year’s Black Lives Matter protests, and hostility from the Trump administration, for fostering an increased sense of community among Latinx and Hispanic peoples. Subsequently, there may arise a movement from Latinx Americans to deviate from Whiteness, and demand freedom from discrimination without having to “become” White to do so.
While race is a social construct with changing categorizations across time and political context, it serves to uphold Whiteness as the norm. The revolving door of Whiteness, and the granting of groups the identity and advantages of Whiteness, does not eliminate racism. White scholars, activists, and everyday people must do their part in working to dismantle our white supremacist institutions so that Whiteness is no longer the sole distributor of status and power.