Posted on June 14, 2018

White People Are Noticing Something New: Their Own Whiteness

Emily Bazelon, New York Times, June 13, 2018

Being white in America has long been treated, at least by white people, as too familiar to be of much interest. {snip}

How often do white people talk about being white? Not often! So long as we aren’t hanging out with white nationalists, marrying into a family of color or chuckling over jokes about our dancing, we have endless opportunities to avoid thinking much about our own race. We generally prefer to frame identity in ethnic terms instead: Identifying as Italian or Irish or Jewish seems to come with zest, pathos and a chance to take pride in some shared history. {snip}

The Trump era, however, has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgment of whiteness as a real and alarming force. In the months leading up to the 2016 election, as Donald Trump rallied his almost entirely white base with calls for banning Muslims and deporting “bad hombres,” Politico asked: “What’s Going On With America’s White People?” The NPR podcast “Code Switch” debuted with an episode called “Can We Talk About Whiteness?” Since handing Trump 58 percent of the white vote, we have been the subject of newspaper and magazine analyses about our race-based resentment, fear of declining status and supposed economic anxiety. The satire “Dear White People” was picked up by Netflix, and the film “Get Out,” which turned self-proclaimed Obama-supporting white people into figures of horror, became the think-piece blockbuster of 2017. Suddenly it is less tenable than ever for white people to write our whiteness out of the story of race in America or define ourselves only in terms of what we are not.

{snip} But these days, white people are also observing one another’s whiteness with unfamiliar intensity. {snip}

In each of these cases, as well as a string of others, white people didn’t get the usual benefit of assumed normalcy. They were portrayed, instead, as a distinct subculture with bizarre and threatening habits. “White people” were suddenly identified as the subgroup of Americans most likely to call the police on black people over a barbecue or to complain about whether every single football player stands for the anthem — stereotypes that rang true even to other white people.


Chief among our remarked-upon habits is our often-claimed colorblindness and affinity for individuality, a supposed indifference to race that often reads more like ignorance of it. {snip} White people are losing the luxury of non-self-awareness, an emotionally complicated shift that we are not always taking well. “Twenty-five years ago black people were the lost population,” and “black intellectuals were on the defensive,” Darryl Pinckney observed this month in The New York Review of Books. “Now white people are the ones who seem lost.”

Early uses of the word “white” in American law were, unsurprisingly, about slavery — in particular, sparing white indentured servants from the prohibitions that barred black slaves from owning property or weapons or learning to read and write. (“The slave codes created whiteness in the United States,” Lee Bebout, an English professor at Arizona State University, said when I spoke to him by phone.) Many subsequent uses have been about immigration. The country’s first Naturalization Act, in 1790, decreed that only a foreigner who was a “free white person” could become a citizen — laying the foundation for the 1882 act that barred laborers from China (later expanded to encompass other parts of Asia). In 1923, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the category of a “free white person” included Bhagat Singh Thind, a “high caste” Indian man who was technically as “Caucasian” as the justices hearing his case, according to the 18th-century pseudoscience that defined such categories. (They rejected him on the grounds that in the “common understanding,” white meant something narrower.) In the 1940s, the census started lumping together everyone with Spanish last names as “Hispanic” — but the category Hispanic/Latino, now self-reported, has remained as an ethnicity rather than a race, which is why the census calls white people “non-Hispanic whites.”

Even as the “common understanding” of whiteness remained porous and inconsistent, those included within it often treated it as a kind of noble calling — the “white man’s burden,” a mission to civilize the globe’s others, perhaps even by divine right. These beliefs are now recognized as objectionable; they’ve been replaced, ostensibly, by an acceptance of pluralism and diversity — though not a deep commitment to integration. And yet as long as white people continue to see ourselves as the norm and the neutral, we haven’t replaced as much as we might imagine. We continue to act as racial managers, clinging to the job of setting the culture’s terms and measuring everyone else’s otherness against those terms.


The growing self-recognition among white people, prodded into being by demographic change and broader conversations about how racial identity works, could certainly lead toward self-acceptance and harmony, sure. {snip} But we’re also staring at copious evidence of this self-recognition swinging in the other direction. When white Americans burrow into their group identity, the switch that Painter described often flips, from nothingness to awfulness. Some of us fixate on maintaining racial dominance, conjuring ethnonationalist states or a magical immigration formula that somehow imports half of Scandinavia. A majority of white Americans currently believe that their own race is discriminated against. News accounts fill with white resentment and torch-lit white-power marches. White Americans, who “seem lost,” are searching for something important: how to see ourselves without turning awful in the process.