Posted on October 29, 2019

A Racist Attack Shows How Whiteness Evolves

Nell Irvin Painter, New York Times, October 26, 2019

Two 17-year-old boys accused of harassing four African-American middle schoolgirls — using racial slurs and urinating on one of the victims — are facing charges including bias intimidation and lewdness.

{snip} Police say the boys are of Indian descent.

{snip} Instead of asking what the boys’ reported racial identity tells us about the nature of the attack, we should see the boys as enacting American whiteness through anti-black assault in a very traditional way. In doing so, the assailants are demonstrating how race is a social construct that people make through their actions. They show race in the making, and show how race is something we perform, not just something we are in our blood or in the color of our skin.

{snip} The boys’ actions resemble those of people who feel empowered to act out their resentment against nonwhite people who are deemed out of place, confronting them with hostility or slurs or calling the police. The people patrolling what they see as their spaces are often — but not always — white. The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson calls areas that are policed in this way “the white space,” even though the spaces in question are officially public. The experiences of black people accused of these purported infractions have acquired a panoply of names that capture the absurdity of facing such hostility while innocently carrying out everyday activities: driving while black, barbecuing while black, walking while black, sitting at home while black. {snip}

In the New Jersey incident, the heritage or skin color of the boys suspected of the assault doesn’t matter. What matters is that they were participating in this pattern and thus enacting whiteness in a very traditional way.

{snip} As tempting as it is to assume that races are boxes that people fit in once and for all, that kind of thinking is too simplistic, too lazy to help us understand American history and culture.

{snip} At this point, we should wonder if or how other Americans might find places in the black/white traditions. Will Latinos of various skin colors come to consider themselves black or white? What about Asians of various skin colors?

To find out, we should observe their actions. Or how they perform race.


For a clue on how American racial identity is evolving, it may be less useful to look to clues like complexion, and more to the performance of identity. The performance here — flinging around the N-word, with the befoulment of urination — holds an answer. One potent way of being American, no matter where you or your parents are from, is enacting anti-blackness. And traditionally, acting out anti-blackness has meant acting white.

Nell Irvin Painter is the author of “The History of White People.”