I’ve been thinking a lot about how we, “white” people in the US, need to stop using the terms “white” and “race” and “racism” to describe ourselves and the system of thoughts which identifies “white” people as part of a “race.”
To be clear, I absolutely do want to talk about bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, and oppression as it is enacted, transmitted, and legalized by the “white” majority in the US against people of color, but calling that systematic discrimination and oppression “racism” reinforces the inaccurate idea that there is such a thing as the “white race,” the “black race,” the “asian race,” etc. All humans belong to the same biological species and subspecies, homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens, so describing different human populations as different races is fundamentally inaccurate. Further, in social and cultural spheres, describing different human populations as different races easily perpetuates the old colonialist notion that we are not all inherently equal and worthy human beings.
Again, to be clear, I’m not disputing or trying to erase the existence of deep cultural prejudices, bigotries, and xenophobias based on outward appearance, nor am I dismissing the oppression and discrimination which arises from those prejudices where the “white” population discriminates against the “non-white” population. I’m taking issue, very specifically, with the language we use to talk about those prejudices because I believe the language we use, even when the content of our speech is intended to expose and challenge those biases, that the language of “race” and “whiteness” as used by "white" people reinforces prejudice and bigotry, reinforces the notion that humans have some inherent and essential differences in their value and worth based on superficial appearance.
I also explicitly recognize and celebrate the specific ways different communities across the globe have formed commonalities which differentiate them from other groups. These are communities of language, history, geography, religion, philosophy, appearance, experience, and more. These groups and communities can be more accurately and usefully referred to as “ethnicities” or ethnic groups since these divisions are largely cultural and not biological. While in the US “ethnic” has come to mean “non-white,” all communities should be recognized as having an ethnicity. Further, that people might belong to several ethnicities simultaneously should be accepted as an obvious truth.
Ethnicity aside for a moment, “white” and “race” as descriptors of ethnicities are steeped in and a product of the long history of prejudice and bigotry which exploded with the European colonization of the world beginning in the 15th century.
Before the colonial period, Europeans generally referred to themselves and categorized themselves based on their geographic region of origin, language, and / or religious beliefs. As they moved out into the world, the colonists began to distinguish themselves and other Europeans from the native populations they colonized based on appearance, predominately skin color, with Europeans as “white.” Eventually this categorization gave rise to a constructed and illogical taxonomy of different peoples based on geographic origin and appearance, a taxonomy that further went on to rank different “races” of human as superior or inferior to each other in a wide variety of ways with “white” or “caucasian” as superior to all others.
These rankings and false ideas about the essential natures of humans provided justification for the wide variety of evils which European colonizers inflicted and continue to inflict on native populations around the globe, enslavement, genocide, the widespread destruction of environments and cultures.
The prejudices and bigotries of the colonialists have passed down and spread across the globe and into the present moment. Those bigotries are reinforced by the use of the term “white” to describe the descendants of the colonizers. Instead of “white,” I advocate the use of something like “European-American” for people who were born in the US, have pale skin, and whose ancestry is largely European, people who typically call themselves “white.”
What’s wrong with “white”? “White” erases the history and ancestry of people who identify themselves or are identified with that term. “White” reduces and then asserts appearance as the most significant quality of a person. “White” has come to be the blank identifier of ethnic identity; “white” perpetuates the myth that European-Americans have no ethnicity, no ethnocentric logic, no ethnocentric ideology, no history. “White” is an abstraction, meaningless and inaccurate as descriptor of anyone’s appearance, arbitrary as a differentiation amongst people. “White” gives the illusion of objectivity, of purity, of a history-lessness, of something absolute and eternal. “White” belies the actual complexity of human intermingling and ancestry. “White” simplifies our ancestry in a way that is misleading.
But I keep coming back to the way the term “white” erases the history and origins of European-Americans. My ancestors all came from parts of Europe to the US. They were colonizers. In some cases, they were the ones killing, buying, or cheating Native Americans out of the land Native Americans had lived on for centuries. My ancestors lived and prospered in a world where the enslavement of other human beings was routine, whether or not they themselves enslaved specific people. That is the history of European-Americans, and it is a history which has created the present moment in which European-Americans continue to oppress and discriminate against other people based on their non-European American ethnicity.
The United States and “whiteness” are inventions of people including my ancestors. The idea of the US does not “belong” to this land. The US as a nation has no “right” to exist or to claim the land it occupies. The US, colonization, my ancestors, and myself were all imposed on this land and on the people who had lived here. Describing myself as “white” hides those origins, whereas describing myself as European-American recognizes them.
I know that the change I propose is small and perhaps meaningless. I also would defend anyone’s right to describe themselves as they see fit, though I would argue that some ways — “white” for example — reinforce the discrimination and oppression widespread in the world. I also do not, in any way, want to erase the legacy of violence and oppression committed by “white” people. I do want for myself and other European-Americans to take responsibility for the prejudices we inherited and which are such an integral and at times unconscious part of our experience of the world. I believe that identifying ourselves in a way that connects us to the origins of our presence in this land is one, important, small step.
Also, while I believe “white” people need to abandon the term “white” as an ethnic identifier, we do need to continue talking about “white supremacy” as a virulent and genocidal continuation of the bigotry and violence begun by European colonialists. Ending “white supremacy” — particularly in light of the election of a “white supremacist” to the office of the president — is vitally important to the health and safety of all citizens, regardless of ethnicity.
As we continue to struggle against bigotry, prejudice, and systematic oppression of ethnic minorities, it is crucial that we understand and take responsibility for the origins of this bigotry and the current oppression which that history has created, especially the rise of “white supremacists” to the White House. We must hold ourselves and each other accountable, we must be aware of our origins and the bloody history that has made the world we were born into. We must be aware of ways that the oppression which formed this country pervades into our time. We must begin to think of ourselves as one of many different and equal ethnicities rather than some origin-less and special category of human. We must put an end to the concept of “whiteness.”