Saturday, 10 December 2016

Why I don't call myself "white"

In the wash-up to the recent US election, the word "white" has been tossed around a lot to describe people.  A lot of people, however, particularly those on the weirdo far-right fringes of politics, have been rediscovering their "whiteness" and shoving it down everyone else's throat. 

I never realised that some people still described themselves as "white" anymore.  (And actually, to be technical, most people who would be called "white" really have skin tones that are somewhere on the colour spectrum between a bright pink and a deep beige.)

I don't describe myself as "white" because I don't think it's all that useful a term.  (And this is for similar reasons to the reasons I don't describe myself as "Protestant".)

Thinking of my own ancestry, I know there's a bit of Irish, a bit of British, and a lot of German in my ancestry.  I'm happy about this.
  • I'm proud to be connected with the people who gave the world the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (even while I try to resist the authoritarian tendencies that resulted in two world wars and the Holocaust.)
  • I'm proud to be connected with the people who gave the world the writings of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen (even while I try to resist the bigotry and snobbery that is ingrained in much of British life.) 
  • I'm proud to be connected with the people whose name is synonymous with hospitality and a sense of humour (even while I try to resist the sectarianism that has been associated with the saddest chapters of Irish history and, sadly, exported to the rest of the English-speaking world.)
While I'm an American by birth and an Australian by choice, my ancestry is British, Irish, and German.  I affirm all this.

I still don't call myself "white".  Calling yourself "white" is a bit like calling yourself "Protestant".  It's focussing on what you are not, rather than on what you are.

Calling yourself "white" isn't saying that you're part of the people who gave the world Bach.  It's merely saying that you're not part of the people who gave the world jazz.  

Calling yourself "white" isn't saying that you're part of the people who gave the world Shakespeare.  It's merely saying that you're not part of the people who gave the world the Taj Mahal.  

Calling yourself "white" isn't saying you're part of the people who brewed the world's first pint of Guinness.  It's merely saying that you're not part of the various peoples who cultivated the potato, the tomato, the banana, or the coffee bean for centuries before Europeans knew these items even existed. 

Everyone, whoever they are, should be proud of their heritage.  Be proud of the interesting bits.

If your background is Irish, be proud of being Irish.  That's a much bigger deal than merely being "white".

If your background is Scottish, be proud of being Scottish.  That's a much bigger deal than merely being "white".

If your background is Greek, be proud of being Greek.  That's a much bigger deal than merely being "white".

If your background is Jewish, be proud of being Jewish.  That's much bigger deal than merely being "white".

Etc.  .. etc. ... etc. ....

Everyone, whoever they are, should be proud of their heritage.  Be proud of the interesting bits. 

And also please realise that those whose skin tones are not on the bright-pink-to-deep-beige scale are also proud of their own heritage, and they are equally as justified in this pride as you are.  No more.  No less.

Following the first time I posted these reflections a week or so ago, I had a few helpful comments on my FaceBook page.  (In some ways, I was amazed by the fact that the first critical comments I received on this article were not from irate white supremacists.) 

Some said that this article may have minimised the unearned privilege that comes with being born "white" in many western countries.  I recognise the fact of this unearned privilege.  By the fact of having European ancestry, and living in a country where the dominant culture of the country is made up by people of European ancestry, I am the beneficiary of a high level of unearned privilege, as I also am by having been born male, hetero, and a native-born English-speaker.

I actually believe that a better word to use than "white" when speaking of people of European ancestry (including ancestry from the British Isles) living in such nations as the USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand is, simply, "European".  "European" is a more useful word than "white" for two reasons, I believe.

1.  "European" conveys the sense that we are not indigenous to the continent on which we live.  However many generations we've been here, our culture is a still rather exotic "import".  This parallels the fact that a Chinese-Australian whose family has been here since the 1850's Gold Rush is still called "Asian".  Fair's fair.

2.  As well, "European" avoids the value-laden significance that has attached to the colours "white" and "black" in the English language.  Some people still use these words as ethical symbols.  As a result, many white supremacists have developed a rather eerie mysticism over the whole concept of "whiteness". 

Referring to those of us with European (or mostly European) ancestry, but living in countries outside Europe, as "Europeans" is a more accurate use of language, and avoids placing any cultural premium on the paleness of any person's pigmentation.

Here endeth the lesson.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad, as a person who is also "An Australian by Choice" that after 20 or more years newspapers, police and other groups have stopped referring to appearance as: Australian or European or Asianor, God forbid Redhead...which I am!
    The great multicultural victory of Australia, despite Ms Hanson's protestations, is that all those descriptors; or none; defines the body of Australians...and couple of dozen more could be added

    ReplyDelete

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.