American Quarterly 56.2 (2004) 439-447
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A Note on the Word White
Matthew Pratt Guterl
In my office, many of the finer works on whiteness are conveniently arranged on the same bookshelf: David R. Roediger's Wages of Whiteness; Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color; Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness; Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White; Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (subtitled Whiteness and the Literary Imagination); and George Lipsitz's Possessive Investment in Whiteness.1 To write about "whiteness" is to write about an inchoate conglomeration of factors that give group advantage to white people, often without showing it explicitly—factors that include old-fashioned, in-your-face racism but also supposedly color-blind things like the courts, the federal government, policy decisions, mass culture, and private institutions of all sorts.
For historians interested in uncovering a "usable past" with which to understand the present, it is difficult to locate a long and simple narrative through-line of whiteness running from the "starving time" at Jamestown to the O. J. Simpson trial. Any reasonable survey of American history would find dozens of different schemes of racial classification, not all of them color-coded, and hundreds of local settings in which race had different meanings, a complexity of understanding that simply cannot be reduced to a story line in which [End Page 439] "whiteness" unequivocally and unambiguously reigns supreme from the moment of first contact. The sweep of American racial history includes at least nine different groups, all with divergent roles: the English or Anglo-Saxons; the various groups of European immigrants who followed them at different times; Latinos who were incorporated into the republic when the border passed over them; Latinos who, in turn, passed over the border to enter the country as laborers, refugees, or exiles; Asians brought here under contract; Asians who arrived as voluntary immigrants; Africans brought, by and large, in chains; the many different First Peoples, some of them exterminated, some segregated onto reservations or trivialized as mascots; and the multihued multitude who have arrived since 1965. The road from Jamestown to Los Angeles is no straight line through this amorphous, untidy mess.
How, then, did it come to pass that the word white—once, as Winthrop Jordan famously revealed, an exact synonym for Englishness—should come to refer to all European immigrants?2 When, where, and how did it transpire that all Europeans were white first and members of a specific European nationality second? If European immigrants were sometimes not just white, was there ever a moment when European immigrants were, quite simply, not white at all?
Three of the aforementioned titles take up this thorny historical question and come to different conclusions. Roediger's Wages of Whiteness considers the ways in which representations of slavery and blackness shaped working-class notions of citizenship rights and privileges—in other words, giving working people a sense of themselves as white working people—in the antebellum North, easing the emergence of an industrial economy. Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White reaches a similar conclusion, although he is (quite obviously) much more concerned with one specific European immigrant group. Lastly, Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color considers a broader narrative thread running from the 1790s to the 1970s and identifies other aspects of the American experience—among them, migration, imperialism, war, immigration patterns, and legal precedent—that shaped race at different times. All three, in sum, trace the confusing route by which the lowest, dirtiest, poorest, and vilest European immigrant found his or her way to the "promised land" where whites enjoyed perpetual advantage over yellows and reds and browns and blacks. In its own way, Theodore Allen's Invention of the White Race might be described as a grim prequel, for it described—rather simply— [End Page 440] the ways that rich, pale-skinned men in colonial America...