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  • Response
  • Marilyn Fischer

i thank denise james and charlene haddock seigfried for their thoughtful comments on my paper. Although they respond in different ways, they both picked up on questions and uncertainties that arose as I wrote the paper.

For some years, I have been trying to write about essays Addams addressed to African American audiences. For this paper, I decided to deal only with Addams’s writings between 1900 and 1910 in order to compare her essays for African American audiences with what she wrote at the same time for wider audiences. This approach enabled me to sort out when Addams’s writing aligned with thinking in the dominant culture and when it departed from that.

James questions my decision not to use the concept of white privilege in the paper. Calling Addams’s theory of cultural pluralism “white-centrist,” James is concerned that I downplay the weightiness of cultural imperialism and evade judging Addams harshly. I agree with James that whiteness and white privilege are invaluable conceptual tools. (In what follows, assume that “race” and “racial” have scare quotes around them. I understand race to be a cultural construct; its meaning and salience are configured differently in different times and places.) Whether whiteness and white privilege are the right conceptual tools to use varies with the focus of one’s lens. My paper is, in a sense, microscopic. The contemporary conception of white privilege was introduced at a time when cultural designations of race in the United States were generally placed into a white/non-white binary. This is not nuanced enough for understanding racial configurations in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. On immigration documents, for example, newly arriving persons had to fill in both their “color” and their “race.” People from Italy were to indicate “white” as their color, and for race, they had to select between [End Page 72] North Italian and South Italian (Guglielmo 9). Most Anglo-Saxons thought it vitally important to differentiate themselves racially from the multitude of “inferior” European races, and for the most part, they avoided using “white,” a term that blurred what to them were crucial distinctions. Yes, Anglo-Saxons thought Southern and Eastern Europeans were above African Americans on the evolutionary scale, but even that line was porous at given times and geographic locations. Addams strongly protested when African Americans were lynched; she also protested when Italian Americans were lynched. Only later in the twentieth century, after the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act imposed draconian restrictions on immigration from countries outside of northwestern Europe, did “ethnic” come to replace racial designations for people of European descent, and “white” become the operative cultural designator for them. These legal restrictions stayed in place until 1965.1

To claim that Addams was “white-centrist” erases what were then crucially important racial distinctions made among the many European races. Addams’s theory of cultural pluralism is remarkable in that in it, she places culturally despised groups at the center of her vision. No one at the time would have identified her theory as white-centrist. As Seigfried notes, “[e]ven innocuous-sounding beliefs running counter to this narrative [of European racial distinctions and gradations] would have a radical-seeming resonance unknown to us.” One could say that my essay explores, on the micro-level, one manifestation of how what we now call white privilege functioned within intellectual thought during one decade. Telescopes are valuable instruments; so are microscopes.

Understanding how the salience of whiteness has changed over time helps us remember how contingent historical events are, how nothing is inevitable, how things could have gone differently. What if the United States had not passed draconian immigration restriction legislation in 1924? It is possible that the white/non-white binary would still have emerged; it is even possible that people of Southern and Eastern European descent could have found themselves categorized on the non-white side of the line. It is also possible that a more complicated racial landscape could have emerged, as is the case in some Latin American countries. (This does not imply that the racial landscape would necessarily be less racist.)

Raising a consideration I did not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6489
Print ISSN
1930-7365
Pages
pp. 72-76
Launched on MUSE
2014-09-27
Open Access
No
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