CreditPhoto illustration by Tyler Comrie
Being white in America has long been treated, at least by white people, as too familiar to be of much interest. It's been the default identity, the cultural wallpaper — something described, when described at all, using bland metaphors like milk and vanilla and codes like "cornfed" and "all-American." Grass is green, the sky is blue and, until very recently, a product described as "nude" or "flesh-colored" probably looked like white people's skin.
How often do white people talk about being white? Not often! So long as we aren't hanging out with white nationalists, marrying into a family of color or chuckling over jokes about our dancing, we have endless opportunities to avoid thinking much about our own race. We generally prefer to frame identity in ethnic terms instead: Identifying as Italian or Irish or Jewish seems to come with zest, pathos and a chance to take pride in some shared history. Plain undifferentiated whiteness, on the other hand, is a "toggle between nothingness and awfulness," writes Nell Irvin Painter, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton and author of the 2010 book "The History of White People."
The Trump era, however, has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgment of whiteness as a real and alarming force. In the months leading up to the 2016 election, as Donald Trump rallied his almost entirely white base with calls for banning Muslims and deporting "bad hombres," Politico asked: "What's Going On With America's White People?" The NPR podcast "Code Switch" debuted with an episode called "Can We Talk About Whiteness?" Since handing Trump 58 percent of the white vote, we have been the subject of newspaper and magazine analyses about our race-based resentment, fear of declining status and supposed economic anxiety. The satire "Dear White People" was picked up by Netflix, and the film "Get Out," which turned self-proclaimed Obama-supporting white people into figures of horror, became the think-piece blockbuster of 2017. Suddenly it is less tenable than ever for white people to write our whiteness out of the story of race in America or define ourselves only in terms of what we are not.
Much of the sharpest examination comes, as it always has, from people of color, who have spent centuries acutely aware of how the force of whiteness operates. But these days, white people are also observing one another's whiteness with unfamiliar intensity. When a white manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police to report two black customers who didn't order right away after one had asked to use the bathroom, a white customer, Melissa DePino, tweeted video of the ensuing arrests, adding: "All the other white ppl are wondering why it's never happened to us when we do the same thing." A few weeks later, a white woman named Michelle Snider confronted and filmed another white woman who called the police on a couple of black men for using a charcoal grill at an Oakland park. The caller's image became a meme, #BBQBecky, showing up on "Saturday Night Live" and being dropped into stills from "Black Panther," Barack Obama's inauguration and a black Last Supper.
In each of these cases, as well as a string of others, white people didn't get the usual benefit of assumed normalcy. They were portrayed, instead, as a distinct subculture with bizarre and threatening habits. "White people" were suddenly identified as the subgroup of Americans most likely to call the police on black people over a barbecue or to complain about whether every single football player stands for the anthem — stereotypes that rang true even to other white people.
For a long time, many white people assumed it was our due, as the majority, to encounter various racial others and marvel at the exotic things they ate, built or wore. Now we can go online and find people of color doing the gawking, offering jokes and anthropological scrutiny about white people's underseasoning food, mistreating potato salad or eschewing washcloths.
Chief among our remarked-upon habits is our often-claimed colorblindness and affinity for individuality, a supposed indifference to race that often reads more like ignorance of it. A "Becky," as in #BBQBecky, Damon Young explained in a piece on The Root, is a type of white woman who "exists in a state of racial obliviousness that shifts from intentionally clueless to intentionally condescending." (Like the original ur-Becky in the intro to Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back.") White people are referred to in proliferating slang: "wypipo," "whytppl," "WhitePeople™." The spaces we unthinkingly dominate are "white spaces." The indignant defensiveness we may display when confronted by racial conflict is "white fragility." White people are losing the luxury of non-self-awareness, an emotionally complicated shift that we are not always taking well. "Twenty-five years ago black people were the lost population," and "black intellectuals were on the defensive," Darryl Pinckney observed this month in The New York Review of Books. "Now white people are the ones who seem lost."
Early uses of the word "white" in American law were, unsurprisingly, about slavery — in particular, sparing white indentured servants from the prohibitions that barred black slaves from owning property or weapons or learning to read and write. ("The slave codes created whiteness in the United States," Lee Bebout, an English professor at Arizona State University, said when I spoke to him by phone.) Many subsequent uses have been about immigration. The country's first Naturalization Act, in 1790, decreed that only a foreigner who was a "free white person" could become a citizen — laying the foundation for the 1882 act that barred laborers from China (later expanded to encompass other parts of Asia). In 1923, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the category of a "free white person" included Bhagat Singh Thind, a "high caste" Indian man who was technically as "Caucasian" as the justices hearing his case, according to the 18th-century pseudoscience that defined such categories. (They rejected him on the grounds that in the "common understanding," white meant something narrower.) In the 1940s, the census started lumping together everyone with Spanish last names as "Hispanic" — but the category Hispanic/Latino, now self-reported, has remained as an ethnicity rather than a race, which is why the census calls white people "non-Hispanic whites."
Even as the "common understanding" of whiteness remained porous and inconsistent, those included within it often treated it as a kind of noble calling — the "white man's burden," a mission to civilize the globe's others, perhaps even by divine right. These beliefs are now recognized as objectionable; they've been replaced, ostensibly, by an acceptance of pluralism and diversity — though not a deep commitment to integration. And yet as long as white people continue to see ourselves as the norm and the neutral, we haven't replaced as much as we might imagine. We continue to act as racial managers, clinging to the job of setting the culture's terms and measuring everyone else's otherness against those terms.
People of color have described the darkness at the heart of whiteness each step of the way — as the poet and lawyer James Weldon Johnson observed a century ago, "the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them." In an 1829 tract, David Walker, who wrote for the country's first black-owned newspaper, argued that the central feature of white identity was murder; today Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it plunder. In "The Fire Next Time," his stunning book of 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people could resolve their position only by looking inward. "White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other," he wrote, "and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."
The growing self-recognition among white people, prodded into being by demographic change and broader conversations about how racial identity works, could certainly lead toward self-acceptance and harmony, sure. The Parkland student activists, for example, have seemed almost intuitively savvy about such things, finding ways to interweave their goals and share their stage with kids of color who had, as one put it, "always stared down the barrel of a gun." But we're also staring at copious evidence of this self-recognition swinging in the other direction. When white Americans burrow into their group identity, the switch that Painter described often flips, from nothingness to awfulness. Some of us fixate on maintaining racial dominance, conjuring ethnonationalist states or a magical immigration formula that somehow imports half of Scandinavia. A majority of white Americans currently believe that their own race is discriminated against. News accounts fill with white resentment and torch-lit white-power marches. White Americans, who "seem lost," are searching for something important: how to see ourselves without turning awful in the process.
Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the magazine and the Truman Capote fellow at Yale Law School.
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