I have an unfortunate label around my neck. It’s awkward because it affects my life greatly but I can’t figure out what it is or why I have it. It hangs over me like a reminder of inherent inferiority; it dogs my steps and earns me the analysis and scorn of others. Nobody will, or can, tell me where it came from or why it chose me (or why it was chosen for me). I gather that I inherited it somehow. I had no choice and it is related to my family, or rather, my family’s history. It’s not expressible in my family tree, though, neither is it my genetics. It’s nearly nationality, but not quite. The only prescription current convention has is that I cannot escape it and it is, for reasons unknown, very important.
I am white. So the current convention would state. Am I white because I am English? If so, are Australians or Americans not white? Or is everyone in England white? No, you say. There are some white people in England and some in Australia and some in America and all three also have non-white people. So it isn’t as simple as national identity.
Perhaps it has something to do with my actual skin colour. That makes no sense at all, however. My skin isn’t white. I’m not opposed to a ‘person of colour’, a blank canvas to show how greyscale things can be compared to a member of the prestigious ‘colourful’ group. My skin has colour; it has many colours, which vary day to day and season to season. More importantly, the people in the ‘white’ bracket vary even more in skin colour. It spreads from albino white to people being described as ‘technically white’. Ah, so it is related to skin colour. Because a dark-skinned individual can be technically white or ‘white at heart’.
This brings in personality and opinion. White people’s opinions vary as much and as little as everyone’s opinions so it can’t be a political or sociological position. In fact, the traits of white personality aren’t descriptive at all, they are prescriptive. I am not ‘X, Y and Z’ and therefore I’m white. Quite the opposite. I am white, therefore people can discern things about me that, while not based in observation, for some absent reason, apply to me.
How else can we discover why I am white, why anyone is white. Post-colonialists would probably end up bringing imperialism and/or slavery into the matter. So I’ll deal with those. Imperialism is the name for the movement of thought and action that forms hierarchical empires. Often through military force but also by economic and political coercion, an empire spreads its own borders and amasses loyal colonies as outposts of its ideals and culture. The British Empire is an example, they say, of the struggle for white dominance. Now we’re getting somewhere. The people who ran the British Empire were white and were, apparently, trying to use this to their advantage. So maybe imperialism is the answer. Am I descended from imperialists in some very obvious way that other people are aware of even when I’m not? Perhaps. So then, the romans, from the Roman Empire were white? Same goes for the Byzantine Empire? The Han Dynasty? The Achaemenid Empire? The Japanese Empire? No, wait, we’re lost again. They’re not white; the imperial connection isn’t all that strong.
Slavery, then. Did all those empires have slaves? Are all those empires ‘white’? Well, this was a quick one. Couple that with the ‘black’ slave owners in pre-civil war America and we cross another one off the list.
Thus far, I’ve been unable to find out what identifies me as white. The limits of what can be and what can’t be white are too far flung for it to actually mean anything. But what about the traits of ‘whiteness’? Surely such a vague term that can encompass anyone if offered with a flimsy definition can’t make any affirmative claims about who I am or what I stand for. Well I’m wrong once again. The most common racial discourses would have it that I am either racist myself (that is to say, I discriminate against the other ‘races’, all being other terms just as vague and imperceptible as ‘white’) or that, wracked with ‘white guilt’ over atrocities committed by my ‘kinsmen’ many generations ago, I spend my time trying to patronisingly make it up to the other races.
Looking at it like this, or like anything really, shows how silly and unnecessary this whole thing is. But here’s the amazing thing. People care about this nonsense. They care so much that they form groups and committees to improve racial tolerance or to rid an area of a given race based on any number of traits that can be applied to anyone if you assign it a racial value. It’s rather like this:
Everyone in the world is either a shnarbet or a fnibble. Shnarbets hate fnibbles and fibbles hate shnarbets. You are always one of these terms but, according to other people’s whims, you can be ported across and change sides. Every and any trait applies to both shnarbets and fnibbles so that, in a debate, the argument ‘you would say that, you’re a known fnibble’, always applies. No one can tell you why you’re a shnarbet or a fnibble because no one knows. You fluctuate according to how people want to attack you at any given time and despite this being as mature and sensible as armpit fart noise races, people will focus all their efforts into this endeavour of futile stupidity. People will worry and stress themselves into an early grave over it, they will kill themselves and each other over it, they’ll theorise and summarise the historical importance of the shnarbet/fnibble divide and dread how it will shape the world to come.
The best example of how seriously people take this is bullying. First off, races have a hierarchy such that if a child calls another child a certain racial epithet due to the fact that the victimised child is black, it is a racist crime punishable by whatever big stick you can lay your hands on but if a black child calls a white child an epithet based on their race, the white child must’ve racially antagonised the bully. This is just white guilt or, as Shelby Steele put it, a rewording of black power. My point of this aside is that, for now, we’re leaving racial hierarchy behind and dealing with racial bullying as one entity.
A child bullies another child. How serious is it?
(Another brief aside, I’m talking about standard bullying of a perhaps physical but mostly psychological and emotional type, not the American use of bullying as a human rights violation equal to only the most brutal gang rapes)
We naturally need more information. A child calls another child a name and picks on them in the standard way. The name is based on something they’ve picked out about the victim. How hard they study or something like that. Let’s say it’s their hair colour. The bully gets told off and we all move on.
How about if the name referred instead to a ‘racial’ trait of the victim. The bully calls them one of the many racial epithets that have permeated common culture. Now it’s a matter for media attention, perhaps for suspension of the bully. Now it’s serious. But what on earth is the difference? Can you tell me that eye colour or hair colour is any less inherited or genetic than ‘race’? Can children make the distinction between what is and isn’t ‘racial’ so efficiently that they know what to be offended and hurt by and what doesn’t matter? Is a child any less traumatised by being bullied if it’s about something they can’t change about themselves that isn’t race related, like sexuality, height or economic status?
Thus, I am white. I have always been white and I will always be white. No one knows why but no one doubts it. I can’t do anything about it. It defines everything about who I am and what I am. Everything about me is checked against my whiteness to make sure it fits. Every achievement is because of my natural privilege, every failure is my heritage. Nothing belongs to me anymore.
The shnarbets and fnibbles took it all.