October 17, 2017
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How Do You Become “White” in America?

Trump has retweeted white supremacist groups and has the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. He uses whiteness as a weapon, and his candidacy on a major party ticket threatens to put the country back some 200 years. What does Trump’s vision of whiteness mean for a diverse country like the U.S.?

By Sarah Kendzior, DeCorrespondent


nce 1790, the U.S. has taken a census that divides citizens into racial categories. These categories have transformed dramatically over the past 220 years along with U.S. demography. In 1790, there were three categories: “free whites”, “other free people”, and “slaves.” Over the next few centuries, new groups were added ranging from broad racial categories (“Asian”) to subsets (“Korean”, for example, was added as its own race in 1920, removed in 1950, re-added in 1970, and subsumed into “Asian” in 2000.)

The most recent census, taken in 2010, divided Americans as follows: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or Some Other Race. In 1980, as a result of a huge increase in the Hispanic population, ‘Hispanic’ (or Latino, often the preferred term) was added as its own category, with a note that it is an ethnicity, not a race.

The lines between race and ethnicity were always blurred in the U.S., and the political manipulation of racial groups – most visible during election seasons – has inspired debate over whom, exactly, these racial groups include. In 1997,the American Anthropological Association warned of the dangers of dividing Americans by race:

“During the past 50 years, ‘race’ has been scientifically proven to not be a real, natural phenomenon,” they wrote. “More specific, social categories such as ‘ethnicity’ or ‘ethnic group’ are more salient for scientific purposes and have fewer of the negative, racist connotations for which the concept of race was developed.”

The AAA’s recommendations were not implemented and today Americans are taught to think of themselves as belonging to racial categories like white, black, or Asian. Within every category, however, are multiple ethnicities with distinct cultural differences as well as huge variations in when and how they arrived in America. Blacks who emigrated voluntarily from Africa or the Caribbean, for example, have a different relationship to the U.S. than descendants of African slaves brought to the U.S. by force (though both groups are subject to anti-black racism even today.)

being white in America 1The same internal diversity exists for white Americans – most of whom were not seen as “white” upon arrival, but became accepted as white, gradually, over decades. Whiteness, in America, has always been a sliding scale. Anglo-Saxon Protestants who arrived in earlier centuries, for example, had more social advantages than more recent European arrivals. In general it seems that the further from Western Europe one’s ancestors are, the more subject one is to discrimination, which is why many groups deemed white by the U.S. census today – like Arabs – are not accepted as “white” by much of U.S. society.

Whiteness is a social construct, and one with concrete benefits. Being white in the U.S. has long meant better jobs and opportunities, and an escape from persecution based on appearance and culture. Although these structural advantages remain, the meaning of whiteness is still hotly debated – particularly during this election season.

being white in America 2But the fact that European Americans of multiple ethnicities identify as “white” does not mean that the importance of their ancestral homelands fades away. This is the lesson Americans are learning from Donald Trump, the first openly white supremacist candidate a major party ticket. Trump has retweeted white supremacist groups and has the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. Other prominent Trump supporters include the “alt-right” (a younger, slicker branch of white supremacists) and “White Power” advocates.

Trump and his campaign have done their best to subsume all white Christian people into a collective group that opposes ethnic and religious minorities, like Muslims and Mexicans, who are presented as a threat to “real Americans”. As a result, white Trump fans have attacked members of these groups in the belief that they are defending Trump’s, and America’s, honor.

This is a doomed campaign strategy in a demographically diverse country like the U.S. But it is not only non-white Americans who are rejecting Trump. White Americans are also rejecting him – some simply because he is a horrendously unqualified and bigoted candidate, others for a new reason: their specific white ethnicities.

The discrimination endured by Polish immigrants

Recently, Americans of Eastern European descent have turned away from Trump due to Trump’s close ties with Russia. Many of these voters were once loyal Republicans who supported President Reagan for his strong support of the Eastern European countries which they or their ancestors fled, often because of Russian oppression.