Or, ‘Hey white boy, whatcha doin Uptown?’
I do not like white people. I can not remember any time in the recent past when I did, and I do not envision a time in the future when this opinion will change. White people are singularly responsible for bad laws, bad music, bad art, and oppression of non-white folks. I count these as historical truths, and there are many folks out there who would gladly agree with me. I hold these beliefs despite the fact that I harbor a skin color that society considers ‘white.’ I can maintain this seeming paradox because I have reached the conclusion that the state of being white is, by and large, a choice.
Unlike my earlier contention, many folks would disagree with me on that one, and they are right in certain respects. For example, having skin color which society considers ‘white’ is far more likely to get you a decent job, and far less likely to get you pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike than ‘non-white’ hues. The sad fact is that such a little thing as melanin still seems to make a big difference to a lot of people. But what these people fail to understand is that it was not always this way. ‘White’ was originally coined to differentiate the majority from the largest of our minorities: African-Americans. As we know, these people came to this country in chains. However, they were not the only people enslaved in our nation’s infamous past. Indentured servitude made slaves of many ‘white’ people looking for passage to the streets paved with gold. Therefore, skin color was not initially the sole mark of slavery. At some point, this was to become the case, but exactly when and where history neglects to tell us.
As the 19th century progressed and slavery became an integral part of our agricultural economy, abolitionists attempted to win public sentiment over to the idea of abolition by appealing to people’s sense of humanity. The counter to this argument from pro-slavery mouthpieces often tried to distract comments from human rights issues by pointing to the state of factory workers, who it was said were chattel in the more insidious practice of wage slavery. Factory conditions were hideous at the time, with hours long, pay low and safety non-existent. However, just as troubling to pro-slavery forces were the people in the factories. Immigration was providing so-called ‘native’ Americans (who apparently had no concept of irony) with a scapegoats aplenty. During the early 19th century, the most reviled and inescapable of the ethnic groups flocking to this country were the Irish. Newspapers printed editorial cartoons featuring caricatures of the Irish that were not at all unlike the grotesques of African-Americans: protruded, simian facial features made to make them appear less human. The many social ills attributed to the Irish were also very similar to those said to be harbored by Blacks - drunkenness, violence, and a propensity for earthy and boisterous behavior. Irish were referred to as ‘light Negroes,’ and Blacks as ‘smoked Irish.’ They practiced a religion - Catholicism - which, in the eyes of most Americans at the time, was a bizarre and heathen cult full of strange rituals and devotions. This was not far from the public’s general perception of the ‘voodoo’ practiced by African slaves. In the growing cities’ ghettoes, Irish and free Blacks often lived next to each other, and it was popularly thought that, if ‘race-mixing’ would ever occur, it would occur between the two. At the time, the prediction was coming true.
At this time in history, skin color alone was far from being a passageway into decent society. However, what the Irish realized was that, for them to realize the American Dream, they would have to leave the African-Americans behind. Because of their skin color, the Irish at least had the luxury of being able to pretend they were something they weren’t. They could lose the brogue, change their name, and make their way in the world as a ‘native.’ Leaving behind the slaves eventually translated itself into outright antagonism, as the Irish knew that the linking of them to African-Americans in the public eye was their biggest stumbling block in the way of mass acceptance. The largely Irish precursors of labor unions were begun not only to guarantee fair wages and safety, but to also keep Blacks out of the workplace. It was not uncommon at this time for an entire work force to threaten to quit in the face of the threat of a Black co-worker. Race riots became increasingly common in America’s cities, usually started over jobs or slights, real and imagined. The biggest examples of these were the New York Draft Riots of 1863. Initially a protest against a draft which was adversely affecting the Irish poor population of the city, they translated into a full scale race war, with roving mobs burning Black churches and hanging Black people. Essentially, what the Irish discovered that they could do was make Blacks the extreme minority, the lowest of the low. It didn’t matter how bad off you were, as long as you could say you weren’t Black. This was a lesson to be handed off later to other hated but ‘white’ immigrant groups, such as the Italians and the Jews, and one practiced even today by current Asian and South American immigrants.
Using this example, we can see that the idea of ‘white’ is just that: an idea, a social construct that, while old, is by no means ancient and certainly not incontrovertible. What, then, is ‘white’? It is the overwhelming, vocal majority that punishes us in the form of nonsensical laws and inescapable media images. ‘White’ is the ruling class, determined by the attitude these people hold towards the population at large as much as by their skin color. Society’s norms determine what is ‘white’ and what isn’t. And what ‘white’ amounts to is the absence of color, devoid of spice and flavor, weak and venal, attractive only to those who need to get ahead in the eyes of the wooden rulers. There is no garlic in ‘white.’ It is completely devoid of zest. ‘White’s job is to remove unusual tastes from whoever it comes across in an effort to create uniformity. No spice rack in the ‘white’ kitchen. Only mayo and Wonder Bread. Because variety is confusing, and if there’s anything ‘white’ hates, it’s confusion.
‘White’ is, essentially, an idea constructed to make ruling the great masses an easier and less messy task. It distracts us from trying to solve problems and keeps us creating them while we point fingers at the different hues we hate. Therefore, if we desire to neither rule nor be ruled, then we stand opposed to the ‘white’ ideal and are therefore ‘non-white.’ This does not mean that we need immerse ourselves in African-American or other such oppressed cultures (though it certainly wouldn’t hurt). ‘White’ people have been doing this for centuries, from the slave master’s sons who would hang out with the field hands, to the rich Park Avenue kids who would sneak up to Harlem to hear some ‘hot jazz,’ to today’s mall rats who try to identify with the gangsta rappers MTV assaults them with. We are not speaking about dilletantism, or wholesale cultural theft. Instead, everyone should be encouraged to find the ‘non-white’ within themselves. This may entail delving into one’s ethnic background, or regional ties, or even geographic location. All we need do is find within ourselves that which ‘white’ society doesn’t not provide for us. It matters not what our skin color or ethnic background. If we choose to be ‘non-white,’ based on history, whitey will no doubt see us the same way.
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