September 4, 2018
Ethnicity, Race, The Definition of "White"

Adrian's book The Minority Experience is really good and thought-provoking. It brings up some interesting points about race. For one, that there is a difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity involves things like appearance, language, customs, and religious practices that distinguish groups like Italians and Irish. In contrast, race is a categorization that's historically been used for the purpose of social power. The concept of race was created to define a "white" race that could be used to control other non-white ethnicities.

That might sound controversial on first glance but it's undoubtedly true. I remember the first time I visited the museums on Ellis Island that revealed this in stark terms. There has never been a historically consistent definition of "white". The museums display many old posters and propaganda discussing about the need to protect the white race in the U.S.... from Irish and Italians. Eventually, these ethnic groups come to be included as "white", and later posters talk again about protecting the white race, but this time from Eastern Europeans - Poles and Slavs. Who nowadays are seen as white. The definition of "white", at least in America, keeps expanding, and one gets the sense that this expansion is not out of any sort of magnanimity, but to unify ethnic groups against a newer group that's seen as more immediately threatening, usually a new wave of immigrants. The concept of "white" is incoherent. Whether or not one come up with a consistent definition of white now, one can't trace a consistent definition through history. And whatever the definition of "white" that's been used in history, it's always been used to oppose some minority group. So the concept of race has always ultimately been about power.

I do find the fact that the category of "white" keeps expanding interesting though. I've always wondered the eventual limits of this expansion. I can imagine a world where Latinos are considered white. A lot of Mexicans look white already so it's not a huge stretch to include their browner brethren. But in my mind, I always assumed that Asians could never be included as white. The facial differences are just too stark and it seemed like a bridge too far.

I read something recently though that challenged my thinking on this, and I now believe Asians will eventually come to be seen as white, just not in the way I was thinking. Basically, it will happen through intermarriage. That article by Yglesias is pretty interesting, and it points out that whether America will be a majority-minority country really depends on how one defines white. If it's defined by someone who's exclusively white (by our current standards of white), whites will no longer be the majority around 2044. But if it includes people who are partly white, whites will still comprise 68.5% of the U.S. population in 2060. If one takes an inclusive definition of white, the U.S. will be majority white indefinitely.

Given history, I think the inclusive definition is far more likely to be used, and I think that's the method by which Asians will come to be seen as white, not directly, but via intermarriage. I already have cousins that are only 1/4 Asian. I can't speak for them but I'm guessing they see themselves primarily as white. As Yglesias writes, "These days, lots of white people would say their background is Italian and English or Irish and German rather than one or the other, but they also wouldn’t see themselves as belonging to an exotic 'mixed ethnicity' category. It’s simply the case that in American society, it’s common for people to be able to trace their ancestry in more than one direction.... In the future, the same basic reality is likely to apply to people who have one grandparent from Cuba (like me!) or China just as much as it does to people with one grandparent from the Czech Republic."

So yeah, race is an incoherent concept, especially the concept of "white", but I already have blood relatives who are probably considered white, and I bet that will continue in the future.

10:03 PM