According to the Color Wheel, White is Not Actually a Color.

"Kiss Me, I'm Irish" T-Shirt.

The only time I saw any person call herself something she was not occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. A Japanese student walked past my dorm room wearing a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” T-shirt. Six years before our reading of Roots Too by Matthew Frye Jacobson for graduate school, I sat in my freshman year dorm room in Washington, DC wondering whether or not it was important to define yourself by race. And here we are again.

“White” does not come from a country or a continent, it comes from your point of view. On the first page of his book, Matthew Frye Jacobson discussed white citizens’ inclination to “dissociate themselves from the history and persistent reality of white privilege by emphasizing some purportedly not-quite-white background.” [1] People do not want to be categorized into an entity that they are not. So they search for what they are (or what they can claim to be). In this way, as Jacobson put it, “Italianess, Jewishness, Greekness, and Irishness had become badges of pride, not shame.” [2] After the Civil Rights movement, white ethnics tried to distance themselves from so-called “white privilege,” basically trying to say that “the nation’s crimes are not our own.” [3] It seems that white Americans tried to individually define themselves by connecting to different nationalities, making sure they were not defined by the stigma of white men past. The largest group in America separated into much smaller groups so they would not be defined as “the bad guy.” Do you think the effort was worthwhile?

Joseph P. Kennedy. Perhaps the quintessential American dreamer.

“What the hell do I have to do to be called an American?” Good question, Joseph Kennedy. [4] This is definitely the “hyphen nation.” [5] Long lists of complicated family histories and homelands? Let’s do it. I, for one, can say that I am Finnish-Italian-French-English-Dutch. If you looked at me, would you know that? Probably not. Do I call myself simply “American” most days? Sure. Do I check the “Caucasian” box on applications? Yup. Let me ask you this: if you stood in a room full of white people, would you say it was a diverse crowd? I would.

Group power is important when talking about race. When reading this passage, I was reminded of the saying “there is safety in numbers.” Inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots to find their own histories and genealogies, white Americans defined themselves by the homelands of their ancestors; Jacobson recognized each ethnic group’s need to prove that they were somehow oppressed, too. Where does this “underdog” mentality come from? Why is there a need to prove this status?

Alex Haley’s Roots, although written about Haley’s ancestors forced into slavery by white men, was a hit with white audiences. Could this genealogy phenomenon have anything to do with people wanting to prove that they had nothing to do with the evils committed in America? Or perhaps (rather, hopefully) it is because we all wonder, how did I get here? Why am I the way that I am? Why do I look the way I do? Would my ancestors be glad to see what this generation’s product is (me)? Perhaps we are all just double-checking on the American dream, making sure it’s still there and that you’re doing your part to reach it.

That could also just be pure American (which means Finnish-Italian-French-English-Dutch-landed-here-in-the-past-200-years) patriotism.

[1] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Ibid, 9.

[5] Ibid, 9.

Categories: cw

4 thoughts on “According to the Color Wheel, White is Not Actually a Color.

  1. During our first class we visited the Tenement Museum web page and as a class participated in a one of the online interactives. The visitor makes a flag out of an amalgamation of other country’s colors and symbols. While going through the process of creating a new flag, the side bar shows what each symbol or color on each country’s flag represents. This lead to the question, what if you don’t believe in something that your nation is postulating they stand for? What does that mean about you and your national identity? I think that the argument for people claiming a non-white heritage is, in part shame, but can also be seen as a declaration against what White privilege stands for.

  2. I think that, given America’s relatively short history, that there’s a certain romance about looking back a century or two to a place thousands of miles of away and saying, “My ancestors came from there.” It’s easy to disassociate from modern America, which seems so focused on commercialism and efficiency and shallow stuff, and instead identify with this “homeland,” which has (or at least is perceived to have) some deeper, more meaningful character, history, and lore.

    Even if they have the most tenuous of connections with a country (I’m 1/16 Swiss!) and little to no real modern or historical knowledge of the area from which their ancestors came (the mailing address of County Tipperary, Horse and Jockey Post Office is about as much as I know about my Irish ancestors), it still has that aura of mystery about it that’s attractive to many people (myself included :)).

  3. In contrast to this need to identify with oppression: the Drake side of my family is incredibly proud of being 100% English. Thomas Drake crossed the Atlantic 370 years ago, so I’m a little skeptical, but we have a family genealogy, a family crest, and even a family motto.

    There is a Drake urban legend that my great-great-grandfather was Spanish or Mexican (no one knows – which is a problem in and of itself), but my relatives tend to ignore that, and I heard the story from my mother. The Roots phenomenon took hold with the Drakes, but only to connect with our heritage and homeland, and they completely reject the opportunity to claim membership of the “hyphen nation.” Nope, instead my family celebrates its elitist white privilege and supposed blue blood purity.

    I mean, “the eagle catches no flies.” It’s difficult to claim oppression when you’re supposedly 100% English, and it’s much easier to celebrate that heritage than renounce it entirely.

  4. As a person who is German through and through (okay maybe with a dash of French Hugenot in there somewhere) and hailing from an area in which the majority of everyone else is German, the importance of place also comes up when talking about my ethnic roots. In Lancaster, there seems to be more emphasis on how long your family has been connected with the area, not your actual ethnic heritage. On both my mother’s and father’s sides, our family names are connected with not just our county but specific areas within. Generations of Freys owned large agricultural areas in the west side of the county along the Susquehanna River. Haversticks were quite influential in the centrally located city of Lancaster (my ancestors even popped up in an article we read for American Material Cultures). Geographic areas in Lancaster are often known by family names: the Frey Farm, Schaum’s Corner, Mylin’s Corner are all areas in which the family may be gone, but their name and identity is still associated. I wonder how this element of place changes or influences the importance of ethnicity in other areas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s