OPINION: 'Whites must recognize their racial identity, too'

Alex Andrasik, Finger Lakes Justice Partnership
The next public gathering of the Finger Lakes Justice Partnership at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 16 in front of the Old Yates County Courthouse.

Race is considered taboo in American society, at the same time that it is an inescapable factor in the experiences of millions of people every day.  Driving this complicated relationship is the fact that most white Americans don't understand their own racial identity. In this column, Finger Lakes Justice Partnership would like to share some facts concerning race and whiteness, and encourage reflection on the part of readers.

First, it’s important to recognize that race is a social construct.  There is no “white gene” or “Asian gene” or anything similar.  Humanity has always classified and divided itself, but classification on the basis of race is a relatively recent development.  Indeed, the concept of race couldn’t exist without economics to provide a reason to codify people in this way.

In an excellent TED Talk, journalist John Biewen explained the assumptions he harbored about the origins of race before looking into its true history. He had believed that sometime in the distant past, two groups of early humans encountered each other.  Ascribing deeper meaning to the superficial differences in their appearance, a prototype of race relations was born, which was expanded upon in human interactions throughout history.

That origin story is false, Biewen explained; the actual invention of race can be traced to a sole individual: a 15th-century Portuguese writer, charged by his king to justify the profits that had exploded from their explorers’ enslavement of African peoples in the New World.  Deeming them “other” than the Europeans pressing them into servitude rendered it legally and morally feasible to entrench the slave trade and the plantation culture dependent on it.  From its inception, the story of race is one of exploitation and brutality.

As soon as the racial category of “Black” was created, another category necessarily arose with it: white.  But understanding whiteness has always been difficult, in part because it is defined less by what it is than by what it is not.  This has allowed it to be malleable, expanding from its birth to encompass most western European identities, later absorbing initially-precluded groups like Irish and Italian people. The role of class within the concept of whiteness cannot be overlooked, as wealthier, more privileged white people held the promise of superiority over “mere slaves” out to poorer whites.  The existence of a permanently-enslaved underclass in the early United States was a potent lure for numerous impoverished white citizens to uphold the interests of the wealthy elite: “You may not be us,” the elite said, “but at least you’re not them.”

This may be the reason why race is such a sensitive topic today: it was deeply ingrained in us not to question the reprehensible system that created our social structure.  That dynamic has played out repeatedly since the abolition of slavery, in the violent reaction of many whites to the gains made by Black Americans in the generations that followed.  We don’t realize it, but we’re acting out the scripts set for us by our societal ancestors.  White Americans hesitate to look at our whiteness, convinced it’s the neutral human setting from which all other racial identities are deviations - which, in turn, renders us racially “innocent,” in the way that children are innocent of cultural wrongdoing.

With whiteness set as the “default,” those of us who are white have access to an assumption of individuality that is not extended to members of other groups.  Since being white is not seen to influence our identities, we can choose who we want to be, while others remain part of undifferentiated and stereotyped groups.  The reality is that we are all unique individuals, at the same time that we are all parts of larger social and cultural groups whose histories and values help shape us.  Our whiteness works to shield us from the need to recognize the limitations of our individuality and the significance of our communal identities.

We understand that this is a lot to take in. There are other facets to race and whiteness that we plan to address in future columns.  In the meantime, we invite you to reflect on your racial identity, whatever it is: what are its cultural or social aspects?  What is its history?  As always, please share your thoughts with us at flxjustice21@gmail.com.  We are still learning, and we hope to learn together. 

Finally, please join us for the next public gathering of the Finger Lakes Justice Partnership at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 16 in front of the Old Yates County Courthouse.

This column was submitted by Alex Andrasik of the Finger Lakes Justice Partnership.