Tag Archives: whiteness

Race: The Power of an Illusion (Part III: The House I Live In)

Even though it’s the third film in a three-part series, The House I Live In may be the most helpful for understanding the current state of racial affairs in the US (it’s the one I’ve shown the most in my classes). It covers both the social construction of race, how European ethnic immigrants became racially white, and how affirmative action benefited white people.

There’s a bit of an introduction at the beginning that helps to connect to the first two parts in the series, to make the case that race is not biological, but how that does not make it any less real. Race has social meaning and significance because there has been public policy and private action in support of it. The best way to see this happen is by following the history of immigrants who enter the United States, and whether they get classified as white or as something else. For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant “race science” of the time focused on the struggles of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Of key concern to these supposed scientists was how these immigrants would be fit into the existing racial hierarchy. The impoverishment experienced by these European ethnic immigrants caused their neighborhoods to be dirty, unhealthy, and dangerous, thus leading to the conclusion that there was something “biological” about these groups that was inferior—their diseases, pathologies, crime, and intelligences were all allegedly linked to inheritable traits.

Of course, these new immigrants looked a little bit like the white Americans already in the US, definitely more so than Blacks from Africa or American Indians. It was unclear as to whether these south-east European immigrants were from separate races or “in-between peoples” who would eventually change race. This drives home the documentary’s point about social construction very clearly: these immigrants were not racially white then, although their descendants are considered white today. Or, as an interview rhetorically asks, what does race mean in conditions where individual US states could dictate the racial boundaries? For example, southern US states had different rules for who was Black—one-eighth, one-sixteenth, or any African ancestry—thus meaning that people could “literally, legally change race” simply by going over a state line.

For European ethnics, whiteness was the clear path to citizenship—one had to be considered white under law to be a citizen. Every other immigrant group knew this, too, and many petitioned courts to be considered legally white. This will surprise many viewers to hear: that someone’s racial status was not immediately known and that it could be legally changed. Various groups had successfully petitioned to be classified as white, particularly people from the Middle East and North Africa (the film doesn’t mention it, but the same thing was true for mestizo from Mexico). In other words, courts were in the business of ascribing race and, thus, citizenship to entire groups of people—often for the most spurious of reasons. Two cases studies are presented in The House In Live In: the first of a Japanese immigrant named Takawa Ozawa. He petitions in 1915 to naturalize and he argues that his skin was as white as most white people and that his beliefs were solidly American. He acted American, dressed American, his children only had white friends, and they attended a Christian church. The US Supreme Court, however, ruled that he was not biologically white (given the faulty racial science of the day), but rather Asiatic. Only months later, the Supreme Court decided another race case, this time pertaining to Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind. This time, Thind makes the scientific “argument” that he is Caucasian, because Indians are classified as Aryan. Unsurprisingly, the Court reverses its earlier logic, denying that this scientific reality means anything of substance and that “the common [white] man” knows perfectly well how to discern whiteness. And, to the all-white male Court, Thind and other Indians were not white. Due to these decisions pertaining to Asian immigrants, many Japanese farmers in on the West coast had their land taken from them and other Indian immigrants had their naturalized citizenship stripped from them. The film argues that still today, people of Asian descent are not considered American, even when they’ve lived in the United States for many generations; FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is just the most extreme proof of this.

After World War II, most of the meaning behind European ethnic differences melts away (a few religious incongruities aside). The key racial questions had always centered on Black-white, and this again becomes the dominant concern in the post-war era. Whiteness is of central significance as it grants exclusive rights and the now-legitimate “hard-work” of whites will enable social mobility. Middle-class status is achieved for many of these newly-assimilated whites by government-funded and -enabled affirmative action programs. The House I Live In does not make this explicit (although it is essentially arguing it), that European immigrants entered the middle-class due to affirmative action that raised their standards of living, gave them access and resources, and specifically gave them land and housing. The film focuses here on the Federal Housing Administration’s efforts to broaden homeownership in the US and Levittown, New York serves as the example to show this. Like most new suburbs, incoming residents to Levittown were overwhelmingly white. Blacks had trouble gaining access to racially-exclusive neighborhoods, but also to getting any government-subsidized loans because the minority neighborhoods they lived in were given high-risk security ratings. Financial underwriters warn against investment in minority communities (labeled as bad investments) and thus classified neighborhoods, in part, based on racial composition, assigning them the color red: thus, “red-lining” is born. These minority neighborhoods stay minority-dominated, because people of color couldn’t get loans there. Economic resources go elsewhere—mainly to whites and to suburbs—thus exaggerating the poverty of minority neighborhoods. Non-whites constitute only two percent of all the government loan recipients!

Being white is thus associated with being a homeowner. Even working class whites get this opportunity and they can even live in suburbs. Racially homogeneous suburban communities are created, while Blacks are particularly left out of new housing markets. Then, the federal government engages in “urban renewal”, deciding to get rid of old housing stock. This overwhelmingly affects people of color. The government does not replace the majority of this housing and new public housing is cited in poor, minority neighborhoods and built as “vertical ghettos” (tall apartment buildings). When the Fair Housing Act enables minorities to have access to all-white neighborhoods, some middle-class Blacks are able to move. When they do, they take their [modest] wealth with them (and out of the poor minority neighborhood). And their new white neighbors’ racial fears are preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders who offer them cheap prices for their houses, so they can leave before the threatened “racial invasion” happens (this process is called blockbusting). People claim that the influx of minorities lowers the housing values of a neighborhood, but it is clearly the quick abandonment by whites who undersell the value on their houses that does this. In other words, minorities do not cause problems for housing values and neighborhood stability—white racism does. The resulting white flight leads to ever more suburbanization.

The film ends by considering how it could be possible for the US to be a “colorblind” society. Even though The House I Live In was made in the pre-Obama era, the analysis remains the same: stark racial inequalities, including an incredible racial wealth gap (as most American’s wealth is held in housing equity), gives lie to the claim that we live in a post-racial society. Even though MLK spoke famously about such a colorblind future, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva observes that many white Americans believe that such a future has already arrived, and thus the concept of race is unimportant, maybe even meaningless. But he and others make the strong case there race must be part of any analysis in a society unequal by race. They quote Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun who said that the only way to deal with racism is to talk about it openly and not pretend it doesn’t exist. In other words, the path to colorblindness, can only result from a very colored national discourse and reconciliation.

Topics: race, social construction, inequality, whiteness

Whitewashed: Unmasking the World of Whiteness

A provocative film, that is also the perfect length to show in a class, Whitewashed flips the typical narratives about race upside-down. Instead of whites bemoaning “political correctness” or even asking people of color to articulate their experiences of inequality, this documentary approaches white Americans about their experiences as whites. Some interviewees are of the “people on the street” variety, often expressing the former sentiment above, of “what’s the big deal?”. But, most of the interviewees are reflexive whites, who have thought a good deal about their racial privileges—and many are even avowed anti-racist activists. The only “famous” interviewee is Tim Wise—whose inclusion seems to have provoked neo-Nazi rage in the comments section on the YouTube copy of the film, who seem to suspect am anti-white, “Zionist conspiracy” (an articulate person—even a white person—talking about racial inequality seems to be enough to piss-off Nazis). But, interestingly, the film is an all-white space in which whites dialogue about that which they rarely talk about: whiteness. The film includes a wide variety of perspectives, but is far more illuminating than the average conversation about race amongst whites.

Whitewashed addresses a variety of questions regarding whiteness. The first question—where’d white people come from?—seems unanswerable to the average person. The anti-racist interviewees, however, note the appearance of “whites” occurring alongside European immigrant assimilation to the US. Giving-up their ethnic heritage allowed these immigrants to acquire the benefits of “whiteness” in America. The most provocative questions—and the ones that garner the most interesting answers—pertain to what it means to be white, and white people’s experiences with racism and privilege. As it turns out, while most whites never reflect upon their race, while anti-racist whites acknowledge that their whiteness offers them an incredible array of privileges, especially vis-a-vis minorities.

There’s a lengthy series of interviewees reflecting upon their privileges; being able to avoid racial profiling (especially by the police) seems to be a key one. A viewer might attribute a certain level of bravery to the interviewees who reflect upon their experiences of privilege, the shabby treatment of people of color (sometime inadvertently at their own hands), and what that means for their lives today. Admitting to be a racist—as one older male does early on—is a powerful admittance. But, as a younger woman reflects later, understanding the consequences of being raised in a racist society and holding racist views, was something that was largely out of her hands—therefore, she focused on dealing with her latent racism and carrying on with her life trying to be a better anti-racist.

The film’s aesthetic is appealing: old photos of European immigrants entering the US is juxtaposed with all black-n-white interview footage (the political message to this “colorless” choice is clear). The transitional music is light and playful, which is unexpected given the heavy-handed, sinister music that often accompanies documentaries of this variety. The film’s director is a sociologist and organizer, as well as the director of the Mary Turner Project, which was established to commemorate the life of the lynched Black woman named Mary Turner, as well as the event and institution that facilitated her death in southern Georgia in 1918. As a racial education and reconciliation project, Whitewashed fits well within the mission of generating a deeper dialogue about the meaning and significance of race and racism, especially amongst whites, who seem oblivious to it and who are arguing even more avidly about its supposed irrelevance.

For the sake of transparency, I must admit to knowing the director. I even appear in the film and am shown as a relatively competent, reflective white person. That said, one of my favorite parts of watching Whitewashed was the venue I was able to first see it in. The premiere public showing included numerous other interviewees in the audience as well as many dozens of college students, roughly evenly split between white and Black. The discussion afterward was amazing and just what I assume the director desired. White students seemed impressed to hear other whites speak so candidly about race and their own privileges—something whites rarely do amongst each other. Black students were shocked by both how much privilege whites has in relation to them and that some whites were actually very aware of it (on both counts, the Black students didn’t know whites “got away with” so much, nor did they think any whites understood how much discrimination and inequality people of color experience). After the film, both white and Black students told personal stories that reflected upon things that interviewees had said (especially in respect to differential treatment by police), which helped to create a fascinating discussion around whiteness.

There’s a challenge or two, to viewing Whitewashed. Audiences will have to watch closely in order to distinguish between the “a-racial” person on the street and the anti-racist interviewees. Sometimes there’s overlap, but usually the consequences of what they say is starkly 180-degrees in difference. Generally, the a-racial people are actually outside, while most of the anti-racist are interviewed indoors (but this is not 100 percent the case). The ambiguity between these two poles of opinion might help people be as critical as possible about what is said.

The only other thing that a studious observer might note about the people included is that, while diverse in terms of gender (and maybe sexuality), the anti-racist whites seem much more middle-class, at least judging by how articulate they are (indicating their higher socio-economic status). The a-racial people on the street sound more working class and have much stronger Southern accents. While this may perpetuate stereotypes about racist “rednecks” and more “enlightened” middle-class whites, this is not universally the case, and Whitewashed avoids making easy caricatures for audiences to fall for.

The best contribution of Whitewashed—beyond getting people to talk about race and whiteness—is that is shows the part of the “race conversation” that seems to always be overlooked. The people with race privilege, often staffing the bureaucracies involved in institutionalized racist discrimination, and who decry raising issues of race (let alone admitting to its importance), are usually white. To ignore these patterns is tragic. Hearing whites—in some respects, modern-day John Brown, white-privilege-defectors—talk about these privileges and the resultant problems is an important experience for everyone. The film informs people of color that they do have some white allies and it puts other whites on-notice that not everyone sharing their skin color is of the same mind about what it means to be white in America.

Topics: race, inequality, whiteness, privilege