Conservatives and "whiteness," continued

Over at my own blog, I’ve gotten a few excellent responses to my post on conservatives and “whiteness.”  In particular, commenter ECLI left this thoughtful dissent:

Allow me to register a dissent. (A prefatory comment: for those who don’t know me, I’m a Puerto Rican but a political conservative).

What your post fails to distinguish is that there are, in fact, different kinds of “whiteness,” some of which can be celebrated, some of which cannot. Specifically, white people who before would not have been considered white–Italians, Poles, Irish, Jews, etc.–can celebrate that aspect of themselves that in times past would have prevented them from being considered white: namely, their non-English ethnic identities. Jim Webb tried to celebrate the white Scots-Irish who settled the upland South, but he really only got away with it because (a) the folks he was talking were poor and marginalized despite their whiteness and (b) he delivered a red state to the Democrats.
But you cannot celebrate the white, English-descended culture that produced such important pre-Revolution cultural figures such as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, the generations of the Revolution and the Framing, and such 19th Century cultural figures as Melville, Hawthorne, Henry Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Oliver Wendell Holmes (both Sr. and Jr.), to pick a few random names.

Technically speaking, this is would be WASPiness, not whiteness, but either way a WASP could not say that a wise WASP judge would make better decisions that a wise [insert ethnic group here] judge. Yet this white, English-descended, protestant culture that developed in the original thirteen colonies between, say, the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and the rise of ethnic Italians and Irish in urban politics in the early 20th century (paving the way for their eventual incorporation into the American mainstream and thus “white” America) is undeniably a distinct ethnicity with its own religious, literary, cultural, and political traditions. This is an ethnic group that is not PC to celebrate, so multiculturalism as practiced in America sets up a double standard.

Now, this should probably be so: it would be absurd to have a “white (or WASP) history month” to rediscover these figures because they are the American canon. Moreover, this double standard is especially justified by WASP America’s historical treatment of minorities, African-Americans and Native Americans in particular.

So there is good reason for a double standard, but I think it is factually wrong to claim that there is no double standard or that there is no such as “whiteness.”

In short, you are right to say that a celebration of whiteness would be a celebration of privilege, but I think you are wrong to say that there is no such thing as whiteness as an ethnic identity. I think to claim otherwise is a way of avoiding the truer, but less popular claim, that there is a double standard and that it is justified.

I’m actually inclined to agree with ECLI here, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.  What do you think?


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • quadmoniker

    I think he proves your point, rather than disputes it. The way he’s defining whiteness here is by a history of privilege as we know it in America. The subculture he brings out, “white, English-descended, protestant culture” is just that, a subculture. It was the dominant culture that began to include other groups, but you can’t say they define whiteness any more than the poor Scots-Irish who settled in Appalachia. Pointing out that there are disparate groups of people who call themselves white doesn’t disprove that whiteness is a cultural construct. The things that set those groups apart from other groups we would now call white are the things about themselves they celebrate, just as it is with the other ethnic groups he mentioned that moved into whiteness later. Anglo-Saxon WASPS do celebrate the things that set them apart, they just call it something other than ethnicity. They call it history. Trust me. I live in Connecticut.

  • WASPS do celebrate it, they just call it something other than ethnicity. They call it history

    This was pretty much what I was going to say. Bagpipers playing Amazing Grace aren’t remembering a time when the Scots weren’t white, except as much as that national pride came from fighting for their rights at Culloden. Bostonians having high tea at the four seasons and riding around in double decker buses are celebrating history, just like the residents of Vancouver, BC are with their Victorian England in miniature on the Pacific. Oktoberfest celebrations full of beer, sauerkraut, and lederhosen are not about commemorating a time when German Americans were maltreated.

    I agree with your original point. “Whiteness” is socially constructed as a form of privilege and can’t be celebrated per se. Individual cultural histories — Englishness, Swissness, Dutchness, etc. — can absolutely be celebrated.

  • dilettante

    but either way a WASP could not say that a wise WASP judge would make better decisions
    for a very long time the WASP (and gender) was implicit in saying someone went to Princeton or Yale etc.

    This is an ethnic group that is not PC to celebrate, so multiculturalism as practiced in America sets up a double standard, oh but it is celebrated and I agree w/ quadmoniker. Its just called Americanism w/o any need to hyphenate, qualify, explain etc- it’s the default when the discussion moves into certain areas of considerations; such as Supreme court judges. Its the American in American exceptionalism (both old and new iterations) of that view.

  • young_

    I agree that much of the WASP heritage is celebrated as “American history” or even “western civilization” but as a normative matter, should it be wrong for WASPs to also explicitly celebrate their heritage as WASP heritage per se (in the sense that they should feel some special pride or connection to it)?

  • mute

    i think i agree that white can be considered an ethnic identity. i tried to cogently elaborate on why I think so, but it wasn’t working. sorry, but i just have questions:

    How rigid and enduring are the boundaries around ethnic identity? yes, people come here with their specific national and/or clan ethnic identities, but living in the United States under the heading of white (with all of the privileges relative to non-whites that that entails) are formative experiences on a group as well right? can’t these co-racialist “bonding” experiences lead to creation of a white ethnicity?

    and what happens (has happened) when white groups mix and the results of that mixing just think of themselves as white Americans and feel a common bond with other whites? are they “wrong” in defining themselves that way? can a person just have a race, but no ethnicity?

  • I actually disagree with this notion of a “double standard.”

    I know it doesn’t endear us to our white peers, friends and contemporaries to say this, but it is simply true : race as we know and experience it in America is construct that is predicated on power. This was the point you made in your original post that I think got lost in this whole, somewhat beside the point conversation of whiteness.

    There is not a reflexive relationship wherein A = B and B = A between whites and blacks (and other minorities), because what we are talking about in these instances are how power mediates social behavior. Meaning that our behavior toward white folks is marked differently because in the grand scheme of the social framework we lack the power that white folks do. Celebrating blackness is not the same as celebrating whiteness because the two races occupy a different place on the continuum of power.

    It’s only a “double standard” if in fact all races shared power in a relatively equitable fashion. Since this is not true, it is not a double standard. I see what ECLI is trying to say by saying it is one and that its justified, but making that point that way actually obscures the reality of how American society operates. Sure – it may be more palatable for white folks to think this is a justified injustice, rather than actual justice, but its intellectually dishonest and, I think, ultimately reinscribes the existing power dynamic rather than disrupt and dismantle it.

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