May 29, 2007

PG Gets Recruited by Whiteness

by PG

Pulled over for a speeding violation today, I discovered that the grouping of Asians with whites that David Schraub predicts already has occurred -- on my speeding ticket. Under "Race," I was noted as W, and according to the key at the bottom of the page, W = White. But I think this may have been an incomplete recruitment, inasmuch as there is still an A = Asian of Pacific Islander in the key as well. I have been mistaken for Latina once or twice before, yet this error was not made by the traffic cop; under "Ethnic Orig," I got the NH that = Non-Hispanic.

I find the ticket weirdly fascinating, as I try to work out what was going through the police officer's mind when he filled out the description of me. Name, age, eye color and height could be found on my driver's license; hair color through a moment's observation. But what about weight (which he flatteringly underestimated*)? How does he know I'm non-Hispanic? Why did he categorize as White a person who is clearly not of European origin and, if given such a form, would self-identify among the various options as being Asian? Perhaps U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind has been reversed de facto.

A factor that Schraub did not consider in theorizing about other groups' ascending to the privileges of Whiteness is whether those groups want to be White. I think this is due to his purely hierarchical consideration of race; if whites are at the top, wouldn't everyone want to be at the top too? But inasmuch as whites historically will expand to include groups that earlier were not given those privileges (e.g. Irish and Catholics generally, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Jews), this tends to require some submersion of the qualities, whether real or perceived, that distinguished those groups. For the most part, this probably needs only a little willful blindness on the part of WASPs, such that being Catholic instead of Protestant doesn't really matter anymore, as long as you're still a white Christian. But it also may demand some covering by the recruited group itself.

This raises the question of whether Asians want to cover and be assimilated into "might as well be White, they're so similar." For many whites, being colorless -- i.e., the de-racialized norm -- has been pushed by the forces of secularism and ethnic intermarriage into being somewhat tradition-less as well. References to Christianity are modified to "Judeo-Christian." Phenomena like the Apache prayer described by Rebecca Mead, which one officiant charges $1000+ to say though it actually was made up for a 1950 Western, indicate that many people whose ancestors deracialized them are now searching for some kind of tradition to grab onto, even one made up by Hollywood and purveyed at ridiculous prices.**

WASPs are also dropping some of the old signifiers. Consider President Bush, who is about as WASPy as they come: the third generation of wealthy New England-born politicians, the product of expensive boarding schools and Ivy League colleges. Though raised Episcopalian -- the post-Revolutionary American version of the Church of England's Anglicanism -- G.W. Bush is now a United Methodist, a denomination less identified with power and privilege. His brother Jeb, after marrying a Mexican Roman Catholic, converted to her faith.

I think what America actually is moving toward is a more class-based hierarchy than a race-based one. Already some liberals argue against racial affirmative action on the ground that it merely entrenches the advantages of family education and income, and that these are the privileges about which we should be most concerned. I have some sympathy for this view, but would prefer eventually to end all forms of affirmative action by increasing equality in health and education for children in the years before they become college students or workers, rather than simply substituting various measures like the percentage of an applicant's high school classmates who received free lunches to determine whether the applicant likely was underprivileged and therefore should be more actively recruited or admitted.

* I suspect that if there is any training given on how to fill out what otherwise seems like a fairly self-explanatory form, it includes an admonition to low-ball weight in the interests of minimizing police-civilian conflict.

** From my perspective, it's the "traditionalesque" aspect of American weddings that's truly new and strange. The stress and scale are less exceptional; Hindus have bankrupted themselves for a daughter's dowry and wedding. The number of decisions made for the contemporary, middle to upper class American wedding, however, seem to be something unique, like an elaborated Starbucks order writ large. Sure, a Hindu bride's father might have to sell a kidney to get her married off, but once the various payments to the groom's family -- both literal and in the form of free meals during the course of festivities for themselves and their friends -- are made, there aren't so many choices for the couple or even their family. The temple astrologer will tell them the auspicious day and time at which to marry, and a mix of religious and local traditions dictate how the bride will be dressed (red sari), what the priest will say (a lot of Sanskrit) and footwear for the wedding party (none).

May 29, 2007 12:53 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Neat story!

I want to clarify that I agree that a given minority group might not "want" to be White--indeed, that Asians might be in a position to mount a challenge to being grouped as "White" while still maintaining social privileges. But even if a group doesn't want to be White ideally, Whiteness has methods of "persuading" the group to accept it. It's not just that privileges might be withheld, it's also the implied threat of renewed oppression.

I used the example of Jews to illustrate--I think that the process of becoming essentially White Christians has done tremendous damage to Jews in America. But the implied alternative was always returning to Auschwitz. In such a context, it's understandable why a group might acquiesce to its enlistment in Whiteness even if would prefer to stay independent.

Posted by: David Schraub at May 29, 2007 10:59 PM
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