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Race as a Social Construct in the United States: White vs. Non White and Us vs. Them

Posted November 24th, 2012 at 12:41 PM by SW412
Updated November 24th, 2012 at 01:20 PM by SW412

The concept of Whiteness has its roots in early-colonial America, when Northern European colonists (largely from England) sought to forge an identity that existed in direct opposition to the indigenous peoples of the continent and Sub-Saharan African slaves, who were viewed by the settlers as culturally inferior, pagans.

Over the years, as Anglo culture became mainstream within the United Sates, the cultural divide between Whites and non-Whites (particularly Blacks) became less pronounced, due to the latter adopting Christianity and the use of English as their primary (if not only) language, race - out of the necessity for Whites to continue to maintain the distinction between "Us and Them" and their dominance within the nation - became intrinsically tied to physical appearance and the concept of innate inferiority of "darker" peoples became more prevalent, paving the way for the Eugenics movement of the late 1800's/early-mid 1900's, which promoted the idea of biologically inferior, dysgenic groups of people.

White has also long been an ever-expanding term; while groups such as Germans were readily accepted into its definition, Southern and Eastern Europeans struggled to achieve this status. Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, among others were all seen as non-White upon their arrival. Partially due to their darker physical appearance, partially due to their cultural "foreignness". Methods were even put in place to halt immigration from these groups, such as the National Origins Act, of 1924. In the long run, however, these groups were gradually accepted into the White category; however, it's important to examine the reason behind this acceptance.

These immigrant groups numbered in the millions, and their numbers were only growing; without identifying them as White, Whites could very well have faced a loss in their majority status. "Them" would soon outnumber "Us". As such, these groups were quickly made to realize their Whiteness (an identity they would not have had in their native-lands), a status many groups continue to covet, as it continues to be the fastest route toward upward mobility (hey also realized the easiest way to be accepted as White was to discriminate against non-Whites, which is likely the reason these groups have earned their reputation as being particularly racist).

As this demonstrates, anyone who can be White, becomes White, in this nation - and this continues to ring true, today. It's vital for new immigrant groups to become White, to both the immigrants themselves and Whites. The former gains a higher social standing and opportunity for advancement, while the latter retains their hegemony and status of majority over groups who, sadly, continue to be viewed as inferior (particularly, Blacks).

In modern times, the United States is seeing largescale immigration from Latin Americans. These people are often time viewed the same way as other groups - such as Italians - were, in the past; non-White, swarthy, criminalistic, foreigners, considered to be on par with Blacks. However, they are not legally defined as non-White; in fact, over half of Latin Americans identify as White, and as generations pass, and they lose their "foreign" image, this number will continue to grow. Even though many are Mestizo (mixed race), they continue to follow that pattern see by other immigrants before them (already earning a reputation for being racist towards Blacks; a subconscious tactic to gain acceptance from the majority race).


If we are to truly move forward as a nation, we need to stop seeing ourselves in terms of race. This is not to say that we should deny our long history of diversity - quite the opposite. Instead, we should accept and celebrate our diversity on a more authentic level - one that places emphasis on the importance of ethnicity, culture, history, and heritage. Do away with umbrella terms (such as White) which, containing no cultural content, are superficial and meaningless, and only serve the purpose of suppressing the internal cultural diversity of those who fall under that category, in addition to promoting division, and social exclusion/marginalization of groups and individuals who fall outside its definition.

If we can allow ourselves to seek our identity from our culture and heritage, instead of race (effectively eliminating the idea of majority vs. minority, White vs. non-White, and Us vs. Them), reject the idea of a mainstream, Anglo-American culture that we all must assimilate into to belong in this country, and accept one another's differences and our multicultural identity, we can finally move on as a truly racially-undivided nation.

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  1. Old Comment
    Silkroad's Avatar
    Well, in regard to the whiteness in Europe, the thing is that it pretty much has to do with the north-south divide, rather than an east-west one. The way this ethnocentric value system was derived and ended up becoming part of the American understanding of “race” and/or ethnie had to do with the other divide in Europe, which fell pretty much into the same geographical category, with the expectation of eastern Europe which was constructed as “southern”. “White” were the highly industrialized countries like Germany, GB (Ireland due to its agricultural economy was considered not white enough by many), the Scandinavian countries, Austria, and Switzerland. The rest of Europe and the eastern nations were thought of as non-white because they apparently were too “primitive” being agricultural economies.

    So the race issue—and I still don’t think that humans ought to be categorized into races—is one of socio-economics.
    The debate in the US about them vs. us is apparently grounded in that same attitude. How are immigrants from various ethnies/ethnicities perceived? If I were German and had a darker complexion, how would people react if they knew I was an immigrant? Would my being German make me easier to accept than if I were assumed to be an Italian, or a Spaniard? I would still be European, but what kind, the acceptable or the unacceptable?

    Within Europe national origin matters a great deal in relation to the north-south divide and the valuation conditioned therein. In the US, the same is true in regard to skin color and place of origin. As long as we follow the light is good and dark is bad dichotomy racism and the social cost associated with it is going to take its toll.

    Is skin color really legally definable? Isn’t it more an issue of social categorization and a mark that people make on a census form?
    As long as we invest meaning in the term race and people define their identity by what they are not and by what differentiates them from others, we will not become a “raceless” society that values people for the contributions they make rather than putting them into color coded boxes that delineate “our” expectations of “them”.
    Posted November 24th, 2012 at 07:18 PM by Silkroad Silkroad is offline

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