Lee: Whiteness, beyond ethnicity


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The Whiteness Project has been online for some time now. Introduced as a multimedia project, the interactive investigation has white people in Buffalo, New York, talk about race. The website allows for both white people and people of color to get “inside the white/Caucasian box.” In other words, to consider the white identity through white people’s perspectives.

Director and producer Whitney Dow includes 21 sources. The digital space allows viewers to choose an individual and listen to a short clip of he or she answering questions about he or his race.

One woman says, “In my mind, it’s really just that box. It’s checking that box on the government form because literally that’s the only time I consider myself [white]. After that, I strictly think of myself in an ethnic way.”

After each person, the clip concludes with a fact or statistic. For example:

• The U.S. Census Bureau classifies respondents who write in a race of Italian, Polish, French, or German as “white.”

• 60 percent of working-class white Americans believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

• 70 percent of white millennial Americans did not grow up in families that talked about race.

• 75 percent of white Americans say their social networks are entirely white.

The videos encourage white people to reckon with their racial identity — and rightfully so. In the context of celebrating our nation’s multiculturalism, in which whiteness is taken for granted and white is the default racial group, what does it mean to interrogate whiteness?

The project’s intentions are good in the sense that it encourages everyone to think about the construction of whiteness and who is afforded that classification. It invites white people to reflect on themselves when race is at the centerfold of their intersecting identities.

For many white people, their gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, or religious affiliations may be their primary identities. For a moment, this project allows them to contemplate just how their racial identity interacts with and enhances their other social identities.

To be white in the LGBTQ community does not negate someone’s racial privilege. Neither does being white and self-identifying as a woman. A white person can be a member of the working-class and have excessive number of piercings and tattoos. Nevertheless, they are still white — an identity that holds tremendous significance in our world. 

Through the Whiteness Project, people in general can be more aware of the evolving, arbitrary, and very deliberate exclusivity of whiteness. What does it mean to have a very strict and narrow definition of who is white?

People of color are commonly referred to or associated with the “other” — an abstract entity that deviates from whiteness. When there are conversations about diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism, the primary focus are ethnic groups within the realm of whiteness — never the white racial identity itself. There is a tendency to list European nationalities, ethnic ties, and percentages. There is a want to move as far away from acknowledging the white race unless it is put in contrast with blackness or brownness. Without the “other,” whiteness is undefined.

We must be mindful of what whiteness is and how it functions in our world, our country, and on Iowa’s campus. It permeates in the classroom, through academic disciplines and course curriculum.

We must be willing to talk openly and honestly about whiteness and the white racial identity, without derailing the conversation and resorting to ethnicity or nationality.

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