Maeve Higgins: Identifying as white in the made-up race racket

The myth of whiteness, and the presumption it is the 'normal' setting of humankind, could be creating a world of trouble
Maeve Higgins: Identifying as white in the made-up race racket

Arriving in the US, an immigrant can be startled by how swiftly he or she has to be 'raced' to live there. As an Irish person with pale skin, Maeve Higgins was determined to be 'white'.

There are lots of ways I would choose to define myself if asked; a menace, a treasure, an absolute doll, but it’s unfortunately also important to define myself by my race.

There are parts of the world where you could ostensibly live a long and happy life without knowing you have a race or ever realising what race you are. 

The US is resolutely not one of those parts of the world — it’s quite the opposite. Immigrants to the US, like myself, are often taken aback at how quickly and definitively we are raced. You have to get ‘raced’ in order to be of a race you see, that’s the term for it.

So, I am white. 

Maybe I’m ‘a white’ or perhaps even ‘a great white’, depending on the day. In any case, it’s important that I am raced because often white people dodge being raced at all, even though we’re the ones who came up with the whole scam in the first place.

What does it mean to be white?

For the first time, the 2020 census showed the US white population was shrinking, down 3% (or about 5.1m people) from 2010 to 2020. Despite its decline, the white population of the US was 192m in 2020, so it remains the nation’s single-largest racial or ethnic group.

A recent Pew Research Center survey reports that the majority of US adults, 61%, say the decreasing share of Americans who identify their race as white is “neither good nor bad for society”. The correct answer to a pretty strange question, in my view.

The more salient question is, what is white?

Not biology but history

You probably already know that there isn’t any scientific or biological basis to race, and race is not something innate, but something assigned. None of us arrives into the world with any notion that we are Asian or white or black. Those categories and our place within them are something we learn over time, with some races learning faster than others, through necessity.

We don’t usually get to choose how we’re raced either — in the case of immigrants, it depends on what colour we are and where we have come from. There is one more crucial component to the classification, which shows the ‘make it up as we go along’ nature of race in the US — the timing of an immigrant’s arrival.

As an Irish person with pale skin and blue eyes moving to the US in the past decade, I was immediately white. Had I gotten there 200 years ago, with the same pale skin and blue eyes, I would not have been white.

Winning privilege by joining one's oppressors

A fact we love to ruminate on is that the Irish back then were oppressed and often unwelcome, even in the so-called New World.

The United States, after all, was founded primarily by the descendants of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who justified genocide and enslavement on the grounds that they were superior to everybody else. The hundreds of thousands of Irish people showing up did not fit into their social class, perceived as they were then as uncivilised and troublesome.

The Irish, along with other new arrivals, including Italians and Greeks, occupied a sort of grey zone until they all began to behave just like the white people already there.

Largely, the new Irish immigrants did this through excluding black Americans from the workforce by enforcing segregation and refusing any actions that could be seen as solidarity with those so deeply oppressed in their new land. The Irish threw themselves into the fight to uphold white supremacy using any means necessary, including violence.

The Irish turned to labour unions, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic party to secure their identities as people no longer on the bottom rung of society, as explained by the historian Noel Ignatiev.

In his classic work How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev explains: “Since ‘white’ was not a physical description but one term of a social relation which could not exist without its opposite, ‘white man’s work’ was simply work from which Afro-Americans were excluded.”

The social evolution of the Irish in the US was midwifed by their complicity in anti-blackness, and this ran parallel with their elevation into whiteness.

Ignatiev holds that the Irish played a huge role in upholding slavery, not merely by directly benefiting from it, as some of them did, but by ‘becoming white’: 

The truth is not, as some historians would have it, that slavery made it possible to extend to the Irish the privileges of citizenship by providing another group for them to stand on, but the reverse, that the assimilation of the Irish into the white race made it possible to maintain slavery.

We 'white' people benefit from the fiction of race 

Though it is not a scientific reality, the belief that race means something has tangible effects and consequences in our day-to-day experiences.

This isn’t a simple mix-up or an inherited goof — there remains one group with a heavily vested interest in keeping the fiction going, because it benefits them in all manner of ways.

In the US, when you’re white, you’re increasingly likely to have more generational wealth, a higher income, and greater access to healthcare and education than if you’re black or Hispanic.

'Whiteness' weaponised

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Louis Till was falsely accused of offending a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, and was subsequently kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. File picture: AP
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Louis Till was falsely accused of offending a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, and was subsequently kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. File picture: AP

That is all clear to see from the numbers — but one of the much sneakier and more frightening aspects of whiteness is how it can be weaponised in ways that completely terrorise people of other races.

That’s just what Carolyn Bryant Donham did back in 1955, inciting one of the nation’s most notorious and shameful murders. She accused Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi, of whistling and being sexually suggestive towards her. Two white men abducted, tortured, and killed Till.

Decades later, in his book The Blood of Emmett Till, Duke University professor Timothy B Tyson wrote that Donham admitted that her allegations that Till grabbed her and was sexually aggressive to her were not even true, although that hardly matters. 

Photographed the same year she falsely accused Emmett Till of harassing her — leading to the child's torture and lynching — Carolyn Bryant Donham passed away peacefully in 2014. Picture: Gene Herrick/AP
Photographed the same year she falsely accused Emmett Till of harassing her — leading to the child's torture and lynching — Carolyn Bryant Donham passed away peacefully in 2014. Picture: Gene Herrick/AP

She had weaponised her whiteness, and her gender too, and white men murdered a child because of it.

So you may well ask, if race is a made-up concept and is constantly shifting boundaries that I don’t even have a say in, and if race has provided a path for violence and subjugation for white people to follow, why would I want to identify as white?

Well, it’s because I do live in the United States and, by choosing to live there, it’s my responsibility to be conscious of and contextualise my experience as much as my little brain will allow me to.

Besides, a common trap I’m trying to avoid is one white people walk into constantly, which is one where they don’t think they have a race. They just think whiteness is the norm, it’s the middle ground, a neutral place where all other experiences deviate from. 

That’s another made-up story, a set of careful lies and deliberate myths stretching back centuries, but still powerful enough to create a world of trouble today.

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