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Jan 08 2013

The revolving door of white privilege

One of the most fascinating case studies to consider when trying to underline the point that race is socially constructed (rather than an emergent property of biology) is the gradually-shifting definition of ‘whiteness’. ‘White’ was a label that has seen many redefinitions over the years in North America, as people who were previously forcibly excluded (e.g., Italians, Irish, Jews) were gradually and begrudgingly included under that privileged umbrella. It is an open question as to what extent political expediency versus demographics versus socioeconomic power played in this reclassification, but one cannot ignore the fact that it happened.

Canada is not immune from this reclassification pattern either. While the original political power in the nation of Canada was divided between those of English and French descent, the threat of American expansion and the promise of abundant resources forced the government of Canada to open its doors to large numbers of immigrants. As that (mostly and intentionally white) immigration happened, the definition of ‘white’ faced some serious pressures, both political and economical, prompting a shift that matches the one happening in the USA.

It is this history that makes the following story worth a brief comment:

A Conservative MP says Manitoba’s Tory leader should not have to apologize for racist comments that his party’s former youth wing president posted on Facebook last week. St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover says aboriginal leaders are wrong to politicize Braydon Mazurkiewich’s remarks, which sparked a public uproar after he called aboriginal people “freeloading Indians.”

Mazurkiewich resigned as the PC Party’s youth wing president hours after he posted the comments on his Facebook page on Friday. However, he remains a party member. Some First Nations leaders, including Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, have since been calling on Pallister to denounce Mazurkiewich’s comments and apologize publicly to First Nations citizens.

Now there’s really not much worth abstracting from the story itself. High-ranking volunteer says something racist on a social media network, resigns in disgrace. I’m not sure how much I share the desire for an apology from an MP who is from a different political organization (The Progressive Conservatives and the Conervative Party of Canada are not the same organization, though they share much of the same ideology). I have little interest in pointing out the fact that it’s a conservative volunteer who made this racist comment, since I’m sure you could find one or two examples somewhere of a liberal person saying something racist too, and such cheap point-scoring is, as far as I’m concerned, a waste of time and energy.

The thing that does make this story worth commenting on, however briefly, is the fact of the young man’s last name. Mazurkiewich is not an English or a French name – my suspicion is that it is perhaps Polish or Ukranian (most likely Polish, judging by my pidgin etymological knowledge), based on the fact that there is a long history of Polish and Ukranian settlement in Manitoba. The fact is that immigrants from eastern Europe played a major role in establishing Canadian settlements in western Canada, and have made many contributions to Canada’s modern history as well. As a case example, one of the most Canadian names of all time – Gretzky – is a Polish name (psychological pioneer Albert Bandura was Ukranian-Canadian).

This place in Canada’s history did not, however, safeguard Ukranian and Polish migrants from the lash of institutional racism. When a general strike paralyzed Winnipeg in the throes of the Great Depression, the strike was demonized by the city’s moneyed elites along anti-immigrant lines, the owners wagering (correctly) that an attempt to ‘other’ the strikers was an effective tactic in turning public support against them. Prior to that, many Ukranians were rounded up and placed in internment camps as part of Canada’s complete surrender to WWII hysteria (a commenter helpfully points out that this was World War ONE, not Two).

It would be more than a little naive to imagine that this kind of anti-immigrant racism has completely disappeared between then and now, which makes the comments by Mazurkiewich all the more strange (or typical, if you consider System Justification Theory). He is adopting the argot of the majority, sliding seamlessly into the role of the “hardworking Canadian” standing up against the “freeloaders” who are ruining “his” city.

There’s no real point to be drawn from this case, other than to note that in a rational species that was aware of its history, Mr. Mazurkiewich would probably have a great deal more racial sensitivity than he displayed on Facebook. Then again, a rational species wouldn’t have invented racial categorization to begin with, so maybe I’m asking for too much.

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P.S. For a fascinating look on how this process of racial reassignment is happening to African migrants to the United States, read this piece by freelance writer and Liberian-American Wayétu Moore: How the Africans Became Black

26 comments

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  1. 1
    Sivi

    FYI, to the best of my knowledge the internment of Grrman and Ukrainian Canadians was during and immediately after WW1, not WW2.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Yeah, that makes WAY more sense than what I wrote…

  3. 3
    anon1152

    This is why I don’t believe stories that predict “the end of white America”, white people becoming the minority, etc.

    In the past, as white people approach minority status, people just expand the definition of “white”.

  4. 4
    Kilian Hekhuis

    Mazurkiewicz is a Polish surname. Writing it with -ch is probably a respelling to help pronunciation in an English-speaking country.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    Well there’s a debatable question, right? Because at some point you reach a point where the label strains credulity. Republicans got all hot and bothered about “protecting the middle class”, so they made sure that people making up to $400,000 a year kept their Bush tax cuts. The “middle class” label was rightly derided by anyone with a basic grasp of average US household income.

    With “white”, the question becomes how do you call someone “white” when they clearly aren’t? There’s still a lot of debate over whether Jews are “really white” or not – some people say yes, others point to still-extant anti-Semitic discrimination and say hellz to the naw. I think the label gets dumped, and transformed into something else, like “free enterprise” or something else similarly political. Just look what happened with the Religious Right – their label was so unpopular that they up and changed it into the Tea Party, and all they needed to do was swap around a bit of their rhetoric.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Mazurkiewicz is a Polish surname

    I suspected as much. Writing this post helped me uncover just how little I know about the history of Polish and Ukranian immigrants to Canada, beyond the fact that they exist.

  7. 7
    anon1152

    You’re right that it is a debateable question. But credulity-straining definitions of “white” have been employed before:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorary_whites

    Is it just me, or is the phrase “honorary white” offensive?

  8. 8
    olivercrangle

    I’m Jewish, my dad was born in Mexico, because of US racial quotas, he became a naturalized citizen, fought in WWII. I had relatives that died in the Holocaust, I am the first member of my family to go to college, I struggle with a blue collar job and unemployment, lack of healthcare, etc.

    My mom and dad bought a house in a California suburb that had covenants restricting sales to non Jews (and presumably other minorities.)

    So can I now get FreeThoughtBloggers and various Septic Feminists to stop railing at me about my so called white privilege?

    Thank you.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    Probably not. Because the stuff that happened to the individual members of your family aren’t relevant to the things that your skin colour get for you today.

    You’re welcome.

    Also, maybe at least PRETEND to read the body of the post before showing your ass in the comment threads? There’s a good chap…

  10. 10
    Tanit-isis

    Yeah, this kills me all the time. I have a typically mixed Canadian pedigree, including several of those “formerly non-white” groups you mentioned, and wouldn’t describe myself as anything other than “white.” I find it particularly fascinating when it comes to my husband’s family, who are Metis—on the one hand, back in the family history you can definitely dig up evidence of institutional discrimination and marginalization, but on the other hand they all “look white” and “sound white” and, for day to day purposes, identify as white. For them, it’s an invisible minority.

    I guess at the core of it, it’s really about cultural group, and always has been. It’s just easier to lose the “othering” when there aren’t striking (or subtle…) visual (or verbal) cues marking you as different. A surname is still a cue, but definitely less prominent in face-to-face encounters…

  11. 11
    jesse

    I might throw in here, one of (to me) the more obvious mechanisms of making people “white” is simply that they look like you.

    I mean, let’s face it, a Jew can say he’s English and for most European Jews it wouldn’t be hard to make that case. (I mean, how many of my friends are blond? And my sister has blue eyes). An Italian could change his name and nobody would ever be the wiser, same for an Irishman, though that was less common.

    So the simple fact is that these “others” could hide. And they did. Sometimes it was just a name change. Other times it was full on assimilation. After all, if you were to walk into any average Jewish home in New York you would only know they were Jewish if you asked, or looked and happened to see a Menorah or stray passover Matzoh box.

    So it’s psychologically easier for “true” white people to expand the definition.

    For non-whites it’s harder to do that. Now, granted, you’d say, “what about Arabs/ Middle Easterners? Or Turkish people?” and you’d be right that the shifting definition of whiteness doesn’t always fit. Arabic speakers, in fact, are a good example of contracting the definition of “white” since Syrians were often defined as such until the anti-Muslim hysteria got going post 9-11. Cubans are one of those classes f people that seems to shift around too. (Teddy Roosevelt referred to Cubans’ “dubious whiteness.”)

    Is any of this rational? No. But how often are any humans anywhere rational about anything? Not very.

  12. 12
    Enkidum

    Hey, Crangle! Can you point to a single example of someone on FTB railing against white privilege? Just one?

    Note that pointing out that something exists does not equal being angry at you for having it. But you sure seem uncomfortable with them pointing it out.

    I’m white as the driven snow, middle class English and Scottish WASPs back to the 18th century at least. Not recognizing that this has had certain effects on my life is just kind of stupid.

  13. 13
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    It appears olivercrangle is aiming for an FTB clean sweep, i.e. being banned on each individual blog in the network.

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    I’ve banned like… 4 people? Maybe 5? In the entire life of this blog. He’s got his work cut out for him.

  15. 15
    anat

    (psychological pioneer Albert Bandura was Ukranian-Canadian)

    Interesting name, as ‘bandura’ means ‘tomato’ in Arabic.

  16. 16
    ravenred

    Australia’s had its own weird immigration history *waves at fellow Commonwealth member*, but when they started disassembling UK-only immigration, they made all sorts of soothing noises that yes, they’d let in a few Northern Europeans, but they would be only one for every ten British migrants.

    When they realised not enough were coming, they let in the Southern Europeans, but made it clear that they would only be letting in one for every ten Northern Europeans and Brits… and so on.

    Eventually an explicitly racial model was abandoned, but it’s still true to say that after storming the citadel, some groups have slammed the gate behind them. One of the most rabid Islamophobes in the current parliament is of Italian heritage, for example, using many of the same arguments against Muslim Australians (refugees especially) as were used against “dagos” in a previous era. The out-groups and lower status positions in societies remain, even if the groups occupying/relegated to them change.

  17. 17
    michaeld

    Thanks for the link at the end, indeed very interesting.

  18. 18
    Aureola Nominee, FCD

    Actually, Ukrainian-Canadians were never interned as such. When WWI began, the citizens of the Central Empires (some of whom were from the portion of Ukraine that was within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) were interned. When, following the October Revolution, the mint-new Soviet Union withdrew from the war, its citizens (some of whom were from the portion of Ukraine that was within the borders of the USSR) were also interned. At the end of WWI, the German and Austrian-Hungarian citizens interned were released; after hostilities between the Western powers (including Canada) and the Soviet Union ceased, Soviet citizens were also freed. This, of course, does not change anything in reference to the post; I only wish to put things in a more historically accurate light.

  19. 19
    Dupes

    It’s interesting what can be lost when you are added to the the increased definition of ‘whiteness’. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side (for both her mother and father’s side) immigrated to Saskatchewan from Ukraine in the early 1900′s. Both my grandfather and grandmother were taught Ukrainian as their primary language and were also taught English. But when my mother was being raised, my grandparents made the decision to only teach them English. (This was actually a fairly common practice with other families as well) Sure, they picked up a few words here and there, but my mother and aunt are for all intents and purposes English speakers only. Which meant I learnt next to nothing.

    When I asked my mother as to why she wasn’t taught Ukrainian, she said that my grandparents rationale is that they wanted her to ‘be Canadian’. And the best way that she could be Canadian was to only speak English.

    I wondered about that decision for quite some time. Nowadays, knowing more then one language is considered a great benefit. But looking back at the British-white on other-white discrimination, it makes sense. Besides the interment hat you have mentioned above, there were of course other acts of discrimination and harassment that occurred that must have set the Ukrainian other eastern European communities on their guard. So, by only teaching English -the language of the privileged class – my grandparents were priming their offspring to become part of the majority.

    And for all intents and purposes, it worked. I’m technically half-Ukrainian, but I am all white. I am part of the majority. I have never experienced race/culture based discrimination in my life, which is probably exactly what my grandparents wanted. All it cost though, was any sort of tie to the Ukrainian culture (besides a prediliction towards perogies and cabbage rolls). Despite being only one generation away, that culture, language and history is pretty alien to me, which I can’t help to regret.

    That is probably the same sort of path is set for many of those African immigrants that are discussed in the linked article.

  20. 20
    Crommunist

    Despite being only one generation away, that culture, language and history is pretty alien to me, which I can’t help to regret.

    My stepmother told me a similar story. Her family is Sicilian, but because even among Italian immigrants Sicilians were looked down upon, her parents refused to let her learn. It would be years before she found the opportunity to pick up and use some of the language – something she’d wanted to do for years.

    It is for this reason that all kinds of hackles get raised for me when people start talking about adhering to “Canadian culture”. There are values to assimilation, to be sure, but they should be done voluntarily, not under duress or coercion.

  21. 21
    riveira

    You may have already read it, but The Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger provides an interesting analysis of how immigrant groups in the US like the Irish became “white” in the early American republic.

  22. 22
    freemage

    My dad often claimed (I cannot quite verify this, and I must admit he was prone to embellishments) that his mother was refused service by the American Red Cross during the WWI hysteria, because “Germans don’t deserve to live.” That was when the family name went from Schmidt to Smith. And yes, he’d often fail to see how that could just as easily apply to the way racial politics in Chicago operated.

    Still, the story for me is one of caution and the value of rule utilitarianism–make certain the rules are such that no matter who you are, it’s the best overall outcome.

  23. 23
    Suido

    Intended to comment on Australia’s immigration history, instead I’ll just upvote Ravenred’s comment.

    Regarding loss of cultural identity, I heard another similar story on the weekend. A friend of a friend is half Japanese/Australian, but grew up in a rural town where his family were the only Asians of any kind. His Japanese father wanted the kids to have the easiest possible time integrating, so they didn’t learn Japanese at home. Now he’s doing a geology phd on a volcano in Japan, and wishing he had better than basic Japanese so he could access original Japanese studies without resorting to second hand/dubious translations.

  24. 24
    fronkey

    The linked article deals with some important issues, but nevertheless, I found it problematic.

    The color of their skin saved them, but has also nearly obliterated a once vibrant cultural identity so that today I know no Irishmen. I have friends of Irish descent, former coworkers who mentioned the occasional Irish grandfather or associates who gesture toward familiarity of the lost heritage over empty pints on St. Patrick’s Day — but the Irishmen are now white, and the Irishmen are now gone.

    Apart from the fact that the Irish were once an underclass in American society, is their culture more distinct, more vibrant or valuable than any of the other “white” cultures that have contributed to the makeup of white American culture? If I were to replace “Irish” with “German”, “French”, “Norwegian”, or “English” for that matter, would it seem as sad? After all, Americans of those backgrounds have also lost their “cultural identity”.

    I’m an Australian of Czech background, and the Czech part makes up a very small part of my identity, and that’s the way I want it. Unlike some of the above commenters, I am lucky enough to have grown up with the language, but that’s about all for me. I don’t even eat the food, not because I’m embarrassed by it, as a kid and young adult I loved it, but I’m a vegetarian now, so there’s barely a traditional meal I can eat.

    Future generations, assuming there will be any will have an even more tenuous link, and how could it be any other way? Was I supposed to marry within “the [very small and limited] community” to “keep the culture alive and vibrant”? For there to be “Irishmen” in America, or any other distinct group maintaining a vibrant identity after a number of generations to me seems problematic, because it indicates marriages/relationships kept within the community, and whether that’s because of racism against the group from the dominant culture, or a lack of willingness of immigrants to interact with the dominant culture, or a combination of the two, it’s not healthy.

    I’m not advocating for forced assimilation, or the deliberate suppression of cultural background in order to “fit in”, but I do think that the children of immigrants, on average, will be much better off for being able to participate in a larger cultural sphere, even as that means not being as involved with their ancestral traditions. After all, I think most Australians/Americans/Canadians have ancestors of any number of backgrounds, and it’s not possible to keep in touch with them all.

    I know that I’m privileged in that assimilation was not something that I ever felt I sacrificed for, and my story is not representative of all children of immigrants, especially as I, like the Irish or African immigrants in America, and unlike Asian or Hispanic immigrants, was able to visually fit into a major cultural group. However, I don’t think a reduced connection to one’s culture of heritage should automatically be lamented.

  25. 25
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Yes, the lines of whiteness
    I always found that fascinating when talking about L@tinos in the USA: While in their respective countries of origin they would all be seperated into the respective groups of blanco, mulato, indio, mestizo, cholo (that is not a nice word, don’t use it), in the States they all get put together into one underprivileged group.
    You can also look at Germany where the lines are even more complicated because “white” doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to be the right kind of white. In many places the right kind of black (i.e. US American) will get you further than the wrong kind of white (i.e. Russian German).
    Turkish immigrants are firmely put into the outgroup while Spaniards who might have the exact same skin-tone and haircolour end up in the “white” group.

  26. 26
    km

    Yeah, it’s interesting. I spend a lot of time talking with American academics, and they have mechanisms in place to aid Hispanic students..where growing up in southern Ontario I didn’t even know Hispanics weren’t “white”–they speak a European language, don’t they? It’s led to all kinds of weird things like Hispanic students who were aided in the States come here to Canada for grad school and lose their status as a recognized group. Are they a “visible minority”, by Canadian terms? I think we’re becoming more aware (or at least I am as I watch more American tv), but it’s a weird thing for them to encounter here.

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