As we all know, whiteness is a social construct (because everything is, duh). It is not a concept that has been clear and stable from the dawn of time. Actually, it is even a fairly recent concept as they go, yet it is still one people have naturalised quickly. Naturalising means that people believe that something is not socially constructed but a direct reflection of the natural world, with sex being another prominent one. Because of course you can see the difference between me and Beyoncé, right?
Whiteness as a concept cannot be separated from white supremacy as it is and was tied to it from birth. The only reason to define someone’s “race” via genotype is to establish differences and hierarchies. But since “race” is of course not a natural phenomenon we merely seek to describe, it’s always been in trouble. There is no logic to it, just power, and that power has developed several strategies to maintain itself. One pretty obvious one is including groups that had previously been excluded. You can see that pretty well in how, for example, folks of Irish or Italian descent were included into the “white” category in the USA: give them a stake in white supremacy, use them as a shield against accusations of racism. See, the Irish were discriminated against as well, they overcame it, if black people are still suffering it’s because there’s actually something wrong with black people.
Another way is by folding individual people into the group, erasing their identities and heritage. They can only gain the status of “white” by denying that they were ever anything else.Wait a generation or two and nobody knows anymore that you have indeed ancestors who were not considered white.
My own family history is such an example. I am white, of German heritage, for all purposes of the law and society. My last name, passed down from my paternal grandpa literally means “person from a very boring village 20km from the place I live now”. But my paternal grandma already spoils the picture, as she grew up as a member of the German settlers in the Ukraine. After the war she was considered a “dirty Russian”, my dad had kids bully him, and they did everything to hide that “dirty family secret”. Me? I just noticed that grandma had a different accent than the rest of the family. To me, any part of that heritage and identity has been lost. My cousin’s father in law, who is a hobby genealogist researched grandma’s family and I learned more about them from his essay than from my family. The Russian German families who arrived in the 90s were pretty quickly folded into the “white” category because they are needed to uphold white supremacy against the growing Muslim community and Muslim refugees. Same with Italians. In my childhood, prejudice against Italian immigrants was on par with prejudice against Turkish immigrants, but this has shifted dramatically.
On my mother’s side it becomes even more extreme. Her grandmother’s family used to be Sinti or Roma. I suspect Sinti, because they are more likely to settle and integrate into the community at the price of giving up their identity, but I have no clue. All the family ever knew is that they were G***. They didn’t even have a name for their heritage anymore beyond the slur used by white people around them. All we can trace back is the family name that is of Hindu origin.
None of that makes me not white. I don’t claim membership of the communities. It’s not a quest to seek faux oppression because some of my ancestors had to pay a heavy price for me to be considered white and gaining white privilege (see “my great-great-great-great grandmother was a Cherokee princess, that makes me so spiritual and also you cannot call me racist”). It’s an acknowledgement of their histories. It’s an acknowledgement of how white supremacy works in subtle ways, making sure that people don’t show solidarity with each other, because they’re fighting to be included in the dominant category. It’s an acknowledgement of loss. It’s also an acknowledgement of how these very stories can once again be used to dismiss systemic racism in favour of individual accounts of success and failure.