Lost Identities: How White Supremacy Maintains itself

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.


  1. says

    I was thinking about this a lot too, along similar lines. As recently as WW2, Slavs were considered to be sub human and in the Third Reich they were seen as barely better than Jews or Roma -- just so barely that instead of outright genocide of all of them, some were considered to be worthy of being “just” worked to death in due course of building the Empire. Before WW2, Czechs and Slovaks were seen as the dafties in the Austria-Hungary, unable to get proper education and to govern themselves.

    But shortly after WW2 Slavs started to embrace the concept of whiteness. First in order to feel superior to Roma, and more recently in order to feel superior to muslims. The most comical thing about this is that our current covert fascist/racist political party is led by a man of half Japanese descent.

    A person of Slavic descent who shaves his (its almost always he) head, does a Nazi salute and draws swastikas is an idiot in more than one way.

    Realities of human genetics have, of course, nothing to do with it, because Roma and majority of muslims from Middle-East belong to the same genetic and linguistic Indo-European cluster and just a few hunderd years ago Slavs were no whities and by historical accounts resembled more today’s Roma..

    I will just post some more of my thoughts in form of a long-time ago written youtube comment of mine. I wrote it when the issue was raised about non-white characters in the Netflix Witcher series. I hate that the series has been apparently stripped of everything Slavic and has been completely americanized, but:

    One of the earliest written mentions of Central European Slavs is from a Jewish merchant Ibrahim ibn Yaqub who during his travels went through Prague. When describing the Slavs, ancestors of today’s Czechs, Poles and Slovaks, he felt the need to explicitly mention their skin and hair color, because he thought it peculiar for nations living this far north (he originated from Pyrenean peninsula). And what did he say? This:
    “The peculiar thing is that inhabitants of Bohemia are swarthy, with black hair, the pale type is rare among them.”

    Today the situation is a bit different, but that is partly because we were mixing and swapping genes with people of Germanic ancestry for about one thousand years since then. Another reason that we are a lot paler than our ancestors is that, apart from the change in population genetics over the millennia, we live a lot more indoors and do not spend nearly as much time in the sun as our ancestors did.

    I am blonde with blue eyes with sensitive skin and I have a cousin who has pitch-black hair, hazel eyes, and dark skin. He could easily be mistaken for Roma or a quarter-black, I would pass as an Aryan under Hitler’s regime. There is nothing unusual about cousins not looking similar to each other.

    Pale skin is not the defining feature of Slavs and dark skin is not defining someone as a non-Slav either. I do not like that something made by Slavs is being Americanized, there is enough of American shit everywhere already and they could at least try and present this in a more authentic “Slavic” form, but skin color is the wrong hill to die on when arguing this.

    As a Slav and a fan of Sapkowski’s books and a fan of CD Project’s red games about Witcher, I do not care one whit about the skin tone of the characters in the series. Arguing about it only distracts from legitimate criticisms and gives white supremacist and similar shit-for-brains an excuse to latch on.

    The concept of whiteness is pure nonsense. Skin color is at best a (very rough) indicator of one’s ancestry (more so in the past than today when the world is a lot more interconected), but it has no implications beyond that.

  2. lumipuna says

    Just out of curiosity -- Is it common in Germany to use the word “white” for what is considered the traditionally dominant ethnicity?

    I think here people mostly use “Finn” in contrast to whatever ethnic minority is being discussed, or “native Finn” in contrast to people with recent immigrant background. Pedants like me might use “ethnic Finn” for people whose cultural heritage is based on Finnish language, though most others would likely confuse that with “native Finn” or else pick up some far right connotations. Usually, for people who aren’t ethnic minorities, the distinction between ethnic Finn and Finnish national is also quite muddled.

    (However, old-fashioned contrasting terms for Roma and other people respectively are mustalainen and valkolainen. I’d say these are literally and stylistically equivalent with the Australian usage of “Blackfella” and “Whitefella”)

  3. voyager says

    Well said, Giliell.
    When my dad came to Canada in 1950, he was not always treated well. Many people thought all Germans were Nazis, so dad never talked about his homeland. But by the time I was born, things were different and our family was well accepted. Being white probably had a lot to do with that. He was the right sort of immigrant.
    (I wish he had spoken about Germany. I asked for stories my whole life, but he wouldn’t share. Too much trauma. Both his parents died in WW2 and he was left with an abuse stepmother and his only brother in a Russian prison camp. If Dad were still alive, he would be horrified to see what’s happening in America these days)

Leave a Reply