The idea and practice of using skin color to categorize human beings has outlived its usefulness. Our visual observations are that there are few individuals who are actually white, that is without color. The coloring of the epidermis ranges from very dark skin, the presence of high concentrations of melanin, to lighter skin, indicating very little melanin. In spite of our visual senses giving us an accurate judgment about the coloration of individuals, we cling to the idea that there are two categories, white and black, corresponding to two respective races. We now know from genetic testing that race, and its association with skin color, is a social construction and not a biological fact.
Jacqueline Battalora, in Birth of a White Nation, argues that the term “white” never existed until the seventeenth century. Prior to the label, she says, “white people” were referenced by a number of possibilities (such as Spanish, or British), or by religion (such as Jew, Christian, or Muslim).
She emphasizes that persons of African and European descent in the early days of the colonies were both held in indentured servitude. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, where they united against the colonial elite, the enacted law reflects for the first time in American legal history the use of “white” as a human classification, as well as the first time in world history.
The law designed to “divide and conquer,” and to further the economic interest of a small minority, by controlling the labor of the majority, designated that individuals of African descent were to be held in permanent slavery, whereas those designated as “white” could work or pay their way out of servitude. The law worked to give privileges to “whites”: the right to marry and to prevent marriage to non-whites, the right to citizenship, the right to own property, the right to vote, and to deny those rights and privileges to those of Native or African descent.
The consolidation of the idea of “white people” into law as the colonies developed into what we know as the United States, further entrenched the ideology of “white supremacy” and corresponding “white privilege,“ which saw its culmination in Southern slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
Nell Irvin Painter, in her seminal study on The History of White People, chronicles the construction of whiteness during the great immigration of Europeans to America. In order to accommodate the demands of population control and social change, anti-miscegenation, immigration and naturalization laws were refined, expanded and codified. These laws extended the designation of “white” to immigrant groups from Europe, while denying rights and privileges to African-Americans, Native-Americans, and other non-Europeans.
According to the U.S. Census, European-Americans are not recognized as a group, but are included in the category of “white,” as persons having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe. The term European- American is not in popular use in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau, among the general public or the mass media, and the term “white” or “white American” is used instead.
However, the term “white” has outlived its usefulness as a designation for this heterogeneous group of Europeans who have certain features of “hue and hair” in common, obscures the cultural heritage of this population, and more importantly confers unearned and undeserved privileges merely on the basis of skin color and certain features.
The use of the term “black,” to designate individuals of African descent, has its origins in the 1960s, as a part of the psychocultural revolution aimed at the psychological harm done by the assault on the minds and souls of blacks by a culture of white supremacy and violent oppression. Before the corresponding “black is beautiful” movement – to call someone black was a serious insult within that community.
In December 1988, Rev. Jessie Jackson announced that members of his race preferred to be called “African-American.” The campaign he led to replace the term black led to some success among African-Americans and the national press. To be called African-American, Jackson said, “It puts us in our proper historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit a level of maturity. There are Armenian-Americans and Jewish–Americans and Arab-Americans and Italian-Americans; and with a degree of accepted and reasonable pride, they connect their heritage to their mother country and where they are now.”
Today, in the popular press, broadcast journalism, and much of social media, “white” is assumed to be the norm and as such white individuals and groups are usually not racialized. While Dylann Roof, the Charleston murderer, was not generally referred to as a “white” in the national press, President Obama is frequently called the “Black President.” In conversation and print, African-American and black are commonly used interchangeably when referring to individuals of African descent.
While it’s impossible to find a scheme that will satisfy all groups, clearly a country of origin (Cuban-American) or continent of origin (European-American and African-American) are more accurate terminologies in the 21st century than references to purported skin color.
In the popular press, including print and broadcast journalism, and social media, we should discontinue the use of black and white to describe European-Americans and African- Americans. Except for the Washington Redskins football team, we gave up the description “red” as an identifier of Native-Americans some time ago.
Although delegitimizing white and black as identities will not end racism or white supremacy, it will begin the path of unraveling the pernicious effects of skin color prejudice, and allow the recognition of distinct world cultures, while preserving our Americaness.”