The Different Meanings of White

Essay by tina507College, UndergraduateA-, December 2013

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"White" has proven to be a remarkably fluid and amorphous term throughout American history. The definition of who and what qualifies as white (and, at times more significantly, who and what do not qualify) has shifted almost continuously with the passing years. Despite this fluidity, there are some important trends that tend not to change. Whiteness, for instance, has consistently been equated with normality. Consequently, whiteness often goes hand-in-hand with dominance, so much so that something described as white becomes a presumptive power-holder. In fact, because whiteness in America has so long been viewed as the norm and used to uphold existing power structures, the identity of the white individual has shifted largely to a list of the things that a white person is not. White, then, is defined in a series of negatives - white is not this, white is not that. Considering the nature of this definition, it is not surprising that, for much of its history, white has been an inherently exclusionary term.

On a very basic level, a white person is a member of a race distinguished by light complexion or skin tone. In this sense, white is often substituted for the term Caucasian, which denotes a person whose origins can be traced to the Caucasus Mountains. (Ironically, the common usage of Caucasian has shifted to mean "of western European extraction" and many people from the Caucasus Mountains would not today be considered white) (Oxford English Dictionary 2013). Historic examples show, however, that this seemingly direct correlation between ethnographical origin and whiteness has long proven inconclusive. The famous 1923 case of United States v. Thind, for example, found that although Asian Indians could be considered "Caucasian," this did not necessarily guarantee them legal white status (United States v. Bhagavad Singh Thind 1923). Thind...