The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Whiteness History Month is a great idea. Here are 7 ways to observe it.

Vivien Leigh, left, and Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind.” (Turner Classic Movies via Associated Press)

There are few words in the American lexicon that can bring a conversation to a quicker and more unproductive end than “whiteness.” Invoke it negatively and you’ll be accused of reverse racism, attempting to impugn your fellow citizens as a way to build up members of other racial and ethnic groups. Bring up whiteness with a spritely air of positivity and you risk associating yourself with a long and ugly history of a violent obsession with racial purity.

These conversational conventions are extremely convenient if your goal is to keep anyone from talking about the fact that white people haven’t always been around forever, and they haven’t always looked the way they’re assumed to today. But these conventions are fundamentally dishonest, and frankly, more than a little immature. And these rules went into predictable motion this week when conservative publications pounced on Portland Community College for a piece of student programming called Whiteness History Month.

Why one Oregon college is planning a “Whiteness History Month”

The folks at Campus Reform declared, “Portland Community College to devote an entire month to ‘whiteness’-shaming,” and the Daily Caller summarized the project in similarly skeptical terms. Never mind that the event is the project of a committee of the Cascade Campus Diversity Council. And never mind that the program actually seems like an alternative to the protests that swept many American college campuses last fall, encouraging students to get in dialogue with each other rather than demanding revolutionary change from university administrators. The same old dynamic clicked into place.

But while the proposal has some of the standard jargon that so often pops up in college settings — and maybe telegraphs its assumptions a little too cleanly — treating whiteness as a subject of study is an entirely sensible idea. Figuring out where whiteness came from, and who came to be included in it, is the story of how America assimilated some of its immigrants, failed disastrously to navigate its regional differences and managed a tricky balance between the classes. Most students have studied whiteness in some form or other in high school or college, even if it wasn’t called that. And while the Cascade Campus Diversity Council will have to figure out its own programming, here are some books, movies, and essay and short story collections that could get the group started.

White privilege, explained

1. “The History of White People,” by Nell Irvin Painter: Painter’s 2010 book is a perfect starting place for this conversation. She meticulously traces the way different societies have sorted people into racial and ethnic groups as far back as ancient Greece and examines how race theory has affected everything from practices in art preservation to early American census categories. Painter also looks at the way whiteness evolved in America to incorporate new members, its boundaries determined by class and geography.

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“Today’s Americans, bred in the ideology of skin color as racial difference, find it difficult to recognize the historical coexistence of potent American hatreds against people accepted as white, Irish Catholics,” Painter writes. “Hatred of black people did not preclude hatred of other white people—those considered different and inferior—and flare-ups of deadly violence against stigmatized whites.”

2. “Goodbye, Columbus,” by Philip Roth: Speaking of stigmatized whites, or ethnic groups who gradually were incorporated into whiteness, let’s talk Jews! This collection of a novella and short stories, controversial when it was published in 1959, is a great look at a generation of Jewish Americans making the leap from ethnic Jewish enclaves into more assimilated lives.

Roth’s portraits of a Hebrew school student who gets in trouble for his theological inquiries; a Jewish army officer who resists appeals to tribal solidarity; and the uneasiness a group of Jews living among Gentiles feels about a newly opened Orthodox synagogue may have gotten Roth tarred as self-hating. But they address plenty of issues that remain relevant to American Jews today as we address everything from rising secularism to the U.S. relationship with Israel.

3. “The Godfather,” and “The Godfather: Part II,” by Francis Ford Coppola: Part of what’s fascinating about Coppola’s first masterpiece about the Corleones is the way it captures an Italian extended family at a moment when its members are struggling to define themselves both in relation to Anglo-Saxon Protestants and to African Americans.

As Don Corelone (Marlon Brando) tells his son Michael (Al Pacino), “I thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone.” And it’s not simply that he hoped Michael would be a big shot, but that he would be freed from the family crime business and the ethnic associations that might hold Michael back from the pursuit of power.

By contrast, as the heads of the various crime families discuss their move into the drug trade, there’s a telling moment when Don Zaluchi (Louis Guss) draws a racial distinction about that particular underground industry. “I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia,” he tells the other dons. “In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” Zaluchi and his compatriots may not yet think of themselves as white rather than Italian, but they are clearly trying to distinguish themselves from African Americans.

These tensions only become more fraught in the second film, as Michael gets closer to legitimacy, but still has to deal with senators who see all Italians as corrupted, Italians who see him as a traitor for dealing with Jews, and a dying regime in Cuba. Bonus reading: “Are Italians White?

4. “How the Irish Became White,” by Noel Ignatiev: That Irish immigrants to the United States would eventually become white wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Ignatiev reaches back to the early years of the country to look at everything from the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia to the interaction between internal Irish politics and emerging regional politics in America to explore the ways Irish Americans found their place in their adopted country’s evolving racial schema.

“The Irish who emigrated to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were fleeing caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the material conditions of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave. They came to a society in which color was important in determining social position. It was not a pattern they were familiar with and they bore no responsibility for it; nevertheless, they adapted to it in short order,” Ignatiev writes. “In antebellum America it was speculated that if racial amalgamation was ever to take place it would begin between those two groups. As we know, things turned out otherwise.”

5. “Gone With the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell: Ignatiev brings an academic perspective to the role of the Irish in America. But Mitchell’s novel about Scarlett O’Hara, the oldest daughter of an Irish immigrant who married into Southern aristocracy and built a great slave-holding plantation in Georgia, only to see his work devastated by the Civil War, brings an emotional heft to Ignatiev’s dry facts. “Gone With the Wind” has long been controversial, but in this context, it’s essential reading. Mitchell captures the complex dynamics between immigrants, old Southern families and so-called “white trash,” the evolving ideal of Southern womanhood and how it helped defined the borders between the races, and the way class pride influenced Georgians’ sense of their racial and regional identities in reconstruction. You don’t have to admire Mitchell’s worldview to benefit from her world-building.

6. “The Wages of Whiteness,” by David R. Roediger: Of course, whiteness isn’t only a way of mediating the place of immigrants in America. It has also been an identity shaped in response to class conflict. Labor historian David Roediger, who has written his own book on the way European immigrants assimilated into whiteness as it’s defined in America, argues here that race was a way to sort out who could compete for certain jobs and wages and looks at the psychological needs that a racial identity fills for white working-class people.

“Much of that reflection led back to what my early years might have taught me: the role of race in defining how white workers look not only at Blacks but at themselves; the pervasiveness of race; the complex mixture of hate, sadness and longing in the racist thought of white workers; the relationship between race and ethnicity,” Roediger wrote in a new introduction to the book, explaining how his own life informed his research as a historian. “My question at age eighteen was why friends wanted to be white and why I didn’t.”

7. “Django Unchained,” by Quentin Tarantino: I am not, by inclination, much of a Tarantino person — I have only so much stomach for ultraviolence. But I’ve long thought that Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a fascinating figure and one highly relevant to this conversation.

When Schultz arrives in “Django Unchained,” he thinks of himself purely in individual terms. But by the end of the film, he has been awakened to the brutality of American racism and is eager to distinguish himself from the white people who practice slavery. That Schultz’s blow against white supremacy comes in a fashion that is ultimately suicidal and unhelpful to Django (Jamie Foxx), who is attempting to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) only makes this portrayal more interesting.

As a bonus, of course, it might be fascinating to consider Tarantino along with his work. Tarantino is Italian American; he has given actors of color, including Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, Lucy Liu, Vivica Fox, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and Foxx and Washington fascinating roles; and he has marched against police brutality. But Tarantino is also infamous for his characters’ use of one of the ugliest racial epithets in the American lexicon. I don’t know that Tarantino represents anyone other than himself. But he’s an intriguing study in how a white person defines what’s acceptable for himself to do, and for how he imagines American racial history and himself as a mediator of it.