When Guido Menzio sat down on a regional jet for a short flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse, New York, he certainly couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen. The 40-year-old economist was profiled as a terror suspect for being focused too intently on a math problem. The differential equation he was working on was possibly mistaken for terrorist scrawlings by the nervous passenger next to him, who was concerned that Menzio wasn’t polite enough, looked suspicious and was too distracted by his foreign scribblings.
After delaying the flight and profiling Menzio, the media would soon report on the “Ivy League economist” who was “ethnically profiled” for doing math on a plane. Focal points of this story were Menzio’s whiteness as an Italian and his stature as an Ivy League economist — both of which should assure him no suspicion from authorities, unless he should be mistaken for a person of color. Amid the reverberating outcry around Menzio’s treatment, the fact that no one should be treated that way may have gotten lost. After all, the passenger followed what is protocol for many; she saw something and she said something. But what is it she saw? She saw someone she was scared of and someone who was possibly not white.
The definition of “whiteness” is and has always been changing.
What does it mean to be “possibly not white”? If we examine this incident in the context of this country’s past, we will be reminded that the definition of “whiteness” is and has always been changing.
Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a landmark white supremacist text that serves as a canonical work for the establishment of US whiteness. As a “founding father” and a co-author of many of the nation’s founding texts, Jefferson’s thoughts were given extraordinary reverence as observations worthy of real consideration. In this book, Jefferson pontificates about his many bigoted and regressive ideas while explaining his thoughts on why Native and Black people are lesser than whites. Jefferson expresses a particular disdain for Blackness, presenting Black people as an antithesis to white humanity — a subspecies, if you will.
Jefferson boldly stated:
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
The underlying sentiment of any institutional bias in a white supremacist society is that the non-white other deserves that which is substandard.
Present incarnations of this wretched line of thought take shape today in this country’s many forms of institutional discrimination and oppression. Whether it’s housing, voting or education, the underlying sentiment of any institutional bias in a white supremacist society is that the non-white other deserves that which is substandard.
By most standards of today’s definitions of whiteness, Guido Menzio’s being Italian would categorize him as white. However, his ethnic — or non-WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) —brand of whiteness recalls an era in this country when not everyone who is now considered “white” would have been previously. Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Irish-Americans, among others, have all had complicated histories in this country in regard to their identities. Each group has been alienated and shunned from whiteness at various points in US history. Keep in mind that white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi groups have often barred white people who are not of “pure” WASP descent. And even that is subject to change at times.
In what appears to be his online manifesto, Dylann Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder in conjunction with the 2015 Charleston massacre, discussed what he defined as white versus not white. From white women to white “culture,” Roof gives his opinions on what the white world should look like. Roof discusses the white nationalist debate over the whiteness of Jewish-Americans:
Unlike many White naitonalists [sic], I am of the opinion that the majority of American and European jews are White. In my opinion the issues with jews is not their blood, but their identity. I think that if we could somehow destroy the jewish identity, then they wouldnt cause much of a problem. The problem is that Jews look White, and in many cases are White, yet they see themselves as minorities. Just like niggers, most jews are always thinking about the fact that they are jewish.
Roof went on to discuss Latinos:
I remember while watching hispanic television stations, the shows and even the commercials were more White than our own. They have respect for White beauty, and a good portion of hispanics are White. It is a well known fact that White hispanics make up the elite of most hispanics countries. There is good White blood worht [sic] saving in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and even Brasil.
Here, Roof’s words emphasize that whiteness and white supremacy are both global and malleable: white people exist predominantly in non-white locations while regularly benefiting from a universal consensus around white power. Roof’s romanticization of the Confederacy, along with other expansionist white supremacist projects like the state of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, makes it plain he understood the global nature of white supremacy. Consider the fact that Confederate flags are flying in Sweden, Ukraine, Brazil, Israel and other places; it’s clear Dylann Roof is not alone.
It’s also worth noting that Roof’s hierarchization of the other races outside the white race reflects the globalization of anti-Blackness. Proximity to whiteness and mythologies around the social construct that is race pervade uninformed opinions on human worth. Other cultures had established negative associations with Blackness and dark skin prior to white supremacy as we know it today. However, negative associations with Blackness were certainly complemented by white violence carried out over centuries through trade, colonization, enslavement, etc.
In The History of White People, historian Nell Irvin Painter analyzes how people came to attribute whiteness to some and not others, and how, over time, the category of whiteness in the US shifted and expanded. Toward the end of her work, she crucially mentions how Black power politics helped permanently draw the perimeters around the white identities we know today. Writing about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer’s Beyond the Melting Pot — which was a landmark sociological work during its time — she talks about how Glazer warned against moving toward “ominous” new set categories of Black and white. Painter goes on to write,
The civil rights movement, it seemed, had spawned the ugly specter of black power, a source of alienation for white people. Rejecting the border of white guilt that Malcolm X had laid on them, white Americans were morphing into Italian Americans and Jewish Americans and Irish Americans. What they had in common was not being black.
Indeed, despite being historically brutalized, disinherited and discriminated against themselves, many of those who had to fight to gain whiteness did so by distancing themselves from Black people. For instance, take the perpetuation of the Irish slave myth that is often used to silence Black Americans who bring up painful history. Irish historian Liam Hogan has repeatedly debunked and unpacked the willingly dangerous nature of conflating African chattel slavery with the indentured servitude experienced by the Irish. “Jews were slaves too” is a common retort that is often used to derail conversations Black people initiate about the persisting effects of slavery in our community today. At the same time, discussions of the more recent Jewish Holocaust during World War II in Europe often neglect to mention the deaths of Black Germans and other Afro-Europeans also being killed en masse by the Nazis. Jewish involvement in the slave trade (as well as Irish involvement) also gets lost in these conversations about who has the right to express grievances. Here, the point that Africans also engaged in dealings with European slave trades to sell off their enemies and/or rivals is often brought up casually to justify the involvement of many in one of the greatest crimes against humanity of our time. Ironically, in all of this lies the proliferation of the necessity of non-Blackness as an indicator that one is worthy of success or human treatment. These examples show the common act of aiming to silence Black people by relating false equivalencies while simultaneously being oppressive toward Black people. This act can be considered a part of the process of naturalization along the path to citizenship or membership in whiteness.
In Racial Profiling and the Societies of Control, Jared Sexton discusses how non-Black communities of color have used similar methods of distancing themselves from Blackness while simultaneously appropriating the Black struggle. Those who are certainly not viewed as white, or not as easily white-passing, have often sought to build coalitions with Black Americans in the turmoil of a post-9/11 United States. Whether it is non-Black Latinos and Latinas facing the onslaught of contemporary immigration policy and mass deportation, or the Asian and Arab communities facing “war on terror” racial profiling, who is and who isn’t viewed as “white” by those in power has become very clear during these increasingly polarizing times. This has helped create an environment in which many are choosing whether to work harder to try to gain whiteness, or instead, aim to seek Black allyship. Sexton acknowledges the difficulty of raising this issue, and even addresses the common retort “Don’t play oppression Olympics,” saying, “One notes readily in this catch phrase the translation of a demand for or question of comparison (our conditions are alike or unlike) into an insidious posture of a priori competition (we will win so that you will lose).” The employment of this response functions similarly to the aforementioned white rejections of Black grievance, when there is actually no contest to be had.
Sexton makes it plain here that it is crucial to center Blackness in discussions of race moving forward:
Every analysis that attempts to account for the vicissitudes of racial rule and the machinations of the racial state without centering black existence within its framework which does not mean simply listing it among a chain of equivalents is doomed to miss what is essential about the situation, because what happens to blacks indicates the truth (rather than the totality) of the system …
We see that truth playing out now on the global stage: As waves of refugees pour into Europe, some are deemed more acceptable than others. The refugee crisis, which has been going on for decades, didn’t become the story that it is now until more white-adjacent refugees, such as Syrians, started fleeing their homelands again in massive numbers. In the shadowy world of human smuggling and forced migration, Black refugees are treated as second-class refugees. Consider the fact that the US Census Bureau has traditionally identified Arab-Americans as “white.” And as the case of Menzio reminds us, whiteness is subject to change based on politics, fear and the fluidity of time.
In 1923, the US Supreme Court case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind ruled that Indians were ineligible for citizenship under US law. Bhagat Singh Thind was fighting for his “Caucasian” classification, but institutional whiteness had something else in mind. Symbolically, petitioning of this sort is still happening to this very day. In the face of a globally expanding far-right thriving off of xenophobic white supremacy, some might choose to beg for inclusion in whiteness, rather than embrace their current identities.
White supremacy is a conglomerate forged through fear, colonialism, imperialism and anti-Blackness, not through the purity of blood.
Whiteness is provisional and cannibalistic. The imposition of whiteness is based on falsehoods and conflation. White supremacy is a conglomerate forged through fear, colonialism, imperialism and anti-Blackness, not through the purity of blood. The time has come not to seek access to farcical social constructs used to oppress, but instead to seek liberation through rejection of such. Racial superiority doesn’t actually exist, and to accept the concept of whiteness inherently represents a denial of Black humanity. The expression of who we are as individuals is what makes cultures and people the world across beautiful. Embracing who we are without dehumanizing anyone else or distancing oneself from Blackness poses a direct threat to the ideation of whiteness. In order to invest in humanity, we must divest from whiteness and our contributions to it.