Becoming White

As per usual, a good post at Abagond about American whiteness: this article details the way ‘my people’ became white in America. I’m both Southern European (Italian) & Eastern European (Polish) and also German & a tiny, tiny little bit Irish (who weren’t white either when they first came to the US, of course). Here are some highlights, but do go read the whole thing.

The Third Enlargement of American Whiteness (1930-1980) was when the Jews, Italians and others from southern and eastern Europe became White Americans, when they melted into the melting pot.

. . .

Late 1800s: Crossing the Atlantic becomes cheap. Suddenly anyone can come to America: unlettered peasants from Italy, penniless Jews and others from southern and eastern Europe. They fill the slums of New York and elsewhere. The government fears they will be stuck there forever – a permanent underclass.

1910s: They are called “alien races” … they bring crime and poverty. They have too many children. They do not understand freedom and democracy, voting for corrupt political machines. Skull measurements (and later IQ tests) prove they lack intelligence.

. . .

As you go south from Britain, people become less intelligent, more ruled by their passions, more given to crime and drink. These are inborn differences: Jews and Italians will always be stuck at the bottom.

1920s: They are now starting to be called “ethnic”. The Immigration Act of 1924 all but shuts off immigration from southern and eastern Europe to save America from destruction. Jews are the people no one wants. This will doom many to die in the Holocaust – and drive the creation of Israel.

. . .

1930s: Enough white ethnics can now vote that Franklin Roosevelt sees them as an important part of the white working-class vote he needs to win. His New Deal policies see them the same as other white people.

It’s one of the reasons I use the term “white ethnic” to describe myself, as my family’s values and the culture I grew up with are simultaneously (1) not WASP, by any stretch of the imagination, and (2) very New York, and even Brooklyn, specific. This has become only more obvious now that I’ve moved to the midwest, where the majority seem to be German or Irish and raised Lutheran. My family specifically has a history of name changes to look more white on paper – an Italian last name that ended in “o” changed to an “er” – and a long series of working class jobs, union organizing, and yes, drinking. Growing up it barely ever occurred to me that most people in America were not raised Catholic or Jewish. Then I met friends who were DAR, whose families went back a long, long time – for instance, my wife’s – and while there is also a long history of white people who struggled, their basic experience of feeling and being “American” was very different from mine.

2 Replies to “Becoming White”

  1. I thought about this recently as well thinking about you and NYC/Brooklyn and the fact that I have ancestors who lived/were born there….when it was still New Amsterdam. Including this guy:

    So I’ve not had the “connection” to my “ethnicity” they way more recent immigrants sometimes have. Never had a granny with an “old country” accent…didn’t have any ancestors come through Ellis Island. I once joked online that being “non-ethnic” prevented me from a career as a stand-up comedian.

    So my ancestors and I have always been just “american” in a way that you and yours have not. Even my so-called “Irish” ancestors weren’t really what the WASP’s would consider “Irish” being “Scots-Irish/Ullans” Protestants who were in Ireland a generation or so before moving on to America long before the Famine or The Troubles.

    But I do envy your connection to your family’s past that you have that I do not.

  2. I was amazed when I visited Ellis Island how much vile propaganda was aimed, equally, at the Irish, Southern Europeans, Chinese and any flavor of Jew.

    Patricia’s mother took serious crap in postwar Yonkers for marrying an Italian catholic, though her family were hardly “old line”; they were working class Norwegians who worked in the Brooklyn Navy yard.

    In the 1900’s my 17 year old Grandfather arrived by ship from Oslo, took the train from New York to Minneapolis and went to work as a farm hand. My great Grandfather on my Mom’s side was a Janitor named John Anderson ; he pronounced it “Yon” and became, naturally, “Yon the Yanitor”

    Even in a “white” community there were splits; my Dad’s hometown had three Lutheran Chruches, and Baptists and Catholics were looked upon with suspicion.

    The notion of “white” is (IMHO and a few famous radicals) a political ploy to continually pit the lower classes against each other. The most pernicious being the treatment of Native and African peoples always, Latinos with Native ancestry and the Chinese, more historically now.

    All groups but the WASPs took their lumps at some point, with backbreaking work, exclusion from education and opportunities and then usually moved up, with the first rung being law enforcement and then politics.

    It’s good to remember how it really was, and not how we are told it was.

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