Another example of white privilege and othering is when white people assume that racialized people have deeper roots and stronger family ties than white people. The othering is based on the notion that “non-white” people are foreign people, and that “non-white” people have a stronger ethnic identity because we are more homogeneous and monolithic in ways of thought. White privilege allows white people to ignore the ways in which a white-majority society encourages only white families to lay down their roots and blossom, while historically, it enacted laws to extinguish and suppress “non-white” and racialized families.
White Americans envy African Americans for having “roots” in “Africa”, while ignoring the fact that Africa is a heterogeneous continent (like Europe), and that most African Americans cannot trace their African ancestry precisely because of white racism and slavery. It is no accident that African Americans are more likely to find documents attesting to the existence of their white ancestors. White Americans whose ancestors have been in the United States for multiple generations are the ones with the deepest roots, the ones whose histories were allowed to be recorded, the ones who own property passed down from generations, when all this was denied to non-white people.
White people envy Native Americans and Aboriginal Canadians for having “culture”, while ignoring the fact that white racism and colonialism committed genocide against millions of indigenous peoples, and systematically stamped out most of their cultures with government-sanctioned forced assimilation. Residential schools in Canada ensured that indigenous children lost their languages, cultures, religions, and family ties, while ensuring the proliferation of the English language, Western European culture, white-messiah Christianity, and white institutions, until as recently as 1996. In the United States, these were called Indian boarding schools, and enrollment peaked in the 1970s.
White people envy Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians for being “connected” to “ancient Japan”, when it is precisely this insistence that Asians are perpetual foreigners that led to the internment of Japanese Americans and Canadians during World War II. American and Canadian governments confiscated the property of people of Japanese descent, such that their family heirlooms could not be passed down to their descendants like family heirlooms were passed down the generations of white families. White people who have been in North America for multiple generations can open up their grandparents’ original attics to find tokens of family history, while most Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent do not have their grandparents’ original attics, because of racism and their lack of white privilege.
When white people wish that they were “ethnic” and cite the “roots”, “culture”, or “family history” of ethnic minorities as the point of envy, their thinking is privileged and fantastical to the extreme, as if their concept of people of colour is wholly constructed by fictional archetypes of the Magical Negro, Noble Savage, and Oriental Wiseman.
For example, a white person commenting on Stuff White People Do: wish they were “ethnic” wrote the following:
I am so fragmented that I have no idea really what cultural traditions I might have spawned from…so to me I am just American who grew up on mac and cheese with hotdogs. I assume a lot white people feel similar to me in the sense that our ethnicity has been so diluted you almost feel void of a past beyond your immediate family. [...] I have a few friends who are very rich in their culture, be it Italian, Greek, Japanese, etc and I do somewhat envy the warm sense of oneness they seem to enjoy through a rich tradition of food, celebration, and language that has been [passed] down to them from generations past. I feel like they have a story with roots.
(Note that even when people of colour grow up on mac and cheese with hotdogs, white people still perceive us as “other” on account of our race, and not as culturally “American” (or Canadian) as white people.)
Compare this white person’s envy with the reality of many Chinese Americans:
Odder still, their father claimed to be an only son, with no surviving relatives in China or America.
“For us, the question was always ‘so who are you anyway?’ ” Steve said. “There was the sense that you have no past.”
But the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the paper son phenomenon lingers. The result is that a younger generation of Chinese Americans like Steve Yee grew up confused about and disconnected from their family history.
Worried about Lillie’s progress in school, their father insisted the others stop speaking Chinese at home. Today, none of the six children speaks Chinese.
“Basically we were told to put down your chopsticks, we’re going to eat hot dogs and watch the Giants like everybody else,” Yee said.
For her own children’s sake, Yee’s sister Lillie Yee-Shiroi, 61, also wanted to learn more about her father’s life and family history. There was so much basic information they didn’t know. What was her father’s real birth date? When did he arrive in San Francisco? On what boat?
“When my son was in fifth grade he had to do a family history project and make a family tree,” recalled Yee-Shiroi, a retired social worker who married a Japanese American.
“On my husband’s side there were all these relatives. On my side, besides my brothers and sisters, there was question mark, question mark, question mark.”
The white privilege of white people, especially those of multi-generational descent, allowed them to have deep roots to their family, culture, and history. At the same time, white racism directly caused the erasure of racialized people’s pasts. Ironically, white people act as if racialized people have “ethnic” privilege, when what white people envy—roots—are exactly what white people have more than us. Roots, culture, and family history are benefits of white privilege, not “ethnic” privilege.
- White people think that people of colour have more culture. by Restructure!
- “Chinese food” in the U.S. is not foreign, but foreignness is not “authenticity”. by Restructure!
- The Orientalist Riff is an example of white culture and tradition. by Restructure!
Tree roots photo by Mr Poortom under Creative Commons; from Wikimedia Commons