What it means to be white in America | COMMENTARY

A man waves a Confederate flag during a protest, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in Stone Mountain Village, Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

White people are an optical illusion. Americans know this. Not just because Americans invented white people, but also because every few decades or so, we revisit our invention to reexamine what it means to be white in light of its intended purpose: to demean, demoralize and defeat Black people.

In early Colonial America, if you had asked the average white man to describe himself, any number of characterizations might have sprung from his lips — Englishman, planter, father, Bostonian — but the word “white” might never have occurred to him. That’s because “white,” as the personal identifier we recognize today, had not yet been established. When the concept of “white” first emerged in the 1500s, it was as a synonym for “ladylike.” It referred to a class of woman so wealthy that she never had to go out into the sun, and so her skin was as white as cream. She was a “white-skinned beauty.” If a man was referred to as white, it was derogatory, he was a “white-skinned dandy.”


Racialized whiteness, as we know it, first emerged widely as a response to Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 when a group of rebel indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans joined forces against the government. Colonial leaders were horrified that enslaved people elsewhere might be inspired to rise up against their own masters, so they tightened restrictions on the enslaved African population and, to win the loyalty and support of European indentured workers, granted them new legal rights and privileges based on the color of their skin — thus, the white race was born. Whiteness, as we recognize it, appears irregularly in American colonial records before Bacon’s Rebellion, but by the 1700s, it was an organizing tenet of society.

Since its creation, whiteness has undergone multiple evolutionary changes — often in response to tightening demographic pressures, but always in deference to its white supremacist roots. Benjamin Franklin espoused a widely held belief in his day that a white person must be of Anglo-Saxon descent. In the 19th century, most northern Europeans qualified as white — as long as they weren’t Irish or Jewish. They, like southern and eastern Europeans would have to wait for the early 20th century immigration waves to pass before they could ascend to whiteness. We have progressed in the 21st century to the point that skin color need not be a disqualifying feature for whiteness, as Asian Americans and even African Americans are now welcome — as long as they are willing to support and promote traditionally white European values and goals.


So, if the definition of whiteness is so elastic, what does it even mean to be white? Some say whiteness is like a club, where anyone can join. Others describe it as a mercenary army with its own flag and language and uniform — mobilized against a common threat. Perhaps the best definition might belong to W.E.B. DuBois, who thought the white race was like a religion. But, whatever it is, its original organizing principle endures: white is the opposite of Black.

Every civil rights movement in this country has been recast by the guardians of whiteness as a Black against white conflict: Reconstruction was not about extending civic rights to the disenfranchised, it was about the destruction of the white race. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was not about equal justice for all races and classes and genders, it was a power grab by dangerous, uppity Black people who did not know their place. Other movements received a similar reception — busing in the ’70s, affirmative action in the ’90s and the teaching of critical race theory today. Any social movement that involves the promotion of racial equity and equality is eventually described by the guardians of whiteness as the beginnings of a race war.

To be proud of whiteness is to be proud of an illusion — a fabrication, crafted to serve a sinister purpose. Whenever someone energetically identifies themselves as a white American, as opposed to whatever ethnic group they belong to, they move one step closer to white supremacy and one step further from their ancestors.

Most African Americans would love to have the kind of connection to our ethnic homeland that most white Americans enjoy. For us, that connection was methodically stripped away long ago. The best we can do is identify ourselves as African Americans and choose not to take part in the race games designed by those in this country who seek to demean, demoralize and defeat us.

We are not the opposite of white. Our existence is not a rallying call for racists. We are Americans — African Americans. What are you?

K. Ward Cummings ( is a former senior congressional staffer and the author of “The Capitol Hill Playbook” (2nd Edition), written under the pen name Nicholas Balthazar.