The Great ‘White’ Influx
Zarmina Khalili says she never considered herself white until she moved to the United States 15 years ago.
Race was a nonissue in her native Afghanistan, she said. There, the basic distinctions were tribal, between Tajiks and Pashtuns. Khalili knew where she stood: She was a Tajik.
In America, it wasn’t so clear. The census forms that came in the mail asked Khalili, 42, a Canoga Park homemaker, to place herself in one of six racial categories. She picked “white.” Though she is fair-skinned, it wasn’t entirely a matter of color, she said.
She regarded white as synonymous with American, with belonging, with fitting in.
In identifying herself that way, Khalili joined a growing number of newcomers who are stretching traditional U.S. racial definitions and--counterintuitive as it might seem--making white among the most diverse of demographic categories.
The 2000 Census counted 28 million foreign-born residents. Two-thirds identified themselves as white. In 1990, half of the foreign-born population checked “white.”
Another sign of change: In 1990, immigrants made up 5% of all white Americans. By 2000, the foreign-born accounted for 9% of the white population.
Latinos, the nation’s largest immigrant group, are driving those numbers. Almost half checked the “white” box in Census 2000.
“What white traditionally meant--the WASP, the blond hair, the California drawl, the Hells Angels motorcycle riders--is being overlaid with new images of white Russians and Armenians ... Iranians, North Africans and Latinos,” said USC demographer Dowell Myers. “White is the most polyglot category, and it’s morphing.”
Recent newcomers are expanding the meaning of “white” much as Southern and Eastern European immigrants did a century ago, when many Americans still viewed the word as signifying Anglo-Saxon heritage.
The latest arrivals are also upsetting conventional wisdom, which held that the percentage of white Americans would inevitably dwindle over time. About 75% of the U.S. populace defines itself today as wholly or partly white. Many demographers expect the same will be true in 50 years, despite continued immigration from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere.
“There’s been this idea that demography is destiny and that America is going to be a nonwhite nation,” said Peter Skerry, author of “Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority” and a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Why do so many recent immigrants choose a white identity?
White Means Inclusion
For earlier generations, the value of doing so was clear. They were coming to a place where nonwhites suffered systematic discrimination. Even today, many immigrants say they equate whiteness with opportunity and inclusion.
But a growing number, influenced heavily by Latino culture, say they see race as fluid and whiteness as an unbounded territory they can enter and exit at will.
Yareli Arizmendi, a Mexican American actress, said she used to be typecast as “the gangbanger’s mother” or “the excitable Cuban woman.” So she stopped specifying her ethnicity at auditions. Recently, she landed the part of a Jewish lawyer on an episode of the television series “NYPD Blue.” No one guessed her roots until she mentioned them to a hairstylist on the set.
“I am a Latino,” said the actress, who lives in Hollywood. “But I am white too, and I don’t want to be pegged as ‘the other.’ ”
In Mexico, where Arizmendi was born and raised, “we never asked: ‘What are you? What percentage Negroid? What percentage mongoloid? Are you Latin American or Mayan or Aztec or European or Moorish?’ ” she recalled. “Because a lot of us are all of these things.”
Other mixed-race people are embracing a similar sort of racial flexibility, choosing white as their primary race. A 1995 federal schools survey found that 17% of the children with an African American parent and a white parent chose white as their primary ethnicity. Among children with one Asian American parent and one white parent, half considered white their primary race.
In the past, people of mixed race were almost uniformly counted as minorities, not as whites.
Even siblings with identical racial backgrounds sometimes make different choices based on personal experience. David Chau, 22, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, has a Jewish mother and a Chinese American father. He considers himself white. “White fits me best, I guess,” he said.
His older sister, Jen, sees herself as a minority: Jewish and Asian. “I honestly don’t know what white means,” she said. “I don’t know what a white experience is.”
Debate about racial categories and their meaning revives each decade when the U.S. Census Bureau asks American households about themselves.
In the first national headcount, in 1790, government enumerators placed people in four slots: free white males, free white females, slaves, and “others,” a category that included free Native Americans.
Today, people fill out the survey themselves, choosing from six options for race: white; black or African American; American Indian or Native Alaskan; Asian; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; and “other.” In 2000, for the first time, respondents could check more than one category.
The census allows Latinos the most room for layered self-definition. Since 1980, the survey has treated Hispanic ethnicity apart from race, asking about it in a separate question and indicating that Latinos can be of any race. The Hispanic category is meant for people who trace their origins to a Spanish-speaking nation.
The choices Americans make about their racial identities have far-reaching consequences. More than 60 federal agencies use census data to distribute government funds. State legislatures use the numbers in redrawing congressional districts. The Justice Department consults the census in looking for patterns of racial discrimination. Businesses base crucial decisions on the data, ranging from where to open stores to how to market soft drinks.
In doing so, they give bedrock permanence to racial identities that may be ephemeral or subjective
People who pick Hispanic as their ethnicity and white as their race often are communicating that they feel “functionally white,” said Ian Haney Lopez, a UC Berkeley law professor.
For example, Latinos living in affluent, suburban parts of the Los Angeles area tended to call themselves white in Census 2000. By contrast, 50% or more of Latinos living in several of the region’s urban barrios picked “other” as their race.
The sensation of being white waxes and wanes, and not just for Latinos. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, FBI agents came to the home of Khalili, the Afghan immigrant, to ask questions. Her 15-year-old daughter was harassed at school.
“Until Sept. 11, I just felt like this was my own country,” Khalili said. “Now it’s different. I feel like a minority.”
That same uneasy feeling might have shivered through an Irishman in the 1850s or a Slav passing through Ellis Island in the 1920s.
Go back far enough in U.S. history and many Americans who see themselves as white could have been considered minorities at one time. To Benjamin Franklin, for example, “white” referred only to those of Anglo-Saxon descent.
“Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal body of white people on the face of the Earth,” Franklin wrote in a 1751 essay, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and the Peopling of Countries, Etc.”
Like Franklin, early U.S. laws regulating marriage, property rights, citizenship, voting and other facets of life viewed whiteness as a hereditary attribute. But the laws employed varying, often conflicting, standards for determining who had it. Someone could be deemed white for purposes of citizenship, but nonwhite under marriage laws--and thus barred from marrying a white.
Between the Civil War and World War II, Japanese, Arab, Afghan, Armenian, Indian and other immigrants sued in U.S. courts, trying to prove themselves white and therefore eligible to enter the country, hold jobs or become citizens.
Courts gave contradictory rulings. In 1910, an immigrant from India named Dolla was pale enough to convince one court that he was white. Ten years later, the Supreme Court ruled that another Indian immigrant was not.
The unprecedented wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century made the racial identity of newcomers a more contentious issue than ever, as traditionalists declared the national identity under siege.
A 1911 congressional commission sought to quiet the controversy by cataloging the identities of the immigrant flood. It issued a “Dictionary of Races or People” that put Slavs, Poles, Italians, Russians and others in 45 nonwhite racial subgroups. This prompted intense opposition from immigrants, especially Jews, who were placed in a “Hebrew” category.
Many immigrants feared ostracism if the dictionary’s distinctions became policy or law. Ultimately, the government discarded the categories. People with diverse origins came to be seen, and to see themselves, as white.
Mexican Americans became part of a similar debate as the United States expanded west in the 19th century, absorbing sizable Latino populations. After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, census enumerators counted people with Spanish surnames as white. That practice continued until 1930, when a separate “Mexican” racial category was created. Mexican Americans successfully lobbied to have the designation dropped in 1940. Once again, enumerators classified virtually everyone with Spanish surnames as white.
The discrimination visited on African Americans gave immigrants a powerful incentive to be identified as whites.
“They were coming into a society where slavery was synonymous with skin pigmentation,” said Joel Perlmann, a senior scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute at Bard College in New York. “It had nothing to do with preserving their own culture.”
In the expansion of whiteness, African Americans have remained conspicuously apart. They are the group least likely to intermarry with other races and most likely to live in segregated communities and attend segregated schools, according to census and other research data.
“Everyone else has taken their positions in relation to that duality,” said Noel Ignatiev, a history instructor at the Massachusetts College of Art and author of “How the Irish Became White.” “Everyone can assimilate into white America, except ‘homie.’ ”
But some scholars say African Americans’ historical exclusion spurred them to a powerful political and cultural unity. The solidarity they achieved during the civil rights movement of the 1960s is being emulated today by Latinos, said Todd Boyd, a USC pop culture professor and the author of “Am I Black Enough For You?”
“We took those crumbs and transformed it into a distinctive culture,” he said. Even African Americans who could “pass” as white because of their appearance or cultural background choose not to, Boyd said. “Now there’s no reason to shy away from it--it’s ours.”
Latinos have adopted a similar strategy, but with a twist, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“To the extent that being white means being American, we are white,” Vargas said. “But at the same time, we don’t have to deny being Latino as much as before because we’ve had a significant civil rights movement, and politically we’re still one bloc.”
The question “Are you white?” puzzles many second- and third-generation Americans. Many say they simply don’t think about it.
“Whites live in a society that was created for them, that caters to them, where they are the norm. They fit,” said Matthew Kelley, publisher of Mavin, a multiracial affairs journal in Seattle. “So to a lot of people being white is almost indefinable. It’s just this kind of comfort that you don’t recognize unless it goes away. It’s like describing air.”
When whites try to define whiteness, they often find the experience uncomfortable, even disturbing.
“For me, being proud that you’re white is like some kind of Nazi thing,” said Tom Radu, 43, a general contractor from Monrovia. Radu is of Swedish and Romanian ancestry and is married to a Mexican American woman. He describes their 19-year-old son as a “whitesican.”
Jim Stewart, 49, who works with Radu, remembered an odd conservation with his father about race.
“I told him: ‘You’re half-white and half-Sicilian,’ ” recalled Stewart. “Like a half-hour later, he came up to me and said with all seriousness: ‘I’m pretty sure Sicilians are considered white.’ It mattered so much to him that he was thinking about it all that time.”
Some whites yearn for a more distinct identity, in effect seeking to go back to a time before their families joined the mainstream.
“For many white Americans, white is not enough--there is no unifying white experience,” said Diena Simmons, producer of a 23-episode PBS documentary titled “Ancestors.” “They want to say they are Jewish, or Polish, or Ukrainian or something like that.”
Last year, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation opened a Web site listing the names of 22 million immigrants who arrived in the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. The site (www.ellisisland.org) logged 1 billion hits in its first month.
Bob Nafius, a San Diego computer executive, was one of the teeming masses at Ellis Island’s virtual port. Within minutes, he found his Irish great-grandmother’s passenger record showing that she sailed to New York from Liverpool on a ship called the Oceanic.
“Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, white meant suburban, being connected from mall to shining mall. That whole white-bread kind of thing,” Nafius said. “But I always wished I could have a real ethnicity. I’m looking for a tribe to join. Don’t I get a tribe?”