Is there a timeline of “whiteness?”
April 17, 2023 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Has someone made a timeline of when / how various ethnic groups (Germans, Poles, Irish, etc) became white people here in the USA?
posted by Uncle to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry, I don't have the full answer, but I know Isabel Wilkerson talks about that in the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. If you don't find a better answer here, you could check it out and her sources.
posted by Laura in Canada at 6:20 AM on April 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I think you may need to be more specific. There are ethnic groups (e.g. Italians, particularly Sicilians) who were explicitly considered "colored" and then "acquired" whiteness, and there are ethnic groups were "other" in terms of American white supremacy, but were also not "not white". (I think Germans fall into this category. The First World War is a clear turning point there, as there was a very conscious move towards assimilation--for instance, it was the end of German-language schools.)
posted by hoyland at 6:34 AM on April 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I don’t have a timeline for you, but I think part of what makes “whiteness” so powerful as an idea is that it’s always conditional and unevenly distributed. In one context you’re white, in another you’re the hated other.

(I’m jewish.)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:52 AM on April 17, 2023 [17 favorites]

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter (2010).

Telling perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but also the frequent praise of “whiteness” for economic, scientific, and political ends. A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes a huge gap in literature that has long focused on the non-white and forcefully reminds us that the concept of “race” is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed as it has been driven by a long and rich history of events.
posted by twelve cent archie at 7:03 AM on April 17, 2023 [8 favorites]

In the book White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, there are several short, useful, clearly-written essays on this topic. You can read part of the first one, "How White People Became White," on Google Books. For a fuller picture, you can also read the two following chapters -- "How Jews Became White Folks," and "Becoming Hispanic: Mexican Americans and Whiteness." The book is well worth reading if you're interested in this topic -- it's very short and very salient.
posted by ourobouros at 7:04 AM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

David Dean's "Roots Deeper Than Whiteness" talks about the how and why (government efforts to suppress solidarity with Black people, basically). Not exactly a timeline but gives eras (e.g., New Deal).
posted by lapis at 7:20 AM on April 17, 2023

In addition to the Painter, you want White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race by Ian Haney Lopez.

In the first edition of White by Law, Haney López traced the reasoning employed by the courts in their efforts to justify the whiteness of some and the non-whiteness of others, and revealed the criteria that were used, often arbitrarily, to determine whiteness, and thus citizenship: skin color, facial features, national origin, language, culture, ancestry, scientific opinion, and, most importantly, popular opinion.
posted by jocelmeow at 7:52 AM on April 17, 2023 [4 favorites]

One specific ethnicity is the focus of How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev. It was originally published in 1995 and has been updated at least once since then.

Interestingly while looking up the book's title from memory I also stumbled on this article from The Root: "When the Irish Weren’t White", where the author also shouts out A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:56 AM on April 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

Bohunks, aka Bohemians/Czechs/Hungarian were not as high on the desirables list the the mid-West as Scandinavians, but moved up.
But after 1924, when Congress passed legislation that limited immigration from southern and Eastern Europe, most immigrants already in the US became a lot “whiter.”
Also, being Orthodox limited “whiteness.”
posted by Ideefixe at 8:55 AM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Be a little careful sourcing this, there’s a lot of racist rhetoric especially in the Irish-American circles pitching it as us vs them and “you don’t see us looking for xyz” and other false equivalencies. This is “the Irish were slaves too” lie. There’s also a whole thing on the opposite side that over-emphasizes the closeness of the Black and Irish communities in early US history, with an aim of positioning Irishness as a sort of “innocent whiteness”.
posted by Iteki at 9:42 AM on April 17, 2023 [12 favorites]

There was some talk of this on the Seeing White podcast by Scene on Radio. I forget which episode(s) - they build each other as you listen.
posted by d288478 at 10:15 AM on April 17, 2023

Another book that covers this through the prism of a specific ethnicity, that I can recommend - A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans: Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife by David G. Vermette
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:47 AM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Might also pay to look at when Catholics were welcomed into the fundamentalist fold. Catholicism was a big no-no for a long time.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:35 PM on April 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

This isn’t specifically about the USA but I think it’ll help answer your questions too.

The invention of whiteness
posted by shahzebasif at 7:55 PM on April 17, 2023

I came here to second the recommendation for White by Law and especially how it intersects with Iteki's point. There are European ethnic groups who certainly faced discrimination in the US, but were almost always, if grudgingly, granted citizenship by law, and in that sense they still benefited immensely from white legal privilege long before they became 'culturally white'.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:14 PM on April 18, 2023 [1 favorite]

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