Monday, March 10, 2014

Excerpts from "White Ethnicity: A Reappraisal"

[A reflection on the academic category "white ethnicity" and how it contains the heterogeneity of European Americans.]

Beyond White Ethnicity? 

The normalization of Europeans as whites erases the fault lines within the category, namely those who neither conform to the aesthetic norms of whiteness nor consent to its ideology. To start troubling the equation between whiteness and Europeanness, let me share an ethnographic anecdote. It is a story I was told in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio, by a Greek American in a (bilingual) conversation about subway encounters among U.S. Greeks: “And here you have two Greeks entering the [San Francisco] BART, huge mustaches, you know (gesture to mimic the well-groomed traditional mustache style, a sign of early immigrant masculinity); and then you see this Greek woman all uneasy, telling her child to move over and take extra seat space so that ‘αυτοί οι Μεξικανοί να μην καθήσουν εδώ’ ” [these Mexicans will not sit next to us]. Regardless of its factual status — whether it refers to an actual encounter or a fictive narrative — the story registers the contradictions and ambivalences associated with a particular “European ethnicity.” Who are the Greeks in this instance, white or nonwhite? Both, depending on the register of the discourse. On the one hand, the male phenotypes animate negative stereotypes of Hispanic Americans, marking the (immigrant?) men outside (safe) whiteness. The internalization of racial (and racist) hierarchies, on the other hand, concretely places the (Greek) woman within the realm of ideological whiteness. The story simultaneously registers anxiety about and ambivalence over the racial location of (some) Greeks and captures the tragic irony of intraethnic racism. It fractures, no doubt, the naturalization of Europeans as whites [16]. 

We enter, then, the unstable, variegated terrain of the ways in which race is experienced in everyday life, an ethnographic maze of situated local meanings in flux that break down reductive classifications of whiteness as skin color or European ancestry. The gulf between whiteness as an abstract category and the concrete ways in which racializations are negotiated in everyday life is not readily captured in surveys or interviews. John Hartigan’s (1999) breakthrough ethnographic mapping of race as lived experience brings attention to the ambivalences, anxieties, contradictions, resistances, and shifting racial situations in various localities and interracial contact zones. To paraphrase Hartigan (2005), “the easiest stage of studying [ethnic] whiteness is behind us” (emphasis added) (223). The fundamental reconfiguring of the ways in which the nation experiences and discusses race — “race is losing its unity and coherence as a social phenomenon” (Hartigan 2010, 186) — requires a new sophistication in the analysis of racialized ethnic meanings. 

The shift of focus from the macrolevel of the generalizing language of race to the microlevel of ethnographic particulars disrupts white ethnicity as a monolithic category. This is a most welcome development to illuminate the fault lines within whiteness that remain largely marginalized. How do the “dark Caucasians” or “olive-skinned” Europeans, to recirculate for a moment earlier racializations, experience their identities, and how are they seen by their neighbors, partners, in-laws, and co-workers? How do European -Americans confront whiteness? What social dramas of ambivalence, exclusion, negotiation, or rejection does our generalizing language fail to grasp? In what ways do Americans of mixed European, Middle Eastern, Latino, or African backgrounds locate themselves — and in what ways are they located in turn — in U.S. and transnational racializations? The naturalization of European affiliation with whiteness erases the histories and experiences of populations who either do not fit the culturally prescribed phenotypes of whiteness or else consciously reject its ideology. 

To make absolutely clear: This is not to deny the reality and broad-scale inclusion of European Americans into whiteness. Certainly it is not to claim that Americans of southeastern European ancestries are now all “not quite white” (Not Quite White 2012). One of the most potent contributions of critical studies of whiteness studies lies in establishing the historical participation of the peoples from Europe in the reproduction of U.S. racial hierarchies and their reward with privileges. But once this fact and its implications are acknowledged, one might ask, how about those “white ethnics” who supported interracial coalitions, fought to include the immigrant left in historiography, interrogated racism within their own communities, engaged in activism for fair-housing policies and immigrant rights, or supported affirmative action policies? Have there been no “white ethnics” in grassroots activism advocating for racial justice, crossing the color line in solidarity, writing against whiteness, advocating the causes of the people of color? Why have they not been granted the visibility they deserve in race-centered scholarship? 


In a compelling telling of the white ethnicity narrative, Matthew Frye Jacobson (2006) offers a key insight into these questions. The political potency of the ethnic revival lies “not [in] the politics of ‘identity’ for individuals,” he writes, “but [in] the politics of ‘heritage’ for the nation at large” (6). It was the collective ascertainment of the narrative that so deeply entrenched European ethnics in the national fabric and in turn excised structures of racial oppression, tipping the racial game to white ethnic advantage. In this configuration, alternative ethnic positions of “prominority” activism did not matter. If collective narratives prominently flaunted flouted the Eurocentric multicultural model, the political priority was to dismantle its hegemony. Why should a critique of whiteness excavate the archive to reclaim alternatives? Still, this displacement of progressive currents by racial multiculturalism underlines a dramatic irony. While racial studies were celebrating difference, notably deconstructing Eurocentric binaries, their political expediency reduced white ethnicity to a singular, “antiminority” constituency. 

The task of rehabilitating ethnicity’s heterogeneity matters for reasons beyond restoring historical accuracy. Recovering identities that were ignored, forgotten, repressed, or footnoted because they did not fit hegemonic discourses injects a new politics into ethnic studies. If writing history and culture is where “alternative forms of subjectivity, collectivity, and public life are imagined” (Lowe 1996, 22), academic work also contributes to the process of subject formation. The reclamation of ethnicity’s internal heterogeneity — both within European Americanness Europeanness and within a specific ethnicity — obviously challenges unitary constructions, destabilizing the duality plaguing ethnics as either cultureless or racial conservatives. And it makes available alternative usable pasts that could center around a politics of ethnicity. 

Reconfiguring “White Ethnicity” 

A key question remains: Under what rubric do we frame our work? Is an expanded definition of “white ethnicity” still workable? Will European American studies serve us better? What if we make particular hyphenations (Italian Americans, Russian Americans) the starting point of inquiry? Is there an alternative term? The category “ethnicity,” for instance, remains transparent in this analysis. An array of competing concepts, postethnicity, biculturalism, diaspora, and cosmopolitanism among others, vie for attention. Similarly, the ascription “American” remains unexamined. Categories frame the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of knowledge we generate. Making “American white ethnics” the object of analysis will produce different scholarship than, say, “European-American diasporas.” 

These issues cannot possibly be debated without considering the context in which we practice scholarship. Answers depend on our institutional location and disciplinary specialization, as well as on our own intellectual and political priorities. In the national scene, for example, the options for a comparative analysis of American European American ethnicities within a single academic unit are not optimal, due to the specific management of diversity in the multicultural academy. While Asian American or Latin American studies are, for historical reasons, integral parts of the academic fabric, European Americans, or for that matter “white ethnics,” lack a corresponding space. This absence of an institutional center makes it necessary to think of strategies for greater visibility. It requires exploration of the academic landscape and the modalities that it may enable. It calls for reflection in the existing divisions of academic labor and the power relations that intersect it, including the ever-shifting institutional priorities of the university and how they affect “minor” fields of study such as many language and culture programs. 

Against histories of academic displacement and devaluation, knowledge about the hyphenated ethnic is currently produced in a web of international circuits. Greek-American, Italian-American, or Irish-American scholarship — each with its own diverse histories, materialities, demographics, and institutional power — are now practiced transnationally. Anthropologists based in Italian universities now conduct ethnographies of Italian Americans in New York City. Greek Americans are studied in European departments of history, English, cultural studies, diaspora, cultural geography, and even anthropology (Anagnostou 2010). Irish studies call for situating Irish America within postcolonial diaspora theory. Thus, knowledge is produced within a transnational network of institutional economies and ideologies across disciplines and area studies. American ethnic hyphenations are construed through a plurality of epistemological vantage points, a range of ec-centric positions [17]. 

The transnationalization of “American ethnic studies” parallels the expansion of geopolitical frames of reference in the making of identities. Even the state, as I mentioned, once the primary pressure point of nation-centric assimilation, now recognizes — arguably appropriates — diasporas as an economic, political, and civic capital for national life. Under these conditions, the conventional hyphenated American category bursts at the seams as it finds itself entangled in all kinds of diaspora, transnational, national, postethnic, ethnic, and cosmopolitan affiliations. This is not to diminish the state’s power to produce hegemonic ethnic narratives. The enduring reproduction of national mythologies like the American Dream illustrates the power of national culture to normalize difference [18]. It serves as a reminder, however, of the function of identity topographies beyond the nation-centered paradigm, about the lessening analytical capacity of “ethnicity” to capture multivalent and flexible (yet not superficial) identities increasingly participating in multiple exchanges and circulations. 

“White” also represents limitations as the center of inquiry, though it certainly enables the visibility of power, when the ethnicity paradigm sees none. It contributes to reified racialized polarities in an era of dramatic reconfigurations of racial boundaries and shifting racializations, including the emergence of multiraciality. More important, for my purposes, “white ethnicity” offers no location for progressive identity politics. The term refers to no constituency that critiques material and symbolic domination. Thus, its value as a position of “strategic essentialism” that animates the politics of panethnicities like Asian Americans cannot apply [19]. The naming of categories offers sites for identification. Is it advisable to keep reproducing the reified identity “white ethnicity,” particularly when its meaning in popular imagination is deeply entangled with racial nationalisms? 

Given the material and symbolic organization of European identities in the United States, hyphenated specificity (Irish Americans, Italian Americans, etc.) offers a pragmatic departure point for a new politics of ethnicity. To be sure, focusing on ethnic identity is fraught with challenges. It may obscure internal class, gender, and cultural heterogeneity. It risks culturalism and missing the relational construction of identity. It certainly makes itself vulnerable to dismissal as yet another scholarly embodiment of whiteness that denies its power. The analytical privileging of specific hyphenations narrows the potential for identifying multiple affiliations and mixings. How then to maneuver the limits of a distinctive identity without losing sight of ethnicity as a function of power? 

A new politics of ethnicity moves beyond the reification of whiteness but is in conversation with critical studies of whiteness. It resolutely interrogates whiteness — understood as ideological reproduction of racial hierarchies — and examines situated racializations across gender and class lines. At the same time, this approach to ethnicity expands the geopolitical boundaries of hyphenated affiliations beyond the nation to investigate heterogeneous transnational cultural fields (Irish America, Greek America), ethnicity not as sameness but as a web of relations in systems of inequality. A new politics of ethnicity capitalizes on notions of “invented ethnicity” (Conzen Neils et al., 1992), recognizing the limits of “the single-group approach” (32). It takes into account, instead, cross-cultural interactions and multiplicity. Rudolph Vecoli (1995) offers a useful — albeit limited in the context of his overall project — point of departure when he proposes this about Italian-American history and immigration: “We, the descendants of contadini, should not tolerate those who say, ‘Oh, but our immigrant ancestors were different. They suffered hardships, but because they were hardworking, self-reliant, honest, etc., they made it.’ … [ethnic history teaches that this is] a slander on the new immigrants” (159). Knowledge of ethnic particularity serves as a usable past that extends beyond the interests of a single ethnicity [20]. 

In keeping with Karen Brodkin’s thoughts (2005) on the transformative potential of critical whiteness studies, the new approach asks: If studying ethnicity entails a transformative project, what kind of project is it? The concept of rearticulation offers a key critical tool for further reflection, particularly in relation to the (re)making of ethnic subjectivities. Rearticulation, Omi and Winant (1986) write, “produces new subjectivity by making use of information and knowledge already present in the subject’s mind. They take elements and themes of her/his culture and traditions and infuse them with new meaning” (93). This strategy circulates within ethnicity discourse. Greek-American popular ethnographers, for instance, have deployed folk immigrant culture and religion (“the knowledge present in the subject’s mind”) to advocate for the interests of disenfranchised Others (Anagnostou 2009a). Rearticulating ethnicity offers the prospect of sustaining cross-ethnic conversations. In the academy, it encourages cross-disciplinary and cross-ethnic-studies dialog; in society it encourages alliances based on shared understandings of the histories of maligned collectives. This is crucial if a configuration is indeed under way toward the “Latin Americanization of whiteness” — that is, a tri-racial system where the “light-skinned” Asian Americans and Latinos as “honorary whites” will work against the interests of the “black collective” (Bonilla-Silva 2003, 278). The Irish Americans, the Greek Americans, the Italian Americans, the Polish Americans, and the Russian Americans in the United States “must either chose solidarity with people of colour or once more hide under the veil of … whiteness” (Gibbons, cited in Rains 2007, 220).


From “White Ethnicity: A Reappraisal.” Italian American Review. Vol. 3(2): 99–128. Summer 2013 (Yiorgos Anagnostou).

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