What It Means To Be White

Challenging assumptions and underlying beliefs about race; an exploration of whiteness in history and today.


 “…these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” - Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has been a highly requested title here at Oakland Public Library since its publication in 2015. The insightful memoir/essay in the form of a letter by an African American journalist to his son affected me more than anything else I read in the past year.  Among the books many revelations, the idea that “white” is another socially constructed racial label like “black”, assigned to but only tangentially related to skin color, has continued to resonate. 

As with all such racial labels, white is an inadequate descriptor for all the specifics of me, but a highly significant marker in understanding my place in American culture.  Yet race is real, both in the facts of our bodies and ethnic origins, and in how our experiences are assigned power and value in our ranked society.  The titles I have found about being white reveal the origins of our tiered social system and how race was woven into the story to perpetuate authority over the many by the few.

Right now I am reading White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. White Trash describes in great detail the origins of class divisions among white colonists, beginning with the earliest attempts to extract wealth from the land by importing indentured labor.  Poor white people were transplanted from England as investors sought to empty its slums and debtors prisons. The pundits of the day called them “waste people”.  An obsession with bloodlines and breeding created a pseudo-biological basis for class inequity, feeding into the eventual widespread adoption of American slavery by upper class landholders. 

Other titles on my reading list explore racially-focused issues in current politics, deconstructing terms like “white rage” and “white backlash”, shorthand for complex dynamics facing a changing American culture. In an election year when "white voters" have been splintered into many opposing factions, understanding the truths behind the labels feels to me like required reading.

White backlash: immigration, race, and American politics / Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan L. Hajnal

“Fears about immigration fundamentally influence white Americans' core political identities.”

White rage: the unspoken truth of our racial divide / Carol Anderson

“Every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains.”

What's the matter with White people: why we long for a golden age that never was / Joan Walsh

“Popular Salon columnist Joan Walsh argues that the biggest divide in America today is not about party or ideology, but about two competing narratives for why everything has fallen apart since the 1970s.”

(Quotes from publisher information or reviews found through OPL catalog links.) 

Thanks to librarian Amy Sonnie for suggestions of more books that tell stories about white history, addressing white privilege and modeling anti-racism in positive ways.

Memoir of a race traitor / Mab Segrest

A promise and a way of life : white antiracist activism / Becky Thompson

The emperor has no clothes : teaching about race and racism to people who don't want to know / Tema Okun

The wages of whiteness : race and the making of the American working class / David R. Roediger

How the Irish became white / Noel Ignatiev

The possessive investment in whiteness : how white people profit from identity politics / George Lipsitz



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