A Paler Shade: Defining "Whiteness"

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Color Palette

What does it mean to be categorized as "white" in this day and age? The census arrives in the mail this week and if you've gotten yours, you've seen these boxes to check off, indicating race: White, Black, Hispanic-White, Samoan, Filipino. But these categories are not static, and have changed over time as our cultural views of race have changed.

Back in the 1830s and 1840s, for example, your choices on the census form were White, Black, Indian and different types of what people then called "Mulattos," i.e. various types of mixed race people. These days, White is just one category among many. 

But, what does it mean to be white?  Nell Irvin Painter says whiteness is a distinct historical concept that has changed a lot over generations. She's the author of the new book, “The History of White People.”


Nell Irvin Painter

Produced by:

Posey Gruener and Jen Poyant

Comments [6]

Nicky McCatty from Brookline, MA

White people ARE NOT Caucasian!!! Caucasians are the people of the Caucasian region, which borders Eurasia and West Asia. They're Asian, and in Russia, in polite company, they're called "The Blacks." In impolite company they're called, well, you know.

The idea that White Europeans, or people with European phenotype, are Caucasian, is a vestige of the race science of disgusting people like Agassiz and Blumenbach. So if you want to fight the thinking of invidious racialism, call white folks White Europeans, or people with European phenotype.


Mar. 18 2010 10:00 AM
Sarah from New Jersey

I had an interesting moment with the census where my husband's Filipino, I'm white, and for our two children I checked the box Filipino. Should I have checked Filipino and white? I'm still not sure. Will the person processing the census know? I don't know! Interesting moment for me.

Mar. 18 2010 08:58 AM
Sandra from New York

Where's a category in the census for my granddaughter? Her mom is white, her dad is black, African American, and there's not a category. Doesn't make sense to me.

Mar. 18 2010 08:54 AM
Doreen from New York

When I filled out the census, I wondered why is white just white when they have 10 different versions of Hispanic, Latino, and many different versions of Asian, etc. from all different parts. Why not ask the white people where they came from?

Mar. 18 2010 08:52 AM

I just don't think of the racial categories as particularly relevant. I assume the government knows all about my whiteness anyway because of how my dutiful parents answered the census years ago. I'm also a fairly public figure and assume that unlike some other groups specified on the forms knowing my race would be unlikely to result in more government resources directed my way. I'm not offended or puzzled by the racial checkoffs.

Mar. 18 2010 08:13 AM

Interesting that John said his family doesn't fill in the race section on the census. Ours doesn't either. I wonder how many Americans are puzzled or offended by this question and how many also don't fill in this question?

Mar. 18 2010 07:52 AM

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