Years ago, I read an essay about the cultural construction of whiteness in America; the author’s claim was that whiteness is defined as a void, easier to discuss in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. I can’t remember if this was mentioned in the essay, but I believe this loss is derived from the ubiquity of whiteness itself. Trying to define whiteness is bootstrapping. Even the vocabulary involved in such discussions of ethnicity is insufficient to properly address the issue. By virtue of their minority status, it is possible for folks in a non-white construction to hone their self-awareness in terms of their association with whatever their minority is. So a black folk has an easier time grappling with what it means to be Black because their blackness is less prominent when compared to whiteness. This applies just as well to sex and gender roles, and even works in subcategories of whiteness based on country of origin.
I’m sometimes envious of people who have this kind of associative chance. I have no legacy to use to direct my self-definition. My family, awesome as it is, shows no ethnic traits, like a focus on food from the old country, songs and stories, or even knowledge of distant family over in Europe. This is why that essay resonated with me so strongly, it seemed to be describing my life exactly. Because my cultural background is ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness, I’m missing out on an entire facet of existence. This was likely the nascent impulse that made me so interested in anthropology.
Something Alixa + Naima said the other night sparked this thought process. In an amazing poem about Hurricane Katrina, they made disparaging reference to being white. After, they explained that it wasn’t a remark about race, but about a certain state of mind they call “white.” To me it seems like this state of mind is the same as the ubiquity/void that I’m talking about. It makes sense, but is also troubling. Their sense of culture and legacy was very prominent in their reading, in direct contrast to whiteness.
Yet where does that leave me? There is no Italian or Polish or Hungarian or Irish or Jewish heritage for me to lean on. I cannot adopt myself into any of those paradigms and be authentic. On the positive side, this void leaves me free to define myself in any terms that I choose; except these always seem to remain in the void and the process gets awfully old after awhile. It is almost easier to just be meaningless.