In 1993, I took my Bachelors Degree, my Masters Degree, and my teaching coursework, stepped on to an airplane and left for Honolulu, Hawai’i to begin a one year teaching internship. I was confident that I knew the subject I was going to teach, English, and I was confident that my teaching coursework had taught me what I needed to adapt that content into a curriculum suited for learners anywhere. I was also possessed of a young, white, suburban liberal’s confidence that I valued diversity and in the ability of that disposition to make up for the lack of either theoretical or practical knowledge that I had about the community I was moving to.
As it turned out, I did know a great deal about English.
My other assumptions were woefully inadequate, and I soon realized that if I was going to be anything more than a tourist who also collected a paycheck, I had an enormous amount to learn about the political, economic, racial, and linguistic history of my new home. Hawai’i’s history since contact with Europe and America includes colonization, disease, displacement of native peoples, a plantation labor economy, and concentration of land and wealth into American-born hands. Eventually, a cabal of American-backed businessmen, not content with what they had already accumulated at the expense of Native Hawaiians and imported plantation labor, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 with assistance from the U.S. military and worked towards annexation by the United States, succeeding in 1898. In 1896, the government set up by the coup leaders officially banned the use of Hawaiian language in all schools, both public and private, a law which would remain on the books until the 1980s and which nearly succeeded in wiping out the Hawaiian language outside of tourist kitsch. I knew none of this when I stepped foot on O’ahu.
Teaching English is always a political act, but the starkness of that become far more clear as I accumulated experience in Honolulu and got to know my students better. A few years later, I was handed a textbook that was supposed to be on the subject of “American Literature” for a class of eleventh graders. The text was nearly 600 pages long, and it contained perhaps 30 pages written by African Americans, no more than that by Americans of Hispanic heritage, literally nothing by Asian Americans, and a 3 page speech attributed to Chief Seattle for which there is no definitive text and a lot of mythology that served other people’s interests. Thumbing through the book and thinking about my students – who largely traced their ancestry to continental Asia, the Philippines, Hawai’i, and other Pacific nations – was enormously depressing. Here was a text of “American” literature that would have been inadequate in countless American communities and which effectively erased the majority of my students from the nation’s literary tradition. Luckily, the Bishop Museum Press had just published Mary Kawena Pukui’s bilingual collection of Hawaiian folktales, and breaking my department’s copying budget, I set about using it as the basis for a semester long project on family folk stories incorporating oral, written, and visual presentations.
This doesn’t mean that I did not fail frequently, especially in my first year teaching. I did. I recall with shame showing visible impatience with a student in my first year who tried to explain that his family was Buddhist, and he simply did not know a lot of the religious references in the Hawthorne story we had read. I had difficulty sustaining students’ conversations about our reading until I recognized that the classroom speaking pattern I was used to at home and in school was culturally specific and until I tried to embrace the richness of students’ language in all of the forms that entered my classroom as classroom talk. It took me too many years to really question the ethnocentrism of the English curriculum, far too often taking the easier path of sticking with the literature that spoke to me.
As I grew to appreciate the complexities of this community, I grew to love it as well. Hawai’i had far more to teach me that I had to teach it, and while it was not always comfortable, it was surely valuable. And that growing value was why, in my second year teaching, I was absolutely flummoxed by an admission a fellow “mainland transplant” made to me. It was at a party at a friend’s home. This friend was also white but had lived in Hawai’i all of her life, and one of her guests was a young woman who had moved to O’ahu with her husband for his job a few years earlier from the east coast. We spoke briefly before she, perhaps assessing me as similarly-situated and sympathetic, made an admission:
“You know, living here really makes me understand what black people must have felt like in Alabama in the 1950s.”
I don’t recall my exact reaction, but I must not have registered anything obvious as she continued for some minutes about how much she disliked Hawai’i in general and Honolulu in particular. I do not recall getting into an argument with her, and I do not recall any further discussions. I do remember being bothered by her hostility and absolutely floored by her comparison to herself, as a white person in Honolulu, to a black person in the Jim Crow era. Numerous explanations seemed possible:
- Perhaps she had a staggeringly shallow understanding of the history of White Supremacy, the kind of terrorism inflicted upon people of color in the Jim Crow South, and just how much of that persisted past the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement.
- Perhaps she was plainly unused to being in the racial minority. Hawai’i, as is often overlooked by the national press, was a “majority minority” state the moment it was admitted into the Union. To be suddenly thrust in a position where her status no longer appeared guaranteed may have been supremely uncomfortable.
- Perhaps she had experienced genuine racial animosity and had considered it the equivalent of systemic racism. Hawai’i’s history has born complex and often painful racial relationships, and I knew more than one white person who bristled at being called “haole” especially in the sense that the words denotes a judgement of one’s character.
Of course, it is entirely possible she simply didn’t like Hawai’i. I have lived in places I found less than wonderful in my life. But her comparison of herself to a person of color in the Jim Crow South screamed at a deeper level of resentment, uneasiness, and angst in need of explanation. Even today, over two decades later, I have trouble understanding it. At the time I seriously could not grasp it all because except for reasonably average homesickness and an inability in my first year of detecting the change of the seasons, I really could not understand what she was trying to explain and did not feel that sense of racial discomfort and anxiety she expressed.
This doesn’t denote anything particularly special about my enlightenment regarding race in my mid-twenties. I suffered not a single professional consequence as a white male with an Ivy League degree while teaching. It is possible that some of my chosen social activities, like the Sierra Club, were over-populated with people like myself, so I effectively “shielded” myself from situations where racial tension was more evident. I grew up in a majority Jewish town, but spent college in an environment with a very small Jewish population, so I had already experienced moving to a place with a different culture. Perhaps the nature of my job meant more contact with young people who had grown up in Hawai’i, giving me the opportunity to know and appreciate them.
Whatever the reason, I genuinely cannot recall a single incident in Hawai’i where I personally felt my identity as a white person disadvantaged me. It is entirely possible, although I’d be hard pressed to recall, that an individual here or there was personally hostile, but nothing left any lasting impression and certainly nothing was consequential. Ultimately, I can only understand the young woman’s response as a viscerally negative response to being suddenly thrust into a visible minority status, where the majority of people looked very different than herself and possessed cultural histories and practices with which she was unfamiliar. Being taken from a position of comfort and presumed normalcy to a space where your standard assumptions might no longer work is not an experience many people in America’s racial majority are prepared for by any of their upbringing. I assume (and it is an assumption) that the woman who clearly thought I would understand her assessment of her situation was struggling with that to such a degree that she was erupting with her own resentment.
I’ve been thinking about this encounter off and on since the election in 2008 and almost nonstop since 2016.
The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency sent a shock wave through many white Americans that manifested in opposition to him far beyond what can be explained by mere partisan politics. As late as Fall 2015, 29% of Americans still believed that the first black President was secretly a Muslim, furthering an ongoing campaign to “other” Mr. Obama and to refuse to accept his legitimacy as President of the United States. This has been an outgrowth of a general sense of shock among much of the nation’s white population that their assumed normalcy and social/political status was under threat due to Mr. Obama’s Presidency and demographic projections of a dwindling white population in coming decades. Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Samuel Sommers of Tufts University noted this in a 2011 study where whites expressed that racism is a “zero sum game” and that they see themselves “losing” in America today. In that study, both black and white Americans believed that racial animosity towards blacks had fallen from the 1950s to the 2000s, but whites startlingly saw racial animosity against themselves as having simultaneously risen to the point where there was more discrimination against them than against blacks. The authors concluded that their white respondents were seeing that progress for black Americans had occurred and that it had done so at their expense.
This phenomenon exploded into support among Republican primary voters for Donald Trump who initiated his campaign on racism, nativism, and isolationist populism. Pew Research found that warmth towards Donald Trump in the primary campaign was closely associated with seeing immigration and a shrinking white demographic as negatives. A minority of Republican voters (39%) believed that the fact that America will become “majority minority” was negative, but an overwhelming 63% of these constituents had a favorable view of Donald Trump. Economic anxiety may have gotten a lot of media attention in the last election cycle, but when a lot of white people went into the voting booth, racial animosity and fear of living in a diverse future motivated their votes.
The only way to explain this fear and animosity is with the inability to see a future for themselves in an increasingly diverse national community which is inexorably coming. In 1980 (the first year the census recorded a “Spanish Origin” population), whites numbered roughly 189 million in a national population of over 226.5 million, roughly 83% of the population counted in the Census. In 2014, non-Hispanic White Americans were 62.2% of the population, projected to be only 43.6% of the population in 2060.
In other words: in coming decades, more and more white Americans will find themselves more and more a demonstrably minority population, and much like the young woman I met in Hawai’i in the mid-1990s, they are uncomfortable with that and often down right fearful. Much like their predecessors in the 1800s and early 1900s who saw waves of Irish Catholic immigration, Southern European immigration, Eastern European and Jewish immigration, and Asian immigration as inherent threats to a cultural and political order dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, white Americans fearful for their place in the social, cultural, and political order are lashing out. The march by avowed White Supremacists in Charlottesville this summer that sparked a national furor was merely the most ugly manifestation of this — and not even the most problematic. It takes little courage to denounce people marching in Nazi regalia. It takes a bit more to ask friends and neighbors to think about what really motivated their vote last year.
And yet not asking that is not a viable option. A shocking percentage of white Americans believe that they are discriminated against racially and that their dwindling demographic majority is an actual threat rather than a natural outcome of a changing society. This is a process that will continue for decades, and white Americans need a very different framing of the ongoing changes if they are going to adapt to it without the upheaval we have seen recently, and the echoes it has of past, violent, responses to immigration and civil rights movements.
Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University and author of A History of Whiteness, suggests just how difficult this might be. As a construct, “whiteness” has a long and complex history beyond simply noting a cluster of a few, vaguely-shared physical attributes, and Dr. Irvin Painter documents how the concept has changed over time:
In the mid-to late-19th century, the existence of several white races was widely assumed: notably, the superior Saxons and the inferior Celts. Each race – and they were called races – had its characteristic racial temperament. “Temperament” has been and still is a crucial facet of racial classification since its 18th-century Linnaean origins. Color has always been only one part of it (as the case of Ms. Dolezal shows).
In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful. Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.
Dr. Irvin Painter also documents that by the 1940s, anthropologists, dominated by white men as academia was, determined that white, Asian, and black were the only “true” races and that each existed as unitary without any racial subgroups. This new classification system had the side effect of removing white people from any burden of racial identity in America:
The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting. A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting. In the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of “black is beautiful.” But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.
This leaves white Americans in modern America with a disturbing binary in their identity. Toggling between “bland nothingness” on the one hand and “racist hatred” on the other, white Americans have little that is compelling to hold on to, but this has at least one positive effect. Like the young woman who asked me to affirm the injustice of her situation, “nothingness” meant that she was entirely “normal,” that her sense of how the world worked and how culture functioned was unproblematic, and she could navigate life without her identity causing any special discomfort. This is perhaps the “heart of whiteness,” the ability to live and interact with others wrapped in the privilege of assumed normalcy. Finding herself in Hawai’i flipped that construct in a way she could not process without lashing out, and the rest of the white community in America is entering a future where the assumption of normalcy is methodically being deconstructed by the sheer weight of demographics.
The past decade says that deconstruction will be turbulent under current understandings of whiteness and identity, risking severe backlash from wide segments of the white population. Dr. Irvin Painter argues that breaking down the binary toggle of whiteness is essential and that the abolition of white privilege and social justice could be incorporated as a component of identity. It is a worthwhile vision. The alternative is decades of fear, resentment, and efforts to retrench white privilege across our political and cultural system.