How My Mother Became White
My father’s family refused to attend his wedding. They refused because they disapproved of the woman he was marrying, an Irish-Catholic. They were Catholics themselves, so it wasn’t the woman’s religion they objected to. They refused to accept her into their family because she was the daughter of Irish immigrants. She was not a suitable mate for their son and brother because she wasn’t “white,” or at least was less white than they were.
They wouldn’t have put it that way back in 1928. They would have said she was riffraff or used some other pejorative term to indicate the woman’s low social status. But whiteness was the criterion they used to judge her even if they didn’t realize it. Germans, some Germans, had been considered almost white for the better part of a century. Irish were not.
This sort of thinking is hard to understand in the second decade of the 21st century. We think we know what “white” and non-white, or “people of color,” “black,” Latino and Asian mean. But my mother and her people, who were as white as Finns in pigmentation, were not considered so for more than a century after they began arriving in this country in substantial numbers. True, by the Naturalization Act of 1790 they were not excluded from citizenship as were Africans. But the only people who were were truly white were the British, so-called Anglo-Saxons. And well into the 19th century even those did not always include Scots, who were once looked upon as no better than savages.
In America “white” and “black” are not indications of skin color. They are social markers. The color that accompanies them is imagined. Swedes were once considered non-white, “swarthy Swedes.” Italians were “guineas,” the word originally used to designate Africans who derived typically from the coast of Guinea. Hungarians, Poles and Russians were not white until the fourth or fifth decade of the 20th century. Even more, each of these nationalities were each different races. When judges in the 1920s had to decide who was white and who wasn’t they heard testimony from experts who might state there were anywhere from three to forty or more races.
We think we have this sorted out now. There are whites and there are people of color. Or, there are African Americans (meaning anyone who has any African ancestry no matter what they look like), Latinos/Hispanics (no matter what color they are), and Asians. The idea that someone of Irish or French descent is not white seems preposterous to us, unless they are also of African descent.
This change of perspective is not the result of historical accident or the consequence of our maturing as a nation. What made those Poles, Swedes, Belgians and other peoples non-white is the same thing that made them better than the “race” beneath them in the racial pecking order: they were not Anglo-Saxon, i.e. truly white, but they were not “black.”
My mother’s complexion was lighter than my father’s, whose people were from Bavaria. Yet, as Irish, she belonged to a race inferior to his. He in turn was less white than a Hoover or a Coolidge. Eastern Europeans were less white than most western Europeans (also less intelligent and deficient in other ways as well).
But “blacks” were in a category of their own, and still are. That’s why Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law, objects to the term “people of color.” The experience of African Americans is unique, unparalleled in the history of the world. No other society has defined anyone by one ancestor, no matter how remote, our so-called One-drop Rule. And in America other brown-skin people have not been discriminated against as have African Americans. Mexicans were admitted to communities no African American was allowed to live in. In 2019 African Americans marry whites at a minuscule rate compared with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, though Puerto Ricans are fifty percent African heritage and Mexicans and Africans have intermixed to such an extent that there is little obvious trace of the African in today’s Mexican population.
It’s a cliché that the first word a new immigrant from Europe learned was “nigger.” That’s what those immigrants were not, they learned, no matter how badly they were treated by folk “whiter” than themselves, no matter how low on the totem pole of American life was the position they occupied. But neither were they – Polaks, Hunkies, Dagos, Kikes, Donkeys, Krauts and others – really white. Most of them, including my father and belatedly my mother, did become honorary whites in the 1930s. That was when the Roosevelt administration granted them new homes with dirt-cheap mortgages underwritten by the federal government on the explicit, written stipulation that only whites be sold those homes and that those homes be resold only to members of the white race.
The Nazis were more liberal in that decade when they decided who was and who wasn’t Aryan than we were in our One-drop Rule. The lawyers and jurists charged with drawing up the Nuremberg Laws seriously considered American racial law and practice but decided it was too harsh. They settled on one non-Aryan grandparent as the standard by which to exclude someone from the master race.
The One-drop Rule started in the North. Southerners knew too much about their family histories to believe in such a fiction before the North imported it into the South after Union troops were removed following Reconstruction. But Dixie embraced it as its own, and a fiction of racial purity became national in a way it had never done so in the history of this or any other nation.
The second world war did a lot to knock Americans of German descent off their pedestals as just one step lower than their Anglo-Saxon betters. During the first war my father was confronted as a child with images of German soldiers impaling Belgian children on their bayonets. It would seem that vulnerable period of his childhood should have made him feel inclined to shun his German ancestry. But he still sprinkled German in his speech (he was third-generation American) when I was a young child during the second world war. My mother was his “leibchen” or “schotzie,” what didn’t matter was “max nix.” But that changed during or soon after the war when he no longer seemed to remember any German and in response to my questions about our German roots told me it was better not to inquire (it turned out he didn’t know anything himself; he was just afraid of finding out the worst).
By then, the early 1950s, my mother, along with other Americans of European descent, had become permanently white. The totem pole remained the same: Anglo-Saxons at the top by themselves, southern Italians at the bottom. But everyone who derived from the continent of Europe were now accepted as members of the white race based upon one criterion: they were not black, not “Negro.”
If anything, our ideas of “white” and “black” have hardened since then despite the end of legal discrimination. How can that be? Why do we employ a ridiculous term like “mixed race” at a time in human history when any biological basis for the idea of race has been proven baseless? And why is our concept of race so radically strict, even in face of evidence that tens of millions of “white” Americans have substantial African ancestry whether they know it or not?
The Queen of England is black by American standards. She boasted of her African ancestor when she made her first tour of the Commonwealth in the 1950s. Forty percent of Brits of African ancestry marry non-blacks. Latinos, Japanese, American Indians intermarry at similar rates with white Americans as British blacks do with British whites. But American blacks remain uniquely marginalized.
Megan Markle or Colin Powell would not be considered black in any place but the US. Certainly not in Africa, not even in apartheid South Africa. Trevor Noah was kept indoors by his grandmother because she knew if she let him play on the street with the neighbors’ children, who considered him white, he would be arrested for living in a black township. Noah’s father is Swiss. In America he can be taken for Latino but certainly not for white.
There was a time, especially in the old South, when what today is known as mixed race was almost the norm, in places like South Carolina and Florida especially. In Florida under the Spanish, “race” was a matter of status, not color, much as it is in Brazil today. The words “white” and “black” were used, but they did not indicate pigmentation. After America took over that state the first thing it did was reduce dark-skinned people to slavery no matter what their previous social status. Those who could fled to more tolerant societies like Cuba.
Left to themselves, people mix. The idea that color-prejudice is built into us as human beings has no historical basis. It’s not that we don’t notice color, but the idea that people will shun each other because of it just isn’t true. It’s only when color becomes a marker for something else – slave status, e.g., as it did in the 19th-century South and a kind of untouchable status thereafter – that it takes on the force of a natural condition.
Before the suburbanization of America working-class people of all colors lived together and had families together. Institutional racial policies by the federal, state and municipal government of the US separated them beginning in the early part of the 20th century. “Whites” were lured out of the cities into suburbs built exclusively for them, while “blacks” were ghettoized and deprived of services that could not be denied to whites.
But the coup de grace of economic and social death was visited on African Americans by the racist policies of the New Deal. The Federal Housing Administration and later the Veterans Administration underwrote tens of millions of American mortgages on the condition, explicitly mandated, that none of those homes be sold or resold to Negroes.
Middle-class wealth in the US is based on home ownership. It represents an investment to draw upon and pass on to children. It’s what created the middle class in this nation, the white middle class. Denying African Americans that wealth (they have only 5-10% of their white fellow citizens’) meant condemning them not just to substandard living conditions and services but to substandard education as well and ultimately to de facto segregation.
American schools are as segregated today as they were at the time of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. American neighborhoods are as segregated as well.
What made the rest of us white, the privilege of home ownership at rock-bottom cost, at the same time defined who was black in a way centuries of chattel slavery and decades of Jim Crow could not accomplish. When we watch a Ferguson explode on our TV screens or hear about the latest shooting of an unarmed African American by a policeman, we are not seeing and hearing the results of the Middle Passage or the consequences of the One-drop Rule. We are confronted with the consequences of deliberate government policies put into place by successive administrations since the days of Woodrow Wilson, culminating with the legislation passed under the administrations of FDR.
We admit discrimination and racism are horrible but we quickly add that my ancestors weren’t even in this country during the time of slavery and never participated in the worst crimes of Jim Crow. That may be true. But our parents and grandparents received critical financial assistance from the federal government at a time that assistance made possible an ascent into the middle class for themselves and their offspring. That critical assistance was denied by law to African Americans. And that has made all the difference.
If you would like to read a couple of the books that helped lift me out of my ignorance—none of which, by the way, are out of the mainstream of orthodox scholarship—I offer the following:
The Color of Law, A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein, Liveright Publishing, 2017.
Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, David R. Roediger, Basic Books, 2006.
For a concise and striking summary of Professor Rothstein’s book, I suggest this interview with him. It runs about 25 minutes.