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Racism is more than skin deep.

Slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the Neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville were not borne from a simple hatred of color. The atrocities of our nation’s racially conflicted past and the continually bubbling racial tensions of the present cannot be designated onto a simplified color spectrum. Rather, much of the foundation of racism is rooted in whiteness.

From there, the question then becomes, “What is whiteness?”

The term “whiteness” usually draws a knee-jerk reaction with accusations of “reverse racism” or “#notall _____” being thrown out. This is a misunderstanding of the definition of whiteness. The key distinction to be made is that the term whiteness refers to a construct, not a color. When saying that whiteness is the root of racism, it is not a castigation of all Caucasian people. Rather, it is the recognition and repudiation of a negative ideology founded in the imbalance of powers between races.

Whiteness is far more about superiority than it is about color.

Misconceptions surrounding whiteness have become a problem partially because the racial categorization of whites has changed. While modern definitions lump all people of Caucasian descent as white, this was not always the case. As Professor Nell Irvin Painter brought up in her New York Times article entitled “What is Whiteness,” there were once multiple subsections of white that were separated based on an ethnic hierarchy.

Notably, from the mid-nineteenth century through the beginning of the 1900s, there was an influx of Irish immigrants to the United States. As a largely Catholic group, the Irish were viewed as a threat to the mainstream Protestant American way of life and bore the brunt of discrimination. From the newspaper advertisements declaring “No Irish Need to Apply” to the creation of the nativist Know-Nothing Party, the subjugation of Irish immigrants mirrored that of many racial minorities are today. They, too, were deemed to be inferior — to be the “other” going against the norm. Even though Irish-Americans are Caucasian, they became victims to whiteness as well.

Yet, the greatest problem in whiteness goes beyond the confusion over its definition. Instead, it is the failure to recognize that such a concept even exists. We are raised with white being the norm.

For many people of color, their personal identity has become deeply intertwined with their race; they cannot be viewed as a separate part of it. On the other hand, white people’s color is rarely considered a formative attribute. Their skin color is not seen as a defining feature but rather as a blank, unassuming canvas on which they can express themselves. As stated by Adia Harvey Wingfield in The Atlantic, “in most social interactions, whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group.”

These attitudes have become so pervasive that they are normalized — they have become a natural part of our way of life. Because whiteness has become so incorporated into our mode of thought, those who possess these privileges do not realize it, and those who do not possess them have difficulty questioning it.

Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, whiteness is undeniably present in Princeton’s history as an elite and exclusionary institution.

Once described by Upton Sinclair as “the most perfect school of snobbery in America,” Princeton can seem like a bastion of whiteness.

In the late 1930s, Bruce Wright, who is African American, had been offered admission to Princeton under the assumption that he was white; however, once he arrived on campus, Dean Radcliffe Heermance urged Wright to leave, telling him that “if you’re trying to come here, you’re going someplace where you’re not wanted.” 

It was not until 1948 that Princeton began to accept black applicants, and even fifteen years later, the University had only a total of ten African American students. 

The presence of racial exclusion and insensitivity is not solely a product of the past: in the light of events such as the suspension of the men’s swimming and diving team over “misogynistic and racist” emails just last year, it is obvious that racial tensions continue to be a point of contention at the university. 

Nonetheless, despite its longstanding history of elitism, Princeton is making strides in the correct direction. Within the past decade, the University has increased the percentage of students on Pell grants from 6.5 percent in 2007 to 21 percent this past year, in addition to admitting more racially diverse classes. For the Class of 2021, approximately 47 percent come from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, a 4.4 percent increase from the Class of 2017. Furthermore, continued support for programs such as FSI and SIFP augment the University’s efforts at drawing in a wide range of perspectives and creating a heterogeneous student body. 

Including students of different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds fights against the institution of whiteness. By incorporating a variety of voices within our campus’s narrative, we, as a student body, are forced to recognize that there is no norm.

Whiteness hinders society from progressing. It advocates for an insular viewpoint that marginalizes all that are deemed “other.” The pathway to upending whiteness will be arduous; it disrupts the racial hierarchy and very foundation for many of our social interactions. However, acknowledging the existence of whiteness as a concept, one inherently rooted in superiority and not color, is the first step towards slowly dismantling its hold over society.

Dora Zhao is a first-year student from Newtown, Pa. She can be reached at dorothyzhao@princeton.edu.

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