Last year in Chicago, 44 Italian-American women competed in the
Miss Italia USA Pageant in Chicago. The black community did not
erupt in protest.
Last month, the Irish American Heritage Center, also in Chicago,
held its annual Irish American Heritage Festival. The PC police
didn't stage a raid.
Indeed, an untold number of ethnic organizations -- The Southeast
Scottish Amateur Athletics, Inc., the German American National
Congress, the Polish American Association -- stages sundry pageants,
fairs and competitions every day. All without African Americans or
keepers of political correctness paying much attention one way or
I mention this for the benefit of Mr. Abell's U.S. history class.
He's an Indiana teacher who told me in an e-mail that students at
his ''predominantly white, upper class suburban school'' have been
asking him a question I probably hear once a week, in one form or
another. In this form, it goes like this: ''Why is it OK for them''
-- meaning black people in Indiana -- ''to have Indiana Black Expo?
If we had Indiana White Expo, we would be called racist and
Mr. Abell wants to know what I think. What I think is that it's
time to parse a troublesome word. ''White.''
Historically speaking, white is an artificial construct,
perfected -- if not invented -- in the USA. It was, and is, less a
race than an Anglo-Saxon ideal. Fairness of skin alone did not allow
one access to that ideal.
To the contrary, Irish immigrants, Jews from Eastern Europe and
others who came to this country in search of better lives were given
instead dirt, degradation and discrimination, because Anglophile
America did not see them as ''White.''
That's why many of the newcomers changed their names, cast off
distinctive styles of dress, hid their religion.
They understood that if they were to be accepted in America, to
have their best shot at success in a racially stratified society,
they would need to embrace the ideal. Find a way to assimilate.
Become ''White.'' Because white was privilege sanctioned by law and
entitlement enshrined in custom. White was manifest destiny.
Now, if you were black, separated from America's ideal both by
stark physical difference and blood-soaked history, you understood
that white was one thing more. It was the door an immigrant could
open, but you could not.
Even today, although to a markedly lesser degree, this is true.
Consider the headline from a recent story in The Los Angeles Times:
'The Great 'White' Influx; Regardless of color, two-thirds of
immigrants choose that designation on census replies. For some, it's
synonymous with America.''
Those immigrants understand what many native-born Americans
refuse to. I'm reminded of what happened to a white academic named
Matt Wray. Five years ago, he and a group of like-minded educators
organized a conference.
Their stated objective was to evolve a new definition of
''white'' that depended on neither bigotry nor guilt.
Critics jumped on the guy like a trampoline. He was accused of
white bashing. A talk show host referred to the educators as
But those fools were onto something.
They understood that ''White'' carries baggage, the weight of all
the years it was used to encode unearned privilege and justify
unearned pain. They knew that the word makes people nervous, gets
them looking over their shoulder, implies a threat it never even has
We all understand this, if only intuitively. That's why a
Caucasian fellow who professes a love for Scottish music is
understood only to have a fondness for bagpipes, but the one who
says he prefers white music is understood as a racist. It's why an
Irish American Heritage Festival threatens no one, but a White
American Heritage Festival would require a police presence.
And it's why that question I hear once a week -- at minimum --
always sounds specious to my ears. Always sounds like people of
privilege looking for some means by which they can feel themselves
The truth is, ''White'' hasn't changed, but America has. Changed
enough that all of us understand -- again, if only intuitively --
the weight of a troublesome word.
So, kids, the reason there's been no Indiana White Expo is pretty
simple. It's not just that black people would take offense. It's
also that white people would stay home.