What it means to be white in today’s American society conjures up many ideas and beliefs, with how a white person defines him or herself and the link between race and ethnicity as two major talking points in the discussion.
Kristyan Kouri, women’s studies and sociology professor at CSUN, said race is a socially constructed way of classifying people by physical characteristics, such as skin color, eye shape, body type and hair type. The classification system always changes over time, and people change it themselves, she said.
In determining what it means for a person to be considered to be white, many students and professors have a wide range of definitions and classifications.
According to Linda Branover, senior English major, being white comes from one’s own ancestors, especially those of European descent. Others believe that it is up to the individual person to determine if he or she is to be considered white.
“I believe an individual should decide for himself or herself if they are white, even if most others would call him or her a different race,” said Jesse Nicholas, CTVA major.
“I hate using the word because it’s a big word I guess,” said Clayton Green, senior CTVA major.
“I was born in (Los Angeles), lived in L.A. My family is third generation in America, so I can’t really say I’m anything else.”
According to Kouri, whites do not have to identify themselves as being white because they are often shown as the dominant group.
“(White) people don’t go up to them every day and say, ‘You’re white, your white, your white,'” she said. “A lot of people are oblivious to it because they’re the dominant group and don’t have to be aware to it.”
Kouri said whites have a harder time talking about their race than Asians, Latinos, and blacks because those groups live in a world dominated by whites.
“(Those groups) are made to feel different every day,” she said. “They’re reminded of their color every day because the white group is the dominant group.”
“It is easy for a dominant group to be oblivious to their race because they are not reminded every day,” Kouri said.
Kouri said whites tend to not face identity or race problems because they are the dominant group. According to Kouri, whites would only face that situation, for example, if they were the only white person in a black or Latino neighborhood.
Kouri said she believes certain advantages come with being white.
Kouri said there is a famous article by Beverly Tatum called “Defining Racism,” which states that in a racist society, whites are given preferential treatment.
This preferential treatment could include something like not being followed around in a store by employees who think a person is poor and is going to steal something, she said.
Kouri said she believes the concept of preferential treatment is complicated because there is more to the social category of “white” than just race.
She said a white woman might not get the same advantages as a white man. Also, a poor white woman might not see the same treatment as a wealthy white woman, Kouri said.
“To talk about whites without including gender and class – it’s too broad,” she said.
Race is only one social category, she said, and gender is a social category tool as well as social class. All of these things taken together affect any person’s life, she said.
White people also do not have to define themselves as a whole as being white, and can choose to be defined by their specific ethnicity, Kouri said.
“Ethnicity is different from race, because ethnicity has to do with your culture, your sense of people-hood,” she said. “You can be the same race, but be (a) different (ethnicity).”
Kouri said ethnicity is considered to be very important for Americans.
“People in (the United States), for some reason, hold on to their ethnic identity,” she said. “Their parents could’ve come here from Germany 300 years ago, and they’re still saying they’re German. It’s symbolic. They don’t really have any links to Germany, but they believe that they do.”
Some individuals identify their ethnicity as not only be white, but also identify themselves in terms of their religious traditions.
“I would identify myself as Jewish and white,” said Joelle Garfinkel, junior screenwriting major. “Even though I don’t necessarily categorize Judaism as a race, it does hold special cultures and customs that get passed down from generation to generation.”
According to Garfinkel, she sees an importance in a person’s ethnicity.
“It’s important in the sense that it ties my family and I together, and keeps our traditions and customs alive,” she said. “It also gives me a sense of who I am.”
“(Ethnicity) doesn’t play too significant of a role in my life, mainly because I’m not particularly religious,” she said. “I think (that) since my family is third generation American, there’s not as strong a need to keep certain traditions alive, and I adopt a more general role.”
Because CSUN is so diverse, some white students have relished their time at a campus where different races and ethnic group co-exist and no one racial group openly dominates.
“I grew up in a really small town, graduated in a class with a 120 kids,” said Green, the CTVA major. “It was very ‘white,’ (very) suburban. It was nice to come out here. It was nice to get the viewpoint of many different cultures. It is nice to see very different people.”
Kouri said it is important that everyone should learn about other cultures, not just white people.
“We all need to learn about other cultures, because other cultures can be racist against other cultures. It’s not just whites against blacks, (or) whites against Latinos. Everybody can hate each other, so we all need to be educated.”
John Barundia can be reached at email@example.com.