I Am Not White
WHAT CONSTITUTES CULTURE ?
The title of this article might puzzle those who know me or have met me or have merely seen a picture of me. With an ancestry mostly German, with a large English admixture and bits of Irish and Scottish, I might seem the very embodiment of a “white person.” But I deny it, and not only in recognition of G.K. Chesterton’s apt remark in his book Heretics (1905) that “we give to the European, whose complexion is a sort of pink drab, the horrible title of a ‘white man’ — a picture more blood-curdling than any spectre in Poe.” As correct as Chesterton’s statement is, there is a more fundamental reason for my refusing the designation white. That is because I deny that, however one might want to characterize my skin color — white or “pink drab” or whatever — using that color to assert anything important about me is nonsense.
In the tradition of Aristotelian logic, a definition is constituted by genus and specific difference. A human being, for example, is defined as a rational animal — animal being the genus or larger group, and rational being the specific quality that differentiates us from all other animals. If we were to define human beings as two-legged animals who walk erect, this would not be false, but it would not be a very good definition because neither two-leggedness nor our posture of walking get to the heart of what it means to be a human being the way rational does.
And neither does white — or any other color, for that matter — do a good job of defining any particular group of human beings. I say this not because I am ashamed of the color of my skin, any more than I am of the color of my hair or my eyes, but because the most salient facts about human beings are not those that concern such external or physical matters as skin color. I am quite proud of the European cultural heritage, but that cultural heritage has merely an accidental connection with being white or pink drab or any other color.
Now, I am aware that some argue that white is simply a marker, a substitute, for European or Western. After all, it’s simpler to say white than European or Western. But I disagree. First because focusing on skin color shifts the discussion to something superficial and distracts from what is essential. And second for a much more important reason.
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