Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What is a "white man"?

This morning Weekend Edition Sunday featured an interesting story on the Shoshone Youth Language Apprenticeship Program being held at the University of Utah campus this summer. Toward the end of piece one learner, a young Shoshone woman, described why she decided to forget about business school and instead study linguistics.
Someone will step in. You can even bring in a white man to [run a business]. But there isn't going to be a white man who can speak your language.

This observation suggests to me two questions: What is a "white man"? And why can't one speak the Shoshone language? This posting features my reflections on the first of these questions. I'll treat the second one in a future post.

What is a white man? To most people living in US society, this seems like such a simple question that it is not even worth asking. A white person is a person who is a member of the majority white race or ethnic group. But what counts as a race or ethnic group, and who gets to decide which individuals are in one? In order to reflect on the question of who is a white man, let's think for a moment about two related questions that have come up in public discourse recently: Is Barack Obama a Black man? And, on the assumption that Sonia Sotomayor is a Latina woman, does that affect her qualifications for the Supreme Court of the United States?

Before he ever announced his intention to run for the presidency, Barack Obama had been the subject of debates over race (examples here or here). Especially during the primary campaign in Illinois in which he ran against Bobby Rush to be the Democratic Party's candidate for the US House of Representatives, numerous commentators argued over whether Obama is sufficiently Black to represent Black constituents. Various arguments centered on whether different qualities or experiences are sufficient to claiming a Black identity. These included having dark skin, having ancestors from Africa, speaking in styles associated with African American communities, or facing discrimination within US society. Some commentators suggested that even if Obama meets these criteria, he does not share a Black identity since his family was not part of the slavery experience in America.

These arguments resonate with the notions of authentication and denaturalization discussed by Bucholtz and Hall (2004) as part of the tactics of intersubjectivity. The tactics of intersubjectivity explore ways in which identity is constructed within a society. Authentication lets individuals claim an identity in part by emphasizing the "naturalness" of qualities that they share with some group. By a similar token, denaturalization denies the authenticity of such identities by suggesting that qualities are either artificial or non-essential. Identity is achieved in part through such debates.

In contrast to arguments about then-candidate Obama, no one is denying that Sonia Sotomayor has a Latina identity. What is striking in this case is the lack of argument – indeed, the lack of any notice of the identity that eight of the nine current Supreme Court justices (PDF) and all 19 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee share. This identity doesn't even have a commonly used name, though in bureaucratic contexts it is sometimes called "non-Hispanic White."

I have been somewhat bemused, but at the same time unquestionably irritated by questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and others that either suggest or presuppose that Judge Sotomayor's decision making may be affected by her Latina identity. These questions are especially called to mind by the judge's now infamous suggestion, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Of course Judge Sotomayor's ways of thinking are affected by her life experiences. What is irritating, though, is the assumption that such effects in the context of a Latina identity comprise bias, but that no such effects exist, or at least they are not problematic, for non-Hispanic white men.

This assumption relates to the notion of markedness, originally described by Prague Circle linguists. It is also discussed by many anthropologists under the heading of transparency. To simplify a bit, the idea of markedness is that some notions are 'ordinary,' and that more particular, specific related notions get marked with more words or with other speech elements. So, for example, a male nurse is a particular, out-of-the-ordinary sort of nurse.

The assumption is that a Latina justice might have prejudices. But in contemporary US society, "non-Hispanic white male" is not a marked position. A "non-Hispanic white male justice" is, in common parlance, called a "justice." No marker, no special identity, no assumption of bias. This identity is "transparent" in the sense that it is looked right through and not seen. If one thinks logically about it, the life experiences of, say Stephen Breyer, must affect his thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors in the same way that any other human being's would. But as an unmarked "justice" those effects on him are not thought of as bias.

So, to return to my original question, what is a white man?

For most of my life, I have been a white man. I have light skin, people rarely ask me about my family history, and I don't usually face discrimination in US society. I generally thought of myself as "just white" until a few years ago, when I saw photographs of my great grandparents and my great-great grandmother. Now, I had always known that I had some Mohawk ancestry, but I had never really felt much about it. I had likewise been told that I had ancestors from Germany, England, Scotland, Switzerland and other parts of Europe, but I had never felt any particular affinity to any European nationality as a result. Yet somehow, despite a career of thinking about race, ethnicity, and identity as positionings achieved via discourse, when I saw the serious faces, the dark skin, and the long black hair of my grandparents staring out from those photographs, I felt some connection to an Indian identity. Mostly, though, what I felt was a sense of disconnection from my own grandparents. I am not an Indian. I grew up around white people, who I more or less identified with, and Lakota people, who I did not. My life experiences, the things I have done and thought, and the ways that other people have treated me have made me a white man. I know that this is not an essential fact about my being; it was not predestined to be so. Still, my own actions, the actions of people around me, and the social structure within which I live establish it: I am a white man.

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Blogger V said...

I'm very glad you picked up on this. It seemed a very strange throwaway comment!

6:36 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

I think the Republican senators wouldn't have objected so much if she had just said it's inevitable that background matters. Instead she seemed to "celebrate" that fact, as I think Senator Sessions or Kyl put it.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Mercedes said...

I recently had a discussion with a mixed (b/w) 21 year-old at a party (I am 33 and a genxer) who asserted that he was white. I, a very fair-skinned brown person of African/white American/British descent, felt compelled to remind him that he is, in fact, brown or black, but certainly not white. Why did I feel so compelled to tell him this? Is it because unlike the blogger, a brown-skinned person of African descent will never be ALLOWED to live the white experience? Is it possible that one can be raised "white", and surrounded by "whites" and "white" trappings, and yet unable to ever really be white? Is the blogger "white" only because of his experiences/affinities? Or is the blogger white simply because he can be? A childhood acquaintance who was passing for white made it clear to all that she was of Native American ancestry. Why? Perhaps because that was the only way she could get away with being a white person with a permanent tan.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

This is very interesting. As I said to the previous posting, you may be interested to check out and look at my postings on Cherokee and on endangered alphabets. A fuller article (which address the issue of "white man") is in the works, and I'll let you know more when it comes out, but I think you'll find the photos alone interesting.

1:27 PM  
Blogger The White Man said...

I have a friend whose mother was a lot more white than her father was. She has very light brown skin but distinctively African features. Whenever she asked what "race" to mark on a form she was told to put down "white" since her mother was "white". She prefers to use the term "mixed," but I'm quite sure that many of her grandchildren will just go by "white" as they will not appear to have any mixture whatsoever--many of her children don't. Whether any of her grandchildren go by "black" will probably depend on whom her darker children marry.

7:27 AM  
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Blogger mike said...

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Blogger Unknown said...

I'm not white. I'm European-American. There is no white or black or yellow or red or brown. There is no race except the human race. Everything else is culture.

3:35 AM  
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Blogger Young Man said...

Answer the question already! What is a white man? Is there such a person in reality or are the variations on the word so wide ranging and vague as to be meaningless?

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