The Measure of Whiteness

A couple of months ago, someone asked me how I have enjoyed the desert over my time here; and checked to see if I had done all the requisite desert activities; hiking, Joshua Tree, Salvation Mountain, Idyllwild…

I shifted in my seat, chuckling, and told him that Asian people don’t do any of those things. For the record, Asian people go to LA or San Diego for haircuts, grocery shopping, and Daiso. No, I told him, we depend on our white friends to take us to the places he mentioned… In fact, the only thing on that list I had done was Idyllwild, only the past weekend, and only because R took me.

He then joked that I was in good hands then, because you couldn’t get any whiter than R!

The comment made me uncomfortable, but what I did was smile and try to move on.

Later I told R about the situation; he chuckled about it and agreed, saying that he was, in fact, super white. I couldn’t smile and move on this time.

I don’t like it when white dudes rate each other’s whiteness. It’s a weird thing that majority people do, because they think about culture and ethnicity way, way less than those of us who have grown up as minorities.

Sometimes hearing white folks analysis of ethnicity is awkward; like letting a high school sophomore parallel park your car. Or like patiently listening to a fifth grader play Für Elise on the piano. We know it’s a big step for them, and we want to be encouraging, but if you ask us candidly, we are being patient. We are patiently waiting out the clumsiness.

I struggled for a while to figure out why it bothered me that one white guy was calling another white guy whiter. I wonder if somebody thinks of me as more or less Filipino American than my cousins (gross). I asked R if he would dare to rank the teachers in the Spanish department from most to least Mexican. The answer was no, he would not dare.

If R is more white than you, what does that make you? If you are less white than another white person, what are you more of? Can a white person’s whiteness be so small in measure that they are no longer white? What would you call a white person without whiteness?

I think this goes back to majority mentality. Majority people (of any society) do not think of culture and ethnicity as core to their identity; they think that deep down, they are just normal people, and that culture and ethnicity are added features. To them, I’m the same dish as they are, and my filipinity is some extra sauce, served on the side, a superficial difference.

That is a mentality that oppresses other people. It means that Asians cannot warm up their food in the lunch room. It means that Black people don’t get to wear their hair the way it grows naturally. It means that Mexicans expect that the cops will come to their birthday party with noise complaints. It means that Middle Eastern Americans regardless of religion should arrive at the airport early, factoring in extra time for a TSA inspection.

The majority culture ruthlessly enforces their idea of normal. The rest of us supposedly have constitutional rights, but not in these situations. Our food smells bad to them. Our hair is not professional to them. Our celebrations sound like trouble to them. We look like terrorists to them.

To them, going to Joshua Tree is perfectly normal. I’ve never been. Not even R wanted to take me with him.

I posed the question of comparative whiteness on Facebook and asked my friends to weigh in. There were a lot of good responses. The one that stood out the most was not necessarily about ethnicity: someone was tearing down R to make himself look better. Sure, it was intended as some light hearted teasing, but the impact was “yuck.”

First of all, you don’t talk about my friend.

Second, how are you going to use your own ethnicity to insult someone else? The Wonder bread is calling the mayonnaise “white.”

Driving up to Idyllwild, eating some hamburgers when you get there, and listening to some Bonnie Raitt music doesn’t oppress me. Making casual, light hearted jokes about who is whiter doesn’t oppress me either, but wow, it has bothered me for months, now.

Third and finally, you don’t talk about my friend.

So listen, I’ve told this story to several people to get their take on it. The majority of my white male friends who have heard the story chuckle about the situation, and add their own lighthearted take to it; they buy into and participate in the idea of the measure of whiteness.

My friends that are not white men; brown people and also white women, are across the board appalled, and immediately so. My white women friends are very quick to seize on the power dynamic of the situation; the fact that the “someone” in this story was actually our white supervisor, talking to one employee about the whiteness of another employee.

Anyway, none of the white men in this story are racists or white supremecists. None of them oppress me or intend to offend me. All of the white men in this story are people that I respect. I’m not mad at any of them.

I only suggest that we see something they don’t see. The questionable nature of measure of whiteness is in their cultural blind spot. If you’re not careful about your blind spots, you might cut someone off, or get in a wreck. Arrogant people deny that their blind spot exists. Those of us who are concerned with the safety and well being of everybody on the road acknowledge that we have blind spots. We trust people with different points of view to let us know if we are safe to maneuver. We learn to check in the mirror. We learn to look over our shoulders, to see our blind spots with our own eyes.

8 thoughts on “The Measure of Whiteness

      • After sleeping on it, I think it’s another example of my pre-existing white male mental frame being different from yours (and a lot of peoples’). I’ve come to understand that not all differences need to be reconciled, so long as they’re recognized and respected.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Somebody (a white male friend) mentioned that he’d never heard anyone do that before, and it occurred to me that it’s not something white folks say to each other, it’s something they say when they’re trying to relate to brown people. If so, it might just be another case of “you don’t sound as cool as you think you do.” It’s like when people say “I don’t care if you’re blue or purple;” brown people hate that and make memes about it, but when I tell white friends that we don’t like it, they’re like wow, I say that all the time, I thought it was cool.


  1. It’s not something I’ve heard much, especially lately, and when I’ve heard it used, it is similar with “adorkable”: generally with affection, referencing neutral qualities generally associated with white people, like, I don’t know, *really* liking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and getting a sunburn very easily. But I get that we don’t live in the equitable, multicultural America where those things really are reliably “neutral descriptors associated with white people”, but rather “references to a perceived normal”.


    • You know, my beef with whiteness has to do with majority mentality and white supremacy. I don’t mind the little-c cultural stuff, like Christmas cookies or high-fiving or Frank Sinatra. One thing that my white friends don’t always understand is that although there are things about white people that stress me out, I don’t actually use “white” as an insult. I don’t despise the ethnicity, I despise the injustices, which to me are separate.

      Also, sometimes they tell me they can’t eat something or go someplace because they are “basic white people.” Yes we have cultural tendencies, but it stresses me out when people accept them as limitations.


  2. Pingback: My California Accomplishments | you don't have to read v2.0

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