On Whiteness

2012 (text slightly revised in 2017)

In Jamil Khoury's video essay "On Whiteness," Khoury explores the meanings and ramifications of whiteness, its promises and pitfalls, beneficiaries and victims, and his own complicated relationship to whiteness (existing somewhere between white and not quite white).

With the exception of a few minor edits, the text below transcribes my video essay, On Whiteness, released as a companion to Silk Road Rising's documentary film, Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness, on April 28, 2012.

At the time, I understood my racial identity as existing along a "not quite white" spectrum. And yet, as a beneficiary of white privilege and status, I believed it important to reference myself as white several times throughout the essay. However, this distinction felt then as it feels now: dishonest and ahistorical. Just as referring to myself as a person of color feels dishonest.

I am, in most people's eyes, white appearing. Therefore, I am afforded the awards and accolades bestowed on white people, and particularly on white men, in the United States. In a sense, I've pretty much hit the jackpot. And while I would never apologize for how I happen to "look," I would also never deny my mixed Arab and Slavic heritage—and that Arabs, despite what the US Census Bureau may or may not say, are not white. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, Arabs are "despised" in this country, rarely a signifier of whiteness. For many of us, an absolute binary of white/non-white can not work. Nevertheless, the histories of whiteness are also a part of my histories. I must own and struggle with them accordingly.

—Filmmaker Jamil Khoury, October 3, 2017


By Jamil Khoury, Originally written on April 28, 2012, slightly revised on October 3, 2017

Hello my name is Jamil Khoury and I am the Founding Artistic Director of Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project.  Silk Road Rising creates live theatre and online videos that tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses.

In 2012, Silk Road Rising released its first-ever documentary film titled Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness.  Directed by Stephen Combs and me, Not Quite White explores the complicated relationship of Arab and Slavic immigrants to American notions of whiteness.  Whiteness, and its practitioners, most of whom are white people, is the prism through which we explore overlapping issues of citizenship, racism, assimilation, and the American Dream.

Not Quite White was inspired by my short play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole.  I use my mixed Arab and Slavic heritage as the lens through which to investigate the ways that immigrants achieved whiteness to hence qualify as “fully American.”  Not Quite White integrates scenes from WASP alongside interviews with Arab American and Polish American academics; four compelling scholars who reflect upon contested and probationary categories of whiteness and the use of anti-Black racism as a “whitening” dye.  That is, anti-Black racism as point of convergence and point of consensus.

In making Not Quite White I was, on many levels, tapping into the difficult, often contentious relationship I have with my own whiteness.  I am of course seen as white.  Perceived and received as white, which in the United States is a very good thing.  However, do I feel white?  Kind of.  Maybe.  Sometimes.  But more often than not, I feel not quite white.  Being of mixed Arab and Slavic heritage, and having an Arabic name, certainly complicates my whiteness.  Semites and Slavs are, after all, suspect whites.  Being queer also disrupts my whiteness.  Queerness weakens, it dilutes the white brand.  It always has.  And so I find myself on the margins of whiteness.  Or as I like to say, “I’m on the inside looking in.”  As for the political position I’m arguing in Not Quite White, I would describe it as anti-racist, pro-immigrant, and aligned with efforts to disentangle whiteness from white supremacy.

Our film defines whiteness as a constructed social and political category, a slippery slope that has historically played favorites, advantaging Northern and Western European immigrants over immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and the Middle East.  We maintain that whiteness has victims.  Non-white victims, not quite white victims, and white victims. And no two groups have bore the wrath of whiteness, have suffered the brutality of whiteness, more than Native Americans and African Americans.  For in the US context, whiteness was invented and defined in opposition to Native Americans and African Americans.  And it was against those two peoples that whiteness unleashed its greatest cruelties.  So please note that when I speak of white victims, and not quite white victims, I am in no way suggesting any moral equivalency or parity in suffering with those who were deliberately and strategically excluded from whiteness.  Yes, whiteness does a lot of harm to a lot of people along the white continuum, but it devastates non-white people.

The film proceeds from the assumption that whiteness affects all our lives and that we all need to critically engage whiteness.  In conducting the research for Not Quite White, we discovered that in the history of American whiteness, several groups of ostensibly ‘white’ people have, at different times and for different reasons, been assigned a conditional or partial white status. Arabs and Slavs as case-in-point.  Appalachian whites and poor whites were two such groups.  Immigrants of Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Turkish backgrounds, all endured periods of transitional whiteness, consigned to a sort of white purgatory.  Roma people, or “Gypsies,” to this day exist on the far outer reaches of whiteness.  Whiteness giveth and whiteness taketh away.

We maintain that whiteness has everything to do with melanin and pigmentation and it has nothing to do with melanin and pigmentation.  Ultimately, whiteness is about power and borders and authorship.

I see whiteness primarily as a socio-political-economic system.  A system designed to benefit some while punishing others.  I believe whiteness was devised to serve and protect the interests of a moneyed capitalist elite.  And it succeeded by convincing masses of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East that they too have a stake in the promise of whiteness, the material promise – however intangible – and that in exchange for this imagined stake, they would identify with and defend those benefiting the most from whiteness.  A Faustian bargain one might say.   Simply put, whiteness convinces the vast majority of white people to defer our own hopes and dreams on behalf of a select few white people.  What do we get for our sacrifice?  We get to be “superior” to non-white people.  Apparently, for many whites, the illusion of white supremacy trumps the pain of white poverty and white powerlessness.

When we examine how whiteness was created, how whiteness reproduces and sustains itself, we uncover intricate webs of violence and intimidation and coercion.  I call it the unholy trinity of whiteness:  physical brutality, economic dominance, and psychological warfare.

And yet, it is we, the beneficiaries of whiteness, or at least a good many of us, who also feel its sting.  In working on Not Quite White, and since releasing the film, it has been absolutely fascinating for me to hear just how many quote-unquote “white people” feel estranged from whiteness.  The very whiteness that grants us all sorts of privilege.

We feel alienated by the meanings ascribed to whiteness, the assumptions, be they cultural, social, economic, or political; we’re embarrassed and ashamed by the history of whiteness.  The complicity of whiteness and the duplicity of whiteness.

But there’s more.  We are resentful of how whiteness erases our respective backgrounds, negates our cultures, our family histories, all that’s unique and particular about our own stories.  And we are angered at how whiteness forces us into these oppositional, adversarial relationships with non-white people.  Relationships that are immoral and unjust and corrosive to our souls.

Whiteness has no interest in my family’s histories in Syria, Poland, and Slovakia.  Whiteness is embarrassed by our immigrant histories in this country, our narratives of survival, of triumph over adversity.  No time for that.  Instead whiteness renders us accomplices to its own history, the history of genocide of indigenous peoples, the history of African slavery and racial apartheid.  Histories that, if given a choice, I’d rather not own.

Frankly, me and a lot of white people, we resent the guilt, the guilt that whiteness saddles us with, the pangs of conscience and unease and discomfort that inevitably arise when availed greater privilege, greater human worth and dignity based solely on how we look.  For the record, white guilt messes up white people, and it causes us to do all sorts of really stupid things that you’d rather not see.

In other words, whiteness lies.  Whiteness lies to white people and it especially lies to poor white people.  And whiteness lies pathologically to everyone else.  Whiteness, as an ideology, is a racket, it’s a ponzi scheme.  And when whiteness turns its fury against white people – which it does with wild abandon mind you – the targets are many:  poor whites, working class whites, unemployed whites, uninsured whites, white people of suspect nationalities, suspect religions, female white people, queer white people, disabled white people, elderly white people.  Ironically, the margins of whiteness are a lot bigger than the center!

We know that in the United States in a few decades whiteness will go from a majority status to a minority status.  And whiteness, as it has been defined for us, will change.  Natural change. Engineered change. Forced change.  All of the above, whiteness will change. And I believe it will change for the better.  Maybe I’m naïve, and the future may indeed prove me wrong, but I believe that as whiteness adapts to a new American landscape, it will become more just, more equitable, more about empathy, less about power, more about community, less about competition.

And the same can be said for Americanness, once deemed the identical twin to whiteness.  In my ideal world, I imagine an Americanness that values people over profits, that elevates families and communities above markets.  I am convinced that with shifting whiteness will come shifting consciousness will come shifting priorities; an America in which we actually become citizens, true citizens, as opposed to our current status as consumers.  I want to be an American citizen, not an American who buys things.

So what do we do about whiteness?  If whiteness is the problem, can it become part of the solution?  Do we overthrow whiteness?  Rid the world of whiteness?  Maybe.  In so doing do we also rid the world of blackness and brownness?  Can the answer be found in a post-racial America?  I don’t know.  But I’m inclined to think in terms of redefining whiteness, albeit radically redefining whiteness, so that whiteness ceases to be about coercive power and inequality, and is instead about justice and empathy.

Yes, whiteness is in flux, folks.  And nothing points to that more vividly than the histrionics playing out in the American right wing today.  The gasping last breaths of an ideology gone south.  The final roars of the dinosaurs.  That whiteness, their whiteness, will be consigned to history books.  And they know it.  Whiteness without enemies, whiteness without victims, whiteness without bullying, is unfathomable to them.  But fortunately, they’re on the wrong side of history.

Watching whiteness over the coming decades is going to be fascinating.  And it’ll be even more fascinating shaping whiteness over the coming decades– which is something all of us - white, not quite white, non-white – need to be actively involved with.

I hope you enjoyed Not Quite White. And if you haven’t seen it, I hope that you will.  Thank you for helping the world heal.

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