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On Becoming White Essay

2162 words - 9 pages

On becoming white


As a European immigrant in the USA, I have encountered many new cultural phenomena in the last 4 _ years that have challenged me to perceive who I am differently. This experience has been even more polarized by the fact that I have lived most of that time in Los Angeles, a melting pot to be reckoned with. Coming to America, I expected these adaptations to my Irish self but the intensity of becoming cognizant of my label of 'whiteness' has mocked the limitations of my anticipations.
This cognizance really ensued when I first started work as an educational therapist in a residential placement for severely emotionally disturbed teenage girls. Being in such a ...view middle of the document...

This young man was in fact the plumber's son! He then went onto talking about how America is today, and how being a fellow American, I should understand that. Of course I immediately responded with: "I'm not American," to which he countered: "Oh! I thought you were white!.....I mean American."

I think that this slip by the plumber reveals something of great importance about attitudes, assumptions and beliefs about ethnic identity that is very open to semiotic analysis. It seems this man did not really separate the notion of being white from being American. Saussure may have said that the signifier was my white color and the signified to him from his cultural perspective was that I am a true American. Once he realized that I was in fact an immigrant/foreigner, I believe he experienced some sort of dissonance in his system of labeling his world, that led him to imply that I must not be white if not American. So then, what is the nature of the sign of one's skin color? This can be examined using Peirce's classification at the level of the object in terms of Icon, Index or Symbol. Many people would argue that it is merely an icon in that the colors we use to describe skin colors actually resemble real skin tones. If this were the case, why would this man experience any doubt that I was 'white' just because his knowledge of me changed? This should be a direct perception, the psychological concept of 'color constancy' should hold true for me just as it holds for a piece of white paper no matter the conditions in which we view it. The possibility that my 'color' is a solely iconic assignment seems dubious, so what else might it be? Some groups such as white supremacists might view it as an icon also but more importantly as an index of the God-given purity of their 'race', their righteousness and superiority. Here 'color' is considered an index of inherent qualities they assume they possess. It seems to me that 'white' can act as an index in some more general contexts where it might index where most of the wealth probably resides in a group for instance.

Not only does skin color have iconic and indexical components but I believe there are strong symbolic components as well. Supremacist assumptions about 'white' as an index are obviously based on a deeper symbolic history discussed below. Although less blatant than in white supremascism, such symbolism is potently entrenched throughout American society as unwittingly exemplified by the 'everyday' plumber I encountered. Color then is seen here as encompassing more than merely a label for your skin tone but embodies who and what you are assumed to be in society. This is evident in the fact that even though Caucasians really have skin tones that could be literally described as 'pinky-browny-yellowy' (with bits of blue for veins), a long time ago it was settled that the dominant majority should be considered 'white'. This is convenient when one considers the connotations of the color white in this...

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