What We Talk About When We Talk About Whiteness

By Navneet Alang

When we launched the Ethnic Aisle almost a year ago, we did so because we wanted to hear the voices of people from ethnicities and cultures that were sadly missing from mainstream discourse. So we’d understand if you were a little skeptical of this, our White Issue, which will see white writers talk about… well, being white. Sounds a little strange for this site, doesn’t it?

Yet, despite the fact that it’s everywhere, we rarely talk about the various forms of whiteness as cultures or ethnicities unto themselves. Far too often, whiteness is a kind of assumed norm without a name—something neatly encapsulated by the fact that no-one ever calls grilled cheese or steak “ethnic food”. Instead of thinking about things like Western dress, sexual mores or eating habits as specific ethnic, cultural practices, we treat them as if they just are. In such a situation, the “normal” ends up becoming the normative—the thing everyone just assumes is the default.

But in a city like Toronto, where just over half of the population comes from some place else* (see below), it won’t do to keep talking about things that way. So, we asked some local writers to shed light on the experience of being white in a kaleidoscopic, multicultural city. Our point isn’t so much to have yet one more view from a white person as it is to think about where whiteness fits into a modern city where, soon enough, no one group will form a dominant majority.

If you think the idea is misguided, then that’s what comment sections are for—and, to be honest, we hope they’ll be lively. But along the way, perhaps we’ll do a little something to demystify whiteness. Maybe we’ll learn about exotic dining habits, which, as we understand it, involve eating a kind of loaf made from meat, at 6pm. Perhaps we’ll come to understand more clearly why a set of miniature crystal animals is less tacky a wedding gift than handy, no-strings-attached cash. But most of all, what we hope is that in thinking about “white” as just one of many identities, we’ll move away from treating it as the norm—and get a little closer to the idea that we are all, each in our own way, “ethnic”.

*To clarify, this is not to imply that Toronto’s visible minorities are somehow not Torontonian or Canadian – simply that, statistically speaking, half of Toronto’s population is foreign-born. It’s this fact makes “demystifying whiteness” as the norm and centre such an an important project.

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11 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Whiteness

  1. Interesting. I had guessed this was going to be about Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Jews, and others erased by “White”-ness. Instead it is about dissonance-free WASPs — West European ethnic majorities? — as Whites; Grilled cheese and steak as White food; “Western dress” as White clothing, Cash as a verboten wedding gift among Whites. Fresh take, though not sure this White culture you speak of characterizes too many, um, Whites. Whatever that means.

    • Thanks, great point. And it perhaps points to some “holes in our lineup”, so to speak. It’s definitely something we’d like to take on in the future, as it seems ripe for all sorts of interesting ideas.

      If you are able to contribute some thoughts, it’s ethnicaisle at gmail…

  2. When I was a kid, growing up in Nova Scotia, Italians and Poles were ethnic. (i.e. I was ethnic). In Toronto, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, Italians and Portuguese (to name a few) were and are considered ethnic.
    The definition of ethnic changes over time, I believe. I am not sure why that is.
    I think one thing that happens is that you see integration and dispersion occurring. And people from different backgrounds becoming accustomed to each other, their ways and traditions.

    • To tie that back to the post, whiteness is not an ethnicity IMHO in that it doesn’t tie back to any culture or nationality or geography.

      • Yeah, that’s a good point. And I think here, what we’re largely talking about is actually “WASP” culture and its English/Scottish/Irish-derived roots. I’d still argue that the first step, however, is naming the thing that too often goes without a name, mainly so we can get away from – or at least understand the dynamics of – calling one thing ethnic and another thing normal.

        Thanks for the comments!

    • Were and are considered ethnic? Not in municipal or provincial or federal public policy, certainly, which is predicated on an essential distinction between “Visible Minorities” and an invisible majority. Not, eve, in the oft-heard observation that Toronto soon will have no ethnic majority. Like, who’s the ethnic majority now, exactly?

      • Serge: Good point. I was thinking generally.
        Nav: coming from Nova Scotia, I felt to some degree like an outsider because I didn’t have an Anglo heritage. They had strong traditions and even a language (Gaelic) that I didn’t share. We had different ethnicities, even if visibly and generally we would blend in in other ways.

  3. This is a pet peeve of mine I guess, but I really, REALLY wish people would stop using “white” to mean “Canadian-wasp”. Its pretty alienating and sometimes even hurtful to be lumped in with a bunch of people who’s culture you’re not really a part of, solely on the basis of your skin colour. If you’re going to talk about what it means to be white, you need to include the entire spectrum of cultures, otherwise the message you’re putting out is that non-wasps either don’t exist, or aren’t white, both of which are not true.

    Russian, Portuguese, Hungarian, Icelandic, etc are “white” ethnicities, but not “wasp”. Pleaaase stop using a skin colour to denote a very narrow ethnicity!

  4. Pingback: You Should Be Reading: The Ethnic Aisle’s White Issue — renée sylvestre-williams

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