Who Gets / Has To Be White?

By Stephen G. Adubato

Last October, LA mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, an American of Italian descent, made waves for claiming not to be “white.” Dunia Elvir, the Telemundo journalist and moderator of the debate, indicated that “the next mayor of Los Angeles will be either an African American woman or a white man.”

“I’m Italian,” replied Caruso.

“Italian American,” Elvir corrected him.

“Thank you,” he replied, “that’s Latin.”

An article in The Guardian cites several reactions to his assertion, including: “It isn’t so pliant that Italians should be equated to Latinas without common parentage. I can’t tell whether he was trying to pander to Latina voters, gaslight them, or both.”

And “Europeans will correct you so fast for reducing their heritage to ‘white’. The very same people who created the concept of race!”

And lastly, “I think this proves that it’s now to your political detriment to be white in LA. Terrible self-own for Californians who try to pass themselves off as the least racist in the country.”

An exceptional 2019 NYTimes article by Brent Staples pointed out that the institution of Columbus Day in the late 1800s was less a celebration of Christopher Columbus and more so an attempt to elevate the status of Italians in the eyes of the WASP hegemon. Few of my fellow Italian Americans understand the implications of this shift in our historical identity.

We find ourselves conflicted between distinguishing ourselves from what we consider the bland, genteel mannerisms of Anglos, while also distinguishing ourselves from minorities “of color,” whom unfortunately many Italians still deem to be inferior to themselves. Said Italians who have negative sentiments toward POCs don’t realize how much their racism is rooted in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the racial hierarchy that was artificially constructed by Anglos. So much for making fun of the “merigans”—whose “game” we’ve acquiesced to playing.

Situations like the one with Caruso reveal that ethnic (or “spicy”) whites who claim not to be white (especially Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese people who claim to be Latin), and people who insists that non-POCs are obligated to identify as “white,” are talking on two different planes. Until they come to terms with this, they are going to continue talking past each other.

The former camp is speaking about identity in terms of aesthetics: which more broadly includes culture, personality traits and temperament, social norms and traditions, metaphysical convictions and spiritual sensibilities. Being Italian, in this case, is certainly not the same as being of English, German, or Scandinavian descent…nor is it the same as being Puerto Rican or Mexican…though it has much more in common with Latin American cultures than it does with Anglo-Saxon ones. And technically, yes, Italians are Latin if the term includes all people who speak Romance languages (and who have ties to the cultural legacy of the Roman Empire).

The latter camp is speaking about identity in terms of political power, and generally relies on abstracted identity categories–following the cues of poststructuralist critical theorists–that group people based on disparities in power dynamics. In this case, both Italian and Latin@ (depending in part on their skin color and socioeconomic status) immigrants in the US faced oppression at the hands of the WASP establishment, though Italians generally had an easier time gaining power and financial security. This was due in part to their ability to pass more easily as “white” than did most Latinos…especially more so than Afrolatinos.

Despite deriving its origins in French academic circles, poststructuralist thought has flourished in predominantly Anglos environments. According to political philosopher Michael Novak, Anglos tend to find themselves able to “relax” when relying on “clean, orderly, neat, virtuous” categories of their own creation. Simplistic abstractions like “white” and “black” avoid the “terror of noise, confusion, dirt, human density, tangled emotion” that comes with more complex construals of identity. “The Anglo-Saxon,” he continues “is not ‘at home’ in this universe; he must master it. Fundamentally, it terrifies him.” Anglos, and ethnic whites who have assimilated to a generic Anglo worldview, trust in the “benevolence” of their fellow human beings “only under certain conditions: when both are under the control his own will has imposed.”

So was Caruso “wrong” for claiming to be Latin and not white? Surely he can’t be blamed for distinguishing himself from WASPs–whom he differs from both culturally and in terms of “privilege.” And surely we can argue that it is presumptuous of anyone to claim to have the authority to assign him an identity that he doesn’t relate to and thus to erase his cultural heritage.

The cognitive dissonance of those who advocate for the agency of individuals to determine their own gender identity but not their own racial or ethnic identity is astounding. Furthermore, it’s strange that Italian-Americans are ascribed the same guilt as slave owning and colonizing whites, when their ancestors didn’t own slaves in the US nor did they possess any colonies (unless you include their failed attempts in Ethiopia and Libya).

On the other hand is the denial of non-POCs, especially Italians, of their own privileges and the systemic oppression of enslaved and colonized people. Surely Italians faced prejudice from WASPs when they came here. But the fact is that Italians came to the US freely and not as slaves, and had an easier time assimilating and working their way up the socioeconomic hierarchy than Latinos of color. Italian-Americans (who know what it’s like to struggle and face discrimination) should be standing in solidarity with those less privileged than themselves, rather than priding themselves on their perceived “superiority.”

In a society where nuance is hard to come by, it is of utmost importance that we acknowledge that there are different levels or planes of discourse, and that two things can be true at the same time. We would be naive, however, to ignore that the power-focused discourse of poststructuralist thought currently has a monopoly in the universities, government, and corporate world. Furthermore, most proponents of poststructuralist-flavored social justice activism regard poststructuralism as a totalizing worldview–a religion of sorts–to the point that it recognizes no other facts or truths beyond its narrow, materialistic vision of dialectical power struggles.

In her first collection of essays, Camille Paglia comments on her struggles as an “intensely” ethnic woman with strong metaphysical convictions and a passion for aesthetics in a determinedly drab, materialistic academic world. She writes that the focus on diversity in universities is hypocritical, as it claims to distance itself from the old WASP establishment but in reality is determined to deny ethnic particularity as a value in itself. Instead, it values surface level diversity–identity as an abstraction–rather than celebrating the cultures, traditions, and beliefs of actual ethnic groups. “They want to talk about various ethnic groups [but] want to deny there’s any difference between [them]. This is insane! It’s illogical. It’s incoherent…The amnesiac liberal establishment wants to draw lines and erase all our mental life within those lines.”

“So what’s the answer to that? Be ethnic!” she exclaims. She goes on to express how as someone who is “very Italian…so Italian that it has crippled my advance in academe,” she noticed that the only people who understood her temperament in academia were New York Jews, who didn’t acquiesce to the “decorous,” “passionless,” “walking-on-egg-shells” WASP style of communication. She also acknowledges that her ethnic flair has enabled her to connect with her arts students, most of whom are Blacks and Hispanics from the inner city, precisely because she doesn’t rely on poststructuralist discourses of power, which “can never admit that aesthetics exist” and that “perfects the WASP alienation of mind and culture from emotion.”

She goes on to highlight the similarities between Mediterranean and Hispanic spirituality and religious art. The gory crucifixes found in Mexican and Spanish churches, the elaborate public processions in Italy and Peru, reveal their shared aesthetic, cultural, and metaphysical sensibilities.

Similarly, Novak comments on the brand of religiosity found in southern and eastern European countries, whose “passions are kindled by nature; they love the earth. Religion for them is, so to speak, an earth religion rather than the religion of a sky-god.” Anglo Protestant religiosity means “control, propriety, conscience, order, mastery-all their symbols run in the patterns of dominating reason…If cleanliness is next to godliness, soil is next to satan: soil, germs, bare feet in the wine presses, sweat streaming from the armpits, unsightly hairs–disgusting things.”

Novak and Paglia’s assertions are confirmed every time I attend the annual feast of St. Gerard in Newark, New Jersey. A tradition initiated by Italian immigrants nearly 125 years ago, the celebration includes trucks selling sloppy meatball sandwiches and zeppoles smothered in powdered sugar that inevitably will end up all over one’s mouth, shirt, and pants…as well as blaring music, games, blessings with relics of the saint’s bones, Mass, and an extravagant procession of the saint’s statue to which devotees pin dollar bills.

The feast offers a view into the complex, multilayered relationship between POCs and ethnic whites. Most of the city’s Italian immigrants were poor and discriminated against, until they were able to save up enough money to reach financial stability. After the influx of black Americans from the South in the 1930s and the race “riots” in the 1960s, nearly all of the Italians ran off to the suburbs, returning to Newark seldomly for celebrations like the feast of St. Gerard.

St. Lucy’s parish (who hosts the feast) is now largely Ecuadorian, Haitian, and Nigerian. One can see during moments like the feast the shared aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities of Italians and other immigrant groups of color. The devotion to the “white” saint transcends ethnic and racial divides. But one can also sense the division in a more material sense: the Italians are at times reluctant to include the parishioners of color in the celebration. Most of the vendors are Italian. It’s worth noting that as the years have gone by, I have seen Ecuadorian food trucks appear, and Nigerians participating more visibly in directing the procession.

Examples like the feast of St. Gerard reveal to us how hard it is to construe neatly packaged “black and white” (both literally and figuratively) identity categories, let alone to construe simplistic narratives about the good guys vs. the bad guys when dealing with race relations in the US. The complexity is abhorrent to those who ascribe solely to a rationalistic Anglo worldview as well as a poststructuralist one. While both may offer important insights and shouldn’t be tossed out wholesale, it’s clear that in themselves, they are incapable of capturing the nuances that make up our identity as human beings and our oftentimes messy relationships with each other.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Aeoli Pera says:

    You’re overcomplicating things. The racial hierarchy in politics is defined by Jewish sensibilities for the purpose of accumulating power for themselves. Declaring oneself a POC is declaring oneself an ally of that power structure in exchange for power and privilege.

    What’s more, everybody understands this deep down, so the plausibility of such declarations is judged according to whether people think the Jews are currently focused on disprivileging that group. Italians, for example, are considered white because the Jews have an irrational grudge to settle with Rome, so they are less inclined to accept Italians as allies than maybe they should be in the short term.

    tl;dr- You’re white because the Jews say so, and there’s nothing you can do about it so you may as well get used to the idea.


  2. Sneed Feederson says:

    Idiotic article. “The former camp is speaking about identity in terms of aesthetics […] The latter camp is speaking about identity in terms of political power.” Absolutely not, that’s not what’s going on here. Both camps are talking about the second definition. Savvy “Mediterranean-Americans” (lol) understand the game that is being played perfectly. They are participating in Steve Sailer’s “flight from white.” They recognize, as their grandparents did in reverse, that there are enormous opportunities for identifying with the right group, and staggering fetters imposed upon those assigned to the wrong one. “Surely [Caruso] can’t be blamed for distinguishing himself from WASPs–whom he differs from both culturally and in terms of “privilege.” Again, asinine. Italian-Americans are completely assimilated and every white American is totally deracinated. Most Italians don’t go to Mass, let alone parish feast days. Having an uncle with a corny fascination with The Godfather is not an ethnic identity. HR is checking you as “WHT” in all internal documentation. This was a totally cynical move on Caruso’s part- let’s not pretend. The reason he can’t be blamed isn’t because he faces a cultural landscape that has been totally realigned against whites – not because he has any bogus affiliation with Honduran mestizos in LA. But playing this stupid game WON’T WORK. Trying to create the “NAACP for White People (plus Sicilians)” is a doomed enterprise, and soul-destroying. I don’t want to be a rentier parasite relying on more money for the programs. What I want is to take my country back.


    1. Alex says:

      I think your entire comment is very good except for the tail end. The US isn’t a nation like, say, Italy. It’s whole point is an Enlightenment construction that allowed the destruction of the sacred. Separation of church and state and all that. You are saying this in your comment really. Racial differences are embedded in myth which are manifestations of gods who were real men and women. The American liberals are attempting to create a new myth. That’s why they want to change history and why they are so obsessed with “misinformation.”


  3. Alora Johnston says:

    Definitely written by an Italian.


  4. Mumbly Joe says:

    “Gerard is a masculine forename of Proto-Germanic origin, variations of which exist in many Germanic and Romance languages.”


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