A Problem with Whiteness

My brother-in-law says to me he can tell when an Italian restaurant isn’t authentic. I think to myself that he wouldn’t know authentic Italian or Italian-American cuisine if it fell from the sky and crushed him, but I humor him. How can you tell, I ask.

When they’re run by white people, he explains. 

I stop, startled into silence by this assertion, mutely gaping as my father-in-law agrees.

“So, then,” I begin slowly finding my voice, “are you saying Italians aren’t white? Are you saying I’m not white?”

I am genuinely confused and the two starkly pale men of Irish ancestry standing in my kitchen seem confused as well.

My brother-in-law stares at me as if I asked the stupidest question he’s ever heard.

“Well, umm, uhh yea…” He is struggling for words and I offer him none. I let my brother-in-law flounder under my emerald gaze, until he is saved by my husband’s sudden appearance as he seems to have a sixth sense for when his family are making asses of themselves.

Am I white?

My grandfather is full-blooded Italian. His parents immigrated from southern Italy. My name is Italian. I have my great-grandpa Vito’s nose, I have my grandfather’s eyes and his olive complexion.

I have been mistaken for many different ethnicities, I’ve had people argue with me that I couldn’t possibly be of European descent because of how I look. I suppose I’m ethnically ambiguous, though that’s rather an odd term.

But see, here is the problem with whiteness–

You are only white for as long as the dominant culture says you are white.

Whiteness is a gift bestowed upon the ruling class to those of us less fortunate.

For the time being we are white enough. Southern Europeans, Roman Catholics, we are white enough.

But not too long ago, we weren’t.

The term “guinea” refers to those of us from Southern Italy who are darker than our more Northern cousins. It is a slur. It is a slur meant to call into question our whiteness. Because not too long ago, we Italians were not white. We were guineas and dagos and wops.

Am I white?

My friend from Japan is not as dark skinned as me, my friend from Cyprus is not as dark skinned as me, my friend from Morocco is not as dark skinned as me. Shouldn’t they be white?

Am I white?

White is not the color of your skin, white is the blessing bestowed upon the less fortunate by the dominate culture until suddenly it’s not anymore.

Until suddenly we are dagos and guineas and wops again because really, that’s what we were the whole time.

Am I white?

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