Why white people need to stop using “white” to describe ethnicity

April 9, 2022

I'm joan

I am a Korean American daughter of immigrants, a USAF veteran, and author. Welcome to my blog.


Race is a social construct. This idea is one that society is still struggling to grasp. As Bill Nye once shared on an episode of his TV show, “Bill Nye the Science Guy”, cows are not affected by their colors because they are not aware of the implication of the colors of their hide. So why are people so deeply affected by skin color? After all, there is no such thing as “race” when it comes to skin color. There is only one race: The human race. No, really. Watch Bill Nye’s episode: Season 1, Episode 8. He debunks a popular myth that it is in our genetic code that we are categorized in racial groups. However, the truth is, the only reason why our skin colors mean anything is because we, as a society, have decided to add meaningless nonsense to the color of our skin. But that significance weighs heavily on all of us.

A friend once asked me the difference between race and ethnicity. Then she asked me again. And again. There is not enough conversation in society around distinguishing between the two concepts because we have all been programed to use them interchangeably. Which is also why it took my dear friend so long to deprogram her settings around race and ethnicity. But the thing is, they are far from similar. I like to think of it as ethnicity being where your ancestors come from: What blood runs through your veins? Whereas race is all of the baggage that comes with being a descendent of where your ancestors came from; the assigned meaning of being a certain ethnicity. And this idea was further complicated by colorism when a group of people determined that the darker the skin color, the more savage the people. Now, when we have discussions around the social construct of race, the term “white” is appropriate because we are referencing the power dynamic of whites among society. I want to clarify that what I am for is eliminating using “white” as a placeholder for ethnicity.

Think of it like this: Years ago, white people created (for the sake of this conversation) two powerful labels: Black and white. The point was that the label alone would hold the power to dominate over the other group, while the other group remained in oppression. The implications would be that one is superior over the other, while the other group were inferior due to the color of their skin. These labels were so powerful that they continue to permeate our society without retribution. I mean, why do you think Yellow and Red has long been considered insensitive and racist while Black and white continue to survive?

I’ll tell you why: The Black community is known to harness the power of oppression and use it to empower their own group. Take, for example, the N-word. A heinous term that once was laced with verbal poison but now is used in casual conversation around Black groups. The same is for “Black”. Initially used for racist categorization and to diminish a group of people, now used to separate themselves from “African American”. Why? What is the difference between “Black” and “African American”? Well, African American is a label insinuating that people from Africa willingly immigrated to America, willingly taking the American-made label African American, just like their other non-white counterparts (for example, Asian American). After the murder of George Floyd, activist groups became even more vocal on social media platforms around the world to communicate that it is, and always has been, Black. With a capital B. Make no mistake about it. “Black” shows resistance. “Black” shows a taking back of power. “Black” means, acknowledge my history, dammit.

So here is why you are reading this: You are here because you want to find out why white Americans need to stop using “white” to describe ethnicity. After what I have previously explained, white is just a label invented to guarantee the status quo: whites on top, Blacks on bottom. If this meaningless label was created simply for the use of segregation, why are we still using it? You now know why Blacks are still using their label. But what is the excuse for whites? Most White people have always had the privilege of access to genealogy. They, for the most part, were able to trace back their roots and their family history whereas Blacks were robbed from their homeland and taken to a country only to be freed on foreign land. Then, the freed slaves had children, then those children had children… ultimately resulting in Black Americans who never knew exactly where their family came from (do you think someone was keeping record?). So, again, I ask you: If there are white Americans with access to genealogy, why are so many white people still using the term “white” to describe ethnicity? White Americans need to try to find out where their ancestors came from so they can stop saying that their ethnicity, or what runs through their veins, is a label that was only created to oppress a group of people. 

I am a high school teacher. A student once asked me: What is so wrong with the White Power movement? There is Asian Power. Isn’t it the same thing? I took a deep breath. I told him that White is not a region in the world. Those groups of people of color are celebrating their heritage, while white is not a heritage; White Power groups are celebrating the whiteness of their skin because they recognize that they are being served by systemic racism that ensures their power in our society. And they are commonly associated with white supremacy groups as a result. If we can remember that “white” is not some God-blessed mandate of power, we can begin to understand how dangerous it can be when associating it with genetics, such as Hitler’s Eugenics movement.

My son is half “white” and half Korean. But I tell him: You are half German and half Korean. If I know the heritage of my son’s ancestors, why would I deprive him of that and continue to use a label that erases it? The reason why many white Americans are unaware of where their ancestors came from is because of the label “white”. It was used to virtually whitewash their own history so that the label can continue to be passed down to ensure societal power. “Here is all you need to know: You are white.” Which ensures that their children and their children after that will have the one label that ensures that they will remain on top. When white Americans are utilizing this label today to self-identify their ethnicity, what they are doing is perpetuating the age-old idea that their blood holds privilege.

I understand that not every white American has the privilege of tracing their family roots. But I’m not quite sure the better part of white Americans in this country have even tried. With 23 and Me and Ancestry.com, it is making family history and genetic origin easier to investigate. With these new tools, we can only hope that “white” will be used less frequently to describe ethnicity as more and more people re-discover their true backgrounds. The focus being that we all have similar DNA segments (seriously, go watch that Bill Nye episode). We just need to remember: White is not a country. It is not a nation. If you were to really think about it, it means nothing… And everything. But one thing is clear: Ethnicity has nothing to do with it.

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