Who Gets to be White? A Semi-Brief History of Whiteness in the USA

Did you know that, less than 100 years ago, the US Supreme Court issued multiple rulings on whether or not a person was white enough to be a US citizen? Yeah, that happened.

Let’s talk about what “being white” meant throughout US history.  I recently took a class about institutionalized racism in the United States.  I was hoping to gain a broader understanding of racism and how it infects and affects our institutions and interactions in the US.  One thing I didn’t understand was the history of Whiteness, and what it means to be White, in both the cultural and legal sense of that word.  Part of my class was researching and uncovering the different definitions of Whiteness throughout American history, and how Whiteness was purposefully enshrined in laws, policies, and practices throughout American history.  While this is in no way a comprehensive history, here are some brief excerpts from American history that can highlight the complicated nature of Whiteness and can illuminate how white supremacy has been systemically embedded in our nation for the purpose of oppressing non-white peoples since the very beginning.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first statute in the newly-formed United States of America to codify naturalization law.  It specified who could become a citizen in the country: “free white persons of good character.”  This meant that Native American people, enslaved people, and free black people were excluded from federal citizenship, and was the foundation of establishing Whiteness as a defining characteristic of an American person.  In order to be considered “white” at this point in history, you had to be of European ancestry with light skin.

Citizenship was (and is) a critical marker for power.  It entitled a man (because women were not yet considered “people”) to the right to vote, to serve on juries, to serve as an elected official, and to own land.  Citizens had access to resources and opportunities.  Non-citizens were established as a second-tier of personhood.

The 1830 Indian Removal Act forcibly relocated Native Americans from East of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma.  This act deprived Native people of their ancestral lands, which were subsequently distributed to white settlers.  Claiming “divine providence,” as well as the Native people’s refusal to assimilate into “white” culture by learning English, converting to Christianity, and adopting European economic practices, the US government coerced Native tribes to sign treaties that forcibly displaced their people.  Those who did not agree to the terms of the treaties were removed by (sometimes lethal) force.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott v. Sandford was a US Supreme Court case decided in 1856.  Dred Scott was an enslaved black man who had been relocated to free states, and argued that his residence in free states entitled him to emancipation from slavery.  The all-white Supreme Court denied his petition, stating that he was “of Negro descent,” and as such, “they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to the citizens of the United States.”

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed enslaved black people, and the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 formally ended slavery in the US. Critics of the thirteenth amendment voiced concerns that the abolition of slavery would lead to citizenship rights for Black men, and they were right – the Fourteenth Amendment passed in 1868 as one of the banner achievements of Reconstruction, which guaranteed citizenship rights to any person born in the United States.  However, because Native Americans were considered to have “allegiances to foreign powers” (their tribes), they were not considered to be born in the United States and did not qualify for citizenship.  The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalized citizenship to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.”  At this point, only “white” people (light-skinned, European ancestry) and black/”Negro” people (dark-skinned, African ancestry) are able to become US citizens.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned all immigration from China for ten years, and permanently excluded Chinese nationals from obtaining US citizenship until it was revoked in December 1943.  Chinese immigrants had arrived in the Western US as laborers to build the railroad and respond to the Gold Rush, but increasing Chinese presence was perceived as a threat to white colonial identity.  Additionally, alien land laws were passed throughout the US from the mid-1880’s through the mid-1920’s, which prohibited non-citizens from owning property (the constitutionality of these laws was upheld by various Supreme Court decisions, including Yamashita v. Hinkle in 1922).  This coincided with the beginnings of the “Yellow Peril,” in which massive campaigns were undertook to spread fear about the threat of “yellow” Asian people to “white” people in the US.  White people were worried about low-wage workers stealing their jobs and refusing to assimilate by learning English (sounds familiar, eh?), and that the dilution of the white super-majority would threaten White/European power structures within the US.

John Elk was born a member of the Winnebago tribe in present-day Nebraska, and wanted to become a naturalized US citizen.  Because of the clause about “allegiances to foreign powers” in earlier immigration law, John  renounced his allegiance to the Winnebago tribe, lived among white people, and attempted to register to vote in 1880.  He was denied by the registrar because he was not considered a US citizen.  Elk appealed his decision to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 1884 (Elk v. Wilkins) that despite being US-born and renouncing his tribal allegiances, Elk was not entitled to US citizenship because he was not white (or black).  This decision effectively disenfranchised Native American people for the next 40 years, when the Indian Citizenship Act was passed that guaranteed citizenship rights to Native American people.

Plessy v. Ferguson was a US Supreme Court case decided in 1896, which enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine in public facilities, and was the legal backbone for most Jim Crow era laws.  Plessy was a mixed-race man who bought a ticket for a white-only railway car, and because Plessy presented as white (being of 7/8 European descent and 1/8 African descent), he was allowed to purchase the ticket but was arrested on the car.  Plessy sued, arguing that separate rail cars violated his rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The all-white court denied him, stating that as long as spaces are of “equal” quality, the government can mandate racial separation.  This ruling effectively legalized racial apartheid in the United States, as well as overruled almost all of the legislative victories attained during Reconstruction.  While spaces were supposed to be “equal” in terms of quality and opportunity, all-white power structures didn’t invest funding or other resources into non-white spaces, which led to the under-funding (and sometimes closing) of black schools, libraries, and other public spaces.

Anita Hemmings

It is in this racial environment that Anita Hemmings applied to Vassar in 1893.  Anita passed as “white,” and attended the all-white university until she graduated in 1897.  A few weeks before she graduated, her roommate voiced suspicions about her racial background to her father, who hired a private investigator.  The investigator discovered that Anita’s parents were both of mixed-race, and told the media.  It turned into a massive scandal.  Anita later married a man who was also of mixed-race, and they raised their children as whites in New York City, where they enjoyed the class & educational benefits afforded to them as whites.  This is one illustration of how massively problematic the “race” question is – so much of it is a subjection cultural perception of how a person performs whiteness.  How light is their skin?  How do they speak?  How do they carry themselves?  Whiteness has never been just about ancestry or melanin (although melanin and ancestry are both critical pieces of Whiteness), but about cultural and performative scripts.

Ethno-nationalism heated up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Nationalization Act of 1906 was passed, which established uniform naturalization laws across the country and prescribed several cultural requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen, including learning English.  Race was not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, but became an actively litigated part of the act through the following decades (more about that later).  Another requirement for a US citizen?  He had to affirm that “he is not a polygamist or a believer in the practice of polygamy.”  The LDS church passed its second manifesto mandating the end of polygamy just one year before the passage of this act.

Once this act was passed, there were several legal tests against it to determine who was allow to become a citizen, and thus enjoy the benefits of voting, land-ownership, and legitimacy that citizenship afforded.  The Immigration Act of 1917 limited immigration and citizenship even further, requiring literacy tests of immigrants and barring immigration completely from the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which included the Arabian peninsula, Indonesia, India, and much of China/Mongolia.  It also barred people considered “mentally defective” and with a wide host of cultural characteristics or behaviors, which effectively banned poor people, anybody politically active, sick people, and LGBTQ+ people.

Takao Ozawa challenged the host of immigration acts in his petition for naturalized citizenship.  A Japanese immigrant of twenty years, he didn’t explicitly argue against the racial restrictions of immigration law, but instead argued that Japanese people should be considered “free white persons,” and thus eligible to be naturalized.  His case was denied, and appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1922 (Ozawa v. United States) that Japanese people were not eligible for citizenship because they are “Mongoloid” and not white, and that citizenship is only available to “those popularly known as the Caucasian race.”

This case was quickly followed by another case that challenged the definition of Whiteness by the law.  Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man who identified himself as a “high caste aryan, of full Indian blood” argued that he should be considered white enough to become a naturalized citizen.  His petition was initially granted, but appealed by government workers who were upset by his political affiliations with an Indian independence movement, and so they argued that he wasn’t white enough for citizenship.  Thind argued that, according to the race science of the time, northern Indians and most Europeans are all of Aryan/Caucasian origin, and should be eligible.  However, in the 1923 Supreme Court Ruling (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind), the court ruled that while Hindi-speaking high-caste people were similar to whites (essentially ‘white-adjacent’), Hindis had intermarried too much with people native to the Indian subcontinent, and as such, do not count as white for the purposes of citizenship.  Because this ruling effectively denounced the idea that Caucasian was the same as White in US legal terms, the legal basis for whiteness essentially became “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”  This goes to prove that, again, Whiteness is not based in science or ethnicity, but instead upon a social construction of what it means to be White, and that social construction has evolved and changed over time with the goal of empowering certain people and marginalizing others.

Take, for example, the case of John Svan, a Finnish-American who lived in Minnesota and applied for naturalized citizenship.  The prosecutor initially rejected his application in 1908, arguing that Finnish immigrants were “mongols” and “yellow” and as such, did not qualify for naturalization.  However, a state supreme court judge ruled that while Finns may have been “mongols” at the beginning, they had lived in a cold/Northern climate for an extended period of time, and as such, became some of “the whitest people in Europe.”  During this trial, the Finnish communities in Minnesota and Michigan undertook large-scale campaigns to prove their whiteness in hopes of gaining legitimacy and power in American society.  Part of that was renouncing socialism, which was seen as a non-white political view.  Part of it was learning English, engaging in capitalistic business practices, and assimilating religiously into their communities.  Thus we can see that Finns still had to work to earn their whiteness through the same methods that were demanded of the Native Americans in early American history before they were forcibly removed from their lands, despite having very light skin.  When they were deemed to be a good cultural fit, and light-skinned enough, they were afforded the protective benefits and legitimacy of being considered white in the form of US citizenship.

That said, even having the rights of citizenship do not always exempt you from racial discrimination at the highest levels of government.  During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which designated certain areas as “military areas” and authorized the removal of all people in those zones of Japanese ancestry to internment camps, regardless of citizenship status.  (How did President Roosevelt know which areas to declare?  He used census data from 1940 to see which areas were predominantly Japanese. This is one of many reasons why questions of citizenship and race on the census are incredibly problematic.)  Kiyoshi Hirayabashi refused to relocate to the camp, and was charged and convicted of violating the relocation order. He appealed his ruling to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him  in 1943 (Hirayabashi v. US) , arguing that racial discrimination is justified since “in time of war, residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.”  This was further upheld in Korematsu v. US in 1944, which again sided with the government’s right to imprison its own citizens based on ethnicity.

So, who gets to be white?  A jury was actually asked the question of whether a certain person could have been believed as being white in New York in the 1920’s.  Alice Jones was a biracial woman with a “white” mother and a mixed-race father.  She was working as a domestic when she met and fell in love with Kip Rhinelander, a member of the prestigious Rhinelander family in New York, and they had a three-year romance that culminated in their marriage in October 1924.  Despite the Rhinelander’s family attempt to keep the relationship secret, details of their marriage were published in the New York papers, causing a massive scandal and pressure mounted for Kip to annul the marriage.  When Kip’s family threatened to disinherit him two weeks after the marriage for marrying a Black woman, Kip filed for an annulment, claiming that Alice had deceived him into thinking she was white.  Alice refused the annulment, stating that she admitted to being colored and that Kip knew it, too.  The trial devolved into sordid details about Alice’s “dusky breasts and legs,” which were presented as evidence that Kip must have known about her race before he married her.  In fact, Alice’s lawyer presented Alice’s exposed body to the jury in the judge’s quarters, allowing them to examine her naked arms, legs, and breasts as evidence of her blackness.  Alice was so humiliated by the forced exhibition of her body that she was reported to have burst into tears after the jury’s examination.  The jury ended up ruling that Alice could not be white, based on the jury’s examination of her body, and ruled that Kip could not annul the marriage, to his family’s abject shame.  Alice later filed for divorce and obtain alimony payments in exchange for never using the Rhinelander name again.

What do people have to prove in order to be considered “white” or “non-white” in today’s America?  What does Whiteness mean today?  Is it just US citizens with light skin?  What about Jewish people?  Are Italians white?  What about Turks?  What about mixed-race people?   How does one obtain the legal, cultural, and economic benefits of Whiteness?  Why does society offer legal, cultural, and economic benefits to people who present as White?  Just because Whiteness is a social construction and creation of our own design doesn’t mean it’s something we don’t have to grapple with and acknowledge as a powerful force for oppression and disenfranchisement in today’s society.

Just as it has been throughout its history, Whiteness is synonymous with power and privilege in today’s America.  When a person has less melanin in their skin, there are presumptions made about their status, how much of a threat they’re perceived to be, their innocence or guilt, their trustworthiness, and their fit into American society.  In addition to the eye-test of how light a person’s skin is, certain behaviors and values are inherent in a person’s whiteness: religion, language, and politics all play a role.  Whiteness is seen as desirable, as normal, and as good.  Conversely, the less a person conforms to the ideal of Whiteness, the less desirable, normal, and good they’re perceived to be.

Until we grapple with Whiteness, and understand that the definition of Whiteness moves and changes so that White Supremacy can be preserved at the expense of non-white people, we won’t be able to dismantle systemic racism in America.  Whiteness is why a white woman with an AR-15 slung over her shoulder gets media interviews and marriage proposals but a black man with a cell phone in his hand gets killed by the police.  It’s why African Americans are 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated as compared to white people.  It’s why Native American people have lower life expectancies and greater barriers to healthcare access as  compared to white Americans.  It’s also why, despite Brown v. Board of Education mandating the desegregation of schools in 1954, schools today are nearly as segregated as they were when that ruling came down, and predominantly-minority schools have less funding than predominantly-white schools.

Until we decouple Whiteness and goodness, we will have a racially segregated country in the US.  Part of that is understanding how Whiteness works, how it’s changed and evolved, and how racism isn’t just individual acts or microaggressions between two people, but have been institutionalized in policies and practices since the inception of America.  There are plenty of examples of laws, policies, and practices that are *still* upholding racism; perhaps that’s something I will try to tackle in another post.  My hope is that, by examining Whiteness as it played out throughout American history, we will begin to understand that Whiteness, and qualifying as White, has been the key to accessing power, resources, and opportunity in America, and it continues to be that way today.

When people demand that immigrants “assimilate,” they are asking them to adopt as much Whiteness as their melanin will allow.  The same goes for when people ask ethnic minorities to name their kids “normal” names, or “speak intelligently” or without an accent.  These are all examples of how we presume Whiteness to be the desirable norm, and how American society upholds White Supremacy as the governing norms in our culture, policies, and practices.  If we want to dismantle White Supremacy, part of that is recognizing how Whiteness operates, and then making a conscious effort toward creating a racially pluralistic society that values and accepts racial, ethnic, cultural, and behavior diversity, rather than upholding Whiteness as goodness.  We need to embrace narratives outside the norm of Whiteness, and we need to champion the narratives, experiences, leadership, and power of non-white people.  Part of this means casting aside our own Whiteness, which can feel like losing one’s own power and legitimacy, but in reality makes room for the power and legitimacy of so many different people and absolutely strengthens us as a nation.

Who gets to be white, and what does it mean for you if you do?  What does it mean for you if you don’t?

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.


  1. What an interesting article. I had no idea we have such a history of discrimination in our society. Of course we still have racial tensions today (can anyone really be surprised?). We also discriminate today against the LGBT people, more so in the LDS church than other places. It’s a sad part of our history.

  2. Wow. This is such a good rundown of this issue. Thanks, Liz, for taking the time to lay it all out. It’s depressing to think of all the arbitrary racist terrible things the U.S. and its citizens have perpetrated.

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