White People's Burden

By Robert Jensen

The United States is a white country. By that I don't just mean that the majority of its citizens are white, though they are (for now but not forever). What makes the United States white is not the fact that most Americans are white but the assumption -- especially by people with power -- that American equals white. Those people don't say it outright. It comes out in subtle ways. Or, sometimes, in ways not so subtle.

Here's an example: I'm in line at a store, unavoidably eavesdropping on two white men in front of me, as one tells the other about a construction job he was on. He says: "There was this guy and three Mexicans standing next to the truck." From other things he said, it was clear that "this guy" was Anglo, white, American. It also was clear from the conversation that this man had not spoken to the "three Mexicans" and had no way of knowing whether they were Mexicans or U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage.

It didn't matter. The "guy" was the default setting for American: Anglo, white. The "three Mexicans" were not Anglo, not white, and therefore not American. It wasn't "four guys standing by a truck." It was "a guy and three Mexicans." The race and/or ethnicity of the four men were irrelevant to the story he was telling. But the storyteller had to mark it. It was important that "the guy" not be confused with "the three Mexicans."