The meaning of white people is, to me, an idea of western and eastern looks: a certain eye, nose, and lip shape to go along with the fair skin. Secondary to that, it means Europe and the U.S.A. to me (in terms of nationality, culture, and style). Third, I think of the English language, likely because of my very American-centric mode of thinking (white people tend to speak English here, and many people world over know it — especially in Europe). At the edge of my internal meaning, I think of white privilege; it sits at the edge of my definition due to the fact that it is often mentioned on the social media sites I frequent.
But in a broader sense, when I distill all of these things down into more of a gut meaning, beyond a dry textbook meaning, I think of goodness and rightness. In part this is due to the fact that I am white, and I enjoy being American, but also in part because of my own ethnocentric tendencies. I suppose in that sense, in my head being white is first and foremost being tied to being American (which, in turn, equates to a sense of morality due to how U.S. politics justifies its actions as being morally good or necessary), with awareness of European whiteness at the back of my mind.
When I turn to Google search engine with a few open-ended phrases, I immediately get a lot of piercing humor aimed at white people. I believe this is due to much of what I stated above in my own internal meaning: ethnocentrism, and the idea of moral goodness/necessity and rightness. White people, especially American white people, tend to be not especially sensitive to other cultures and creeds.
Many of the sites are list in that vein of thought: “10 ways white people are more racist than they realize,” “11 Things White People Need To Realize About Race,” “9 clueless things white people say when confronted with racism,” and similar pages and sentiments.
When I enter “what does it mean to be white” into Google, I am first given a dictionary definition (the color, first, followed by a definition of fair skinned people), and then follows various websites that try to define whiteness surrounded by a greater social context. White privilege features heavily, and I particularly enjoyed a TED discussion post, where the first person to respond answers the question with a broad answer that reads as being defensive (a sort of ‘don’t think all white people are stereotypes’ type of vibe).
However, I feel that this response, while passionate, is also very narrow when considering the greater picture.
In Western society, white is the default. Many white people remain within that default. As a result, white people don’t think about it, and don’t need to contextualize it — until and unless they are questioned by someone who is not white, or in a racially themed manner. And so, there is often a sense of defensiveness (especially due to the historical and present day white on not-white oppression and violence) where the white person feels the need to say in so many words: “I am not a bad person because I am white, and I struggle too, sometimes.”
The questions surrounding whiteness often feel loaded because it is a complicated question that goes deeper than even my own initial internal definition accounts for.
As far as who is talking about what it means to be white — it seems as if it is mostly non-white people who are asking the question, and mostly white people who are trying to answer it. Some approach the matter with a sense of detachment, while others approach it full of emotion.
It seems as though many people want the easy answer, the sort of answer you can get by reading a heavily opinionated pop-culture news column rather than an in-depth look that tries to break it down. I arrive at this conclusion due to the pages that hit the top of Google’s search results. However, after browsing through some of these answers I realize that it can certainly be answered flippantly, but there is also a much deeper meaning to what it means to be white that requires awareness of history.