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“Off white: A preliminary taxonomy”

Lots has been written on this topic (“How the Irish Became White,” etc.), but this post by Paul Campos is an amusing starting point. As he points out, we often think about race/ethnicity/nationality in the context of U.S. politics, but it’s an issue, one way or another, pretty much everywhere in the world.


  1. In a few years I expect we will be hearing about “How East Asians Became White,” followed shortly by “How Indians Became White.”

    • Wonks Anonymous says:

      Eugene Volokh already wrote that:

    • Navigator says:

      Indians are not Asians?

      Looks like categories (ethnicity, nationality, race, etc.) are used interchangeably, depending on the immediate need.

      • Carlos Ungil says:

        Note that he said “East Asians” first.

      • Good point. These categories are not used all that well. I was born after the partition of India and Pakistan. My Dad though took us to Cambridge, England to complete his PHD. Oddly, my parents told me that I was referred by white English school-teachers as their ‘white English girl’. When I learned this during my teens, I was angry actually. I bought tan make-up to look darker. To make matters worse, my Mother called attention to the fact that I was lighter skinned than my sister.

        Colonialism created a pigmentocracy: heightened attention to skin color. So I’m glad we are pretty much done with that nonsense

      • Why do you think I put the qualifier “East” in there? Heck, Israelis, Lebanese, Turks, and many Russians are all Asians. It’s a big continent.

    • mu says:

      Considering how the Irish never *became* white—they were always white—I doubt non-white people will become white anytime soon.

      • Andrew says:


        See here. The short story is that “white” is a label and can mean what people want it to mean. Some people have darker skin than others, but there’s a lot of arbitrariness about who to include in the “white” category, or whether that category exists at all.

        • mu says:

          Thank you for the link, Andrew!

          I do know the gist of the “Irish –> white” argument, and I do agree that race is absolutely social. I also think that Irish people have experienced an enormous amount of xenophobia in American history. But they were still white, by which I mean they were white in the eyes of the law. That’s different than the history of non-white people, who for much longer found it far more difficult to do things like vote or own land in America.

          • jim says:

            One interesting aspect of racial discrimination in the US: it’s almost always associated with an influx of cheap labor from one part of the world or another. One reason the north opposed slavery: the low cost of slave farm labor prevented white people in the north from making a living farming. Chinese immigration was banned and other restrictions imposed because of the uproar over the low cost of Chinese labor, which drove whites out of jobs.

            • Andrew says:


              But not the original racism of Europeans toward American Indians, right? I don’t think of the European colonizers as cheap labor.

              • jim says:

                Nonetheless “racism” heated up as the settler’s “needs” for land increased, right? Trail of tears and Jackson’s wars etc.

            • mu says:

              There’s definitely an element of that! But of course racism is complicated, so I’m ill-inclined to reduce it to just economic anxiety from white people.

              • jim says:

                Not “white” people. All people. There are **ample** situations of “color on color” subjugation and racism worldwide. Inter-tribal conflict is legendary in Africa; you might not call that “racist” but it’s definitely “ethnic”. Africa’s recent history is pretty much entirely one of ethnic conflict.

                Maybe it doesn’t boil it down entirely to economic anxiety but it’s safe to say that economic subjugation is a universal and very controversial component of racism, so it would be hard to claim that it’s a small part of the mix.

          • somebody says:

            Depends on the where and when. It’s indisputably true that at some point the Irish were considered a distinct race from anglo-saxons while now, anglo-saxons and Irish are considered to be in the same white race. In Victorian England:

            > I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country . . . To see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much.

            • mu says:

              I’m thinking of America pretty specifically. It’s a country with pretty clear-cut racial dynamics, and I believe the only country with actual court cases that established race. Andrew Jackson was Irish. It’s pretty obvious that he wasn’t non-white!

          • Carlos Ungil says:

            What do you mean by “non-white people”?

            Let’s leave aside those of European origin (maybe they were “still white”, despite being classified as something else than white).

            It seems that other people like Berbers, Arabs, Jew, Turks and Persians “became white” at some point.

            • mu says:

              I’m not sure I get your question. Obviously by “non-white” I mean people who aren’t white, but I think you’re asking for something else.

              I’m also not sure, for example, that white Jewish people ever “became white” after the advent of race and racism. Again, like white people in general, white Jews in America could own land and property and people. They had voting rights and could hold office.

              Which is not to ignore the horrific violence of antisemitism that Jewish people in general, including white Jews, face. But I think it just means that antisemitism and racism are distinct forms of violence, albeit common bedfellows.

              • Carlos Ungil says:

                > Obviously by “non-white” I mean people who aren’t white,

                And obviously I’m asking who are you refering to precisely. Do you count (the vast majority of) people in North Africa and the Middle East as white or not?

              • somebody says:

                > It seems that other people like Berbers, Arabs, Jew, Turks and Persians “became white” at some point.

                Not who you’re asking, but growing up my impression was:

                Berbers are white
                Arabs are definitely not white
                Jews are sometimes white depending on what kind
                Turks are white
                Persians are definitely not white

                @mu You seem to be under the impression that it’s always been very obvious who isn’t white and who isn’t, at least legally in the United States, but that’s just not true. What’s obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. In this very post, you refer to “white Jewish people” but I genuinely have no clue who you’re talking about. Are Hasids white Jewish people? Are Ashkenazis white Jewish people? Sephardi?

                You refer to legal standards in the US, but even those have been historically ambiguous. Back in Jim Crow and before, Chinese people have been variously considered legally colored or white depending on where they were and the general disposition of the local whites. Early on, there’s the famous case of the Siamese twins


                who became U.S. citizens, owned slaves, and were generally fully accepted as fellow Whites late in their life. Later on, legality of Asian American landownership was decided on a state-by-state basis, so by your standards, who is white depended on which state you were in


                Under the post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws, Asians were variously segregated into white and colored sects of society, and the definition was ambiguous enough that the Supreme Court eventually had to weigh into make the determination


                So in a discussion of history, statements like “Obviously by “non-white” I mean people who aren’t white” are seriously very confusing–I honestly don’t know who you’re talking about precisely. I know that you definitely include white anglo-saxon protestants, and that you definitely don’t include black folks, and from context you probably also don’t include Asians, but beyond that everything is ambiguous.

              • Lahvak says:

                About “obviously non-white”, I am trying to remember which Roma rapper once said that every time he works with a team of well known musicians in Europe, he is referred to as “the black guy”, while in the US they talk about him as “the white guy”. He joked that he never seems to be able to get it right.

  2. Michel Ney says:

    In a few years, it will only matter what the Chinese think about that.

  3. oncodoc says:

    I recall that the old regime in South Africa categorized people as white, black, or mixed. Asians were deemed mixed. However, as trade with Japan increased, Japanese became white while Chinese remained mixed. I’m white in the USA. My ancestors were not white in Europe. Some were almost white and convinced themselves that they were white for a period of time in Germany. Often they were doctors, lawyers, and professors. This state did not last. I’m grateful to be white in America, but in the back of my mind there is a concern that that status can be withdrawn as easily as it was granted. I sometimes think that the reason that some cling to and defend whiteness is that they also think that it can be taken away.

  4. jim says:

    racism is a human phenomenon, not a white phenomenon.

    • Andrew says:


      I agree, and I don’t the above post implies otherwise. Just as one can have a post about baseball without implying that there are no other sports, one can have a post about white identity in the United States without implying that there are not other versions of racial identity.

  5. Dzhaughn says:

    Nice to see blogs like LGM following Biden’s lead in toning down polarization.

    I know, I know it wasn’t a real goal. Because if Psaki doesn’t say it, Joe didn’t mean it.

  6. chrisare says:

    Zebras in 2021 must be super conflicted.

  7. Mikhail Shubin says:

    so is the trick of making US less of a white supremacy is to make them think that all the people on Earth are white?

  8. Jukka says:

    If I read correctly between the lines, I think what Andrew is getting at is identity politics. Fine: I thought about it (and other things) during my morning walk. So let’s try.

    Let’s take something like intersectional feminism. I’ve understood it but never really got it. I mean: to me, it is so plain obvious! Something you read from an elementary sociology textbook; that people belong to different groups and these overlap. Well: of course they do!

    So what is a little more interesting is the intellectual history. About Thirty Years back you still had it pretty clear. You had the Communists and all. You still see it sometimes: during the Olympic sports, say, just like B. Anderson wrote. But after the Wall (listen P. Floyd here) came down, you started to have the intersectionality and stuff. I personally love Hegelians like F. Fukuyama, but they’re probably boomers, maybe. You started to have people like S. Hall, D. Haraway, and such and such, and I get also their stuff. Fine. But they’re boomers too, and the stuff has led to a kind of extremism.

    Today, you have the white – punk rocker – Catalonian – lesbian – financial banker – environmentalists – Quebecian – body builder – etc., etc. Fine. But now you start to have also policy problems. You have this spot for a new building. And you want the bank, the gym, the second-hand shop, etc., and it has to run on wind power, and you cannot have it all. There used to be a simple solution: people discussed and voted. But for a reason or another, it is no longer working as well as it used to.

    But anyways, it is May Day in Finland, a national party, and I should probably go to a bar, but I don’t want to go to that bar where financial bankers listen punk rock; see what I mean.

    Personally, I just try to avoid classifying people as much as I can.

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