“American,” meaning “White”

October 12, 2009

Well, it didn’t take me long to learn the Mandarin word for my "condition."

The other day, I was wandering around the city with my cousin (we’ll call him "E") and his girlfriend ("J") as they were looking for a new apartment to move into. As we were chatting, J suddenly went from English (which she speaks pretty well) to Mandarin with E, and I caught a few references to me. I was able to pick out that she was reconfirming my mix – that my dad was "American," and my mom was "Chinese."* E said that that was so, and we continued on.

A little bit later, as they were talking to a sort of realtor-type lady, the lady looked at me and then began speedily asking questions of J. This time, I didn’t catch a whole lot, but I did hear some more references to "dad" and "American," so I was able to figure it out. J then told me that the lady had asked if I was "hunxue’er" – a "mixed-blood" (I also saw it translated as "half-caste," but I’d prefer to live in post-colonial times). She continued to say that the lady said she could tell because my hair was very different.**

So – two things stuck out at me here: first, my "mixed-blood" seemed more an item of curiosity for both, as opposed to a reason for judgment, which is nice to know (although this is very pro-Western, capitalist Shanghai, where that kind of thing might be taken quite differently than elsewhere). Second, all over the world, when people say "American," they’re talking about white people.

Because determining my mix in relation to the nationalities of my parents is nothing new in my international life. The same thing happened in Tanzania – where I would explain that my father was "American," and my mother was "Chinese." Of course, "Chinese" is a nationality and an ethnicity, which is where this confusion comes from.

Because, in much of the rest of the world, nationality and race are tied together, historically. The original inhabitants of China were Asian (although not necessarily Han Asian, as now), therefore those of Chinese nationality are almost universally Asian, racially. Same with Tanzania, where the history has consistently held black-Africans in that area (again, not necessarily Bantu Africans, but black-Africans, nonetheless). Scottish tribes were made up of white people. Germanic peoples were also white. Persians lived in Persia (now Iran). Etc.

But the era of Imperialism changed a lot of that, pretty drastically. Sure, there were some nations that were mixed from an early stage, but if we’re talking in generalities, Imperialism is what really altered the racial make-up of many countries. Because, suddenly, there were white people in charge of African nations, bringing in East-Indian laborers to become the merchant class (or to do more menial labor). In the West, those white people were dominating West-Indian people, shipping in black-African slaves, and encouraging the immigration of East-Asian coolies for off-plantation manual labor. Over the course of only a couple hundred years (after thousands of years of civilization), different races of people were living in large numbers all over the world.

And with the onset of globalization, that is only set to continue. And yet, in spite of all that mixing, people the world over still think of an "American" as white. In fact, most "Americans" think of the typical "American" as white. And yes – "white" is the majority right now, so that makes statistical sense – but that’s not all it is. It’s the fact that, when people around the world read about or see things on tv or in the media about "America," they see the obvious – a country of white people overseeing subjugated peoples of color.

Because it’s not like the international world isn’t aware of black-Americans. Black-American culture (specifically, the music, but also sports) is probably the most-consumed aspect of America (other than fast-food) in the rest of the world. And yet – it is clear to these international people that all these black people they see and follow are not really Americans. Because the "Americans" they actually end up meeting in the world are white ones – the ones with the money and privilege to be out traveling the world in large enough numbers to be considered the norm.

And it will be interesting to see how this changes over the next couple decades. With Obama’s face now the face internationally associated with American diplomatic power, how will that change international perceptions of who an "American" is? As white people slowly lose majority-numbers in the States, will money and power shift enough for Americans of color to be physically seen traveling the world (or doing global business, etc.)?

Can "American" stop meaning "white" in our lifetimes, or is it going to take much longer than that?

We can only wait and see.

* For the duration of this post, I am going to use "American" to refer to denizens of the United States. Obviously, this is not accurate at all (as there are so many "Americans" that have absolutely nothing to do with the nation of the U.S.), but, as I am coming at this from an international stance, and that is what folks generally mean when they say "American" in other parts of the world – that’s how I’m using it.

**Which is interesting, because, when I lived in Tanzania, they would say that they "knew" I was Chinese because I had "Chinese hair."




  1. I was saying to my class last week that while race is actually on of the least determining biological factors of difference, because of society everything we do is impacted and shaped by it.

  2. Terminology is interesting in China and HK.

    In HK, the English word “mixed” seems to be common for children of ethnic-Chinese and “other”. My kids refer to each other and classmates like themselves as “mixed” -although what is mixed often differs (for example, 1 parent Japanese from Japan and the other German from Germany, etc.)

    My daughter learned the Cantonese for “mixed blood” on her first day of Cantonese medium primary school.

    What might be called “white” in the States is often called “European” here or “Western” (in Cantonese, Sai Yan). In less polite or circumspect company “Guai” is used, to which is added a noun. When I arrived in HK I was still fairly young, so I was a “Guai-mui” (ghost girl). Now I am middle aged and entering into “Guai-poh” status (ghost-granny).

    In Taiwan in the 1980s I was “wai-guo ren” (foreigner). In the mainland, sometimes people use “lao wai” which some people think is neutral and others don’t like. I think it depends on the tone of voice, just like in some parts of New England people say “from away” (not local, or sometimes “summer people”).

    What people in HK sometimes call ethnic Chinese born and raised in other countries sounds like broadcasting: BBC (British-born Chinese) CBC (Canadian born Chinese) ABC (American-born Chinese or Australian-born Chinese…).

    American = white as a perception in the world (or Canadian=white ?). I think it is changing. It also depends on where you are. In HK people I run into rarely assume they know your nationality based on your appearance.

    • Skreader – Thanks for sharing your experiences on this one. I’ve definitely heard references to a “Westerner face” or a “Chinese face” when people are trying to figure out somebody’s background. Again, though, when they say a “Westerner,” they are equating it to white, when, in all actuality, the majority of the Western hemisphere is actually brown (Latino, mostly, plus other races). So it’s basically the same phenomenon with a slightly different terminology.

      “In HK people I run into rarely assume they know your nationality based on your appearance.”

      I’m actually talking about the flip of this: if you tell somebody outside of the States (or even in the States, really) that somebody you know is “American,” their first instinct is to picture them as white. I am open to evidence to the contrary on that one, but I am pretty confident that is still the case the world round.

      • re: the term “Western”.

        I think that in HK at least, when people say “Western” there is no intention to mean “Western hemisphere” (the Americas). The “western hemisphere” as a whole is hardly a blip on people’s radars.

        Instead “Western” means “European” (west of China) and people who look like they are descended from “Europeans”

        So a European descended citizens of America, Australia, Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Singapore, Spain, etc. would be classified as “Western” or “Western looking”.

        It has nothing to do w/ where you come from or what passport you hold. A friend of mine who was born in Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia and mostly grew up in HK (permanent resident) is considered “Western”, so are European descended South Africans.

        re: “the flip side” (guessing appearance based on nationality).

        As for picturing people “white” when someone is said to be an American, according to wikipedia (linking to data from the US Census) in 2006 such folk were listed as being about 74% of the population.

        So, it’s not completely surprising that the perception exists outside the USA that an “American” is “white”; it’s not just a result of media myths and propaganda.

        I am not saying that it right or desirable that this perception exists, one that downplays or ignores the existence of 1/4 of US citizens and residents.

        As for when this perception will change – maybe when European Americans (or people who appear visually to be non-mixed European-Americans) are no longer a majority of the population?

      • Skreader – I understand where the terms come from, of course, but my point is that that is the irony of it all, that they use the term “Western” to mean “white,” regardless of where people are actually from. When native “Westerners” are actually predominantly *non*-white. Referring to Europe and European descent only as “Western” quickly ignores all the brown folks of the world. And, honestly, who originally coined references to “the West” as referring to Europe and the States and white-dominated societies? The “Westerners,” themselves, of course. And, in spite of all the changes in the world since then, that’s just still how it works.

        They also mean “white” when they say “American.” But again, that’s ironic, because “American” *should* encompass all of the Americas (I know plenty of Central and South American-descended folks who get so irritated by the fact that most of those references do not, not to mention the Canadians). And, again, the majority of “Americans” (from the “Americas”) are actually *non*-white.

        It’s all understandable. I get where it all comes from, on an international level, but all of it just goes to reinforce one thing: white people are the “norm,” the “standard-bearer,” while the rest of us . . . are just the “rest of us.” It started a couple hundred years ago with the age of imperialism, and it continues to this day. It’s the origins of these references, and their continuation today, that irritates me so.

        “The . . . (Americas are) hardly a blip on their radar . . . ” And that’s exactly the point. Two groups of people count here – Chinese (and other Asians, a bit) and white. The rest “aren’t important” on a global scale, and that will continue to be the case as long as the media works as it does (showing brown countries as scenes of poverty, hunger, war,and disaster only; while “the Western world” is one of civilization and “freedom”).

        Does it make more sense where I’m coming from here? I don’t think that you think this is all a good thing at all (if that was the case, why would you be reading my blog and commenting), but even you thought of “American” as only being United States citizens. That’s how the term has been touted worldwide for so long – it’s totally ingrained in the global consciousness- because, of course, the U.S. is the only nation that matters in “America,” right?

        Riiiiiiight . . .

  3. Chinese Hair?
    That’s funny.
    I cut my hair really short this past summer and had some gel in it.
    One of my cousin’s friends said that I had “Chinese Hair” – now I know what he meant.

    Other than hair – are there any other physical traits that are noticed in Asia but not so much in America?

    • Uglyblackjohn – That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking on it, and, so far, nothing big stands out. Physically, I’m an “Extra-Large” (or bigger) here; which is preposterous from an American standpoint (I’m just a lot more thickly-built than most Chinese folks).

      Nobody has commented on it, but – in comparison to the locals – I can grow more facial hair. And, for those that know me, that’s also a preposterous idea. I’ll write about that sometime as a more light-hearted post.

  4. Old post I know, but I just read it, so…

    In my experience the only people who don’t automatically tie nationality to race are folks who grew up Third Culture (I’m one). Not that that’s going to make much difference overall, since there are only about 2 million of us in total.

    I’m running into an interesting variation of this since I work with a lot of Japanese people, and some of them seem baffled by the idea of me as American (which I’m not – actually I’m British, but apparently lives in America = American) because I don’t fit their idea of what white people look like (I often get read as Persian or Hispanic). I’ve been asked if I’m Argentinian or Brazilian a few times. So yeah, apparently American equals, not just white, but really unambiguously white.

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