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How we became white people

By Christian Lander, Special to CNN
  • Christian Lander checked the "white" box on the 2010 census form, but says it's complicated
  • He's an immigrant (Canada), but has access to historical advantages of "white" box
  • Popular myth of U.S. immigration doesn't include discrimination against non-whites, he says
  • Lander: Census should remind us that America is moving away from a "white" box majority

Editor's note: America's 300 million-plus people are declaring their identity in the 2010 census. This piece is part of a special series on in which people describe how they see their own identity. Christian Lander is a writer living in Los Angeles. His book "Stuff White People Like" is published by Random House.

(CNN) -- I am white. I know that's a terribly big surprise, considering that I write a blog called Stuff White People Like, but I mean it, I'm white.

Like really white.

I'm not attempting to assert some sort of superiority through my whiteness; quite the opposite actually. Thanks to my liberal upbringing, I am imbued with the appropriate amount of guilt and shame about my ancestors and their actions in the New World.

Even in my home, I can't offer a blanket to a nonwhite friend without the fear that they will look at me and say "no smallpox on this right?" A joke, but I still want to apologize.

I'm a white male. I belong to a group that pretty much always been able to own land and to vote. I'm more or less from the kind that grabbed power somewhere after the fall of Rome and never let go. In other words, I'm the kind of white guy that has never experienced any real oppression.

Although I guess my ancestors technically left England because of some religious persecution and in spite of a rough boat ride and a rough first Thanksgiving, it's safe to say it worked out pretty well. Unless you got one of those aforementioned blankets.

But in addition to being white and having ancestors on the Mayflower, I'm also Canadian. Yes, I know that might actually make me more white than before, but it also technically makes me an immigrant to this country.

Still, I am loath to call myself an immigrant because I don't want to demean the very real, very difficult challenges faced by immigrants to this country who have had to overcome differences in language, culture and distance from their families. I would say my biggest hardship has been trying to find Ketchup Chips.

But in the eyes of the U.S. government, I am an immigrant, the same as someone from China, Mexico or India. I would not be in this country had I not met my wife in graduate school, and I am thankful every day for her and the opportunity to live in the United States.

So when the census came around, I was absolutely thrilled. I've lived in the United States for eight years (four of them as a graduate student), and in that time, I have never been able to vote or access any public services. The census meant I was going to be counted, I was going to be a part of American history. A good part, not that blanket part.

When the form arrived, I scanned the options and quickly checked "white." I would have checked "Canadian" but that option wasn't anywhere to be found. There it was, I was a white American, or technically a white American Permanent Resident. But then I started thinking about what it really means to be a white American.

As long as America has been around, I would have been considered white. I would have checked the same box in the 1790 census, had my relatives decided to stay on their land instead of moving to Canada to stay loyal to the King of England. But not everyone who checked that box on the census has always been considered white. Irish, Italian, Jewish, German and Eastern European have all been considered not white. or at the very least "not American."

All of these groups came to America amid widespread discrimination, and yet through the process of assimilation and Americanization, the status of white was slowly conferred upon them (read "The History of White People" or "How the Irish Became White" for actual, intelligent research on how this happened).

And with this new-found white status also came the status of "ethnically American." Of course, a lot of people will say that there is no such thing as an ethnic American and that everyone who becomes a citizen is an American. And this is true to the letter of the law, but if we consider the popular perception of immigration and the American dream, to say that white skin has nothing to do with it would be complete folly.

In the popular myth, immigrants arrive as huddled masses yearning to be free and most of the women wear scarves around their head. They move to the Lower East Side or some other suitably "ethnic" community, they change a last name, they learn English and within one generation they are welcomed into the country as ethnic Americans and granted that wonderful privilege of checking the white box on the census.

The reality is that America has a long history of welcoming immigrants who will never be able to check that white box on the census, and unfortunately that means America also has a long history of discrimination against those people regardless of their status in the country. Just one example would be the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II contrasted against the treatment of German-Americans.

But all of that was in the past right? Well, ask yourself this: Who is more likely to get pulled over and forced to show his papers in Arizona today? A first generation Canadian immigrant, or a 10th generation Mexican-American?

What I hope this census will force the country to deal with is the fact that white immigrants like me will never again make up the majority of people that come to this country. America is not getting whiter, it will never get whiter. Well, unless we start handing those blankets out again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christian Lander.