Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

A whiter shade of pale: The shifting definitions of who we consider ‘white’

Again, we’re discussing what it means to be white. I think we have no idea what we’re talking about.



Lately, I have noticed that the Europeans have introduced a new system to describe groups of people. There is, for instance, a large and growing population of IT-workers there. They are well educated, and usually come from places like the US, Canada and, interestingly enough, Italy. Most of them are white and work for companies that can afford to pay their workers well and provide them with nice places to live.

In the new hierarchy, these people are euphemistically called expats.

The next group consists of individuals and families who have also come to work. They have less schooling, but they are as wanted: tradies and builders, usually from places like Poland and the Balkan countries. The Europeans call them guest workers. They too, are usually white.

Then there are the people who came from further afield: Turks, Moroccans, Lebanon, the Middle East. Although some of them have lived here for generations, they are still called migrants. Amongst other, less friendly, descriptors. At the moment, they run most of the greengrocers, bakeries and other food-outlets and keep the manufacturing industries going. The way they are addressed is similar to the men and women who arrived here from war-torn countries. Even the ones who are doctors, architects and lawyers come into the category of alien.

Needless to say, the people in those last two groups are usually not white.

I am telling you that, because we are, of course, in the middle of a discussion about white people. White anxiety, white males who shoot up mosques and other places, white male misogyny, white entitlement, whites in the White House. That is a necessary discussion to have, and a scary situation for the world to be in. But what I find odd, is that we use the term ‘white’ like we know what we are talking about. Like it is an objective label, just a colour like any other.


What I find odd, is that we use the term ‘white’ like we know what we are talking about. Like it is an objective label, just a colour like any other.


That, as my introduction shows, is not the case at all. As you can see from the hierarchy above, white relates to power. If you are white, you’ve got more power. And the other way around: if you’ve got power, you are supposed to be, or will be described as, white. But who has got power changes over time, and interestingly enough, if your power changes, so does your colour.

Although your skin stays the same, how it is viewed, and how you are, changes. Odd, right?

Until the early 1960s, for instance, the Irish were called ‘white niggers’ in countries like Australia, the US and the UK. There were signs in the windows of shops: ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. Most of the Irish, especially the Catholics, were small scramblers; factory workers, farmhands.

They had little influence in how society functioned, so they were, obviously, not white.

The Irish became white when other migrants came to the West. People who were even less white. Australia got Italians, Spanish, Greeks: wogs, who had ‘a bit of tar’ in them, as it was called them. In comparison with them, the Irish were of a different, higher, class. And with that increase in power, their colour changed. Now nobody would describe an Irish person as black.

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But then again, we don’t call Italians, Greeks or Spanish coloured either. Because there are other, less white groups that have taken their place: first the Lebanese, the Chinese, of course, always, and now people from Somalia and other countries in Africa. So white is not white, if you get my drift.

You are only white if you’ve got power. My last case in point: Jesus. Born in the Middle East, he probably looked a bit like refugee writer Behrouz Boochani. Still, on crosses anywhere in the world, he is white. Power discolours. And it does matter, if you are an expat, a guest worker, a migrant or an alien. Ask the millions who work in Europe.

Ask our own.




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