I have been using the “Who’s White Exercise?” for years in my classes (I also did a “Who’s Black?” version once in my African American sociology class.) There are several points to the assignment, but I would like to highlight a few of them. One of the primary points of the exercise is to point out that race is a social construction. The exercise demonstrates this because the answers vary and the reasons given are often unrelated to biology, and in many cases unrelated to phenotypical appearance. I always tell the students to look around and see what others say, so they can get a sense of the level of agreement. What also inevitably happens is that debates break out for some of the groups (as you can see in the comments section of the thread.) This lets us know that race is also contested. We don’t agree, and the definition is influx. Most of my students take race for granted. They think it is biological, and they think it is fairly straight forward. My other goal is to get them to understand that race is not so simple or straight forward.
I also wanted to use this exercise to create a “whiteness scale.” I don’t typically do this in class, but this exercise is a little harder to do on line. I compiled all of the answers on this site and Rachel’s Tavern (Total of 27 answers.) If people said that a group was not white I gave the group a zero. If people gave ambiguous answers or “sort of” answers I gave the group a 1, and if they said white, I gave the group a two. I tallied the results. If people said, they do not know I didn’t fill in any answers. After this I tabulated a “whiteness score.” On this scale score could range from 0 to 2, with zero indicating that no one thought the group was white and 2 indicating that everyone thought the group was white. Of course, the two sites I posted on will not generate a random sample, but I still think it is instructive to think about “whiteness” as a sort of continuum rather than a rigid box. Here is how the groups ranked based on your answers (from least white to most white):
Iranians, Chileans, and Israelis drew very diverse answers. Many people labeled them white, many labeled them not white, and others thought they were somewhere in between. Other groups like Cameroonians, Chinese and Nigerians we mostly considered not white, and on the other end of the spectrum English, Germans, and Irish were almost always considered white. What do you think about this chart? Why do you think each groups falls where it does? Does any group surprise you?
Many people thought that there was a “hidden trick” to the exercise. This happens in class too, and the students usually think they have figured it out when we get to “Americans” (which is why I put this last on the original list). They believe that I am trying to get them to say Americans are white. Changeseeker also brought up another point about the term Americans, which occasionally leads people to think they are being tricked, sometimes people will say “North Americans or South Americans?” What I have generally found is that my students only worry about this with the American category, not other countries most of whom also have a somewhat mixed population. This generally provides an opportunity to talk about the US’s image here and abroad. Are we viewed as a white country? Do we view ourselves that way? Do others view us that way? Nevertheless, this really isn’t the main point.
The main point is to get people to think about race, and not take it for granted. Race is generated out of collective knowledge. In other words it’s sociological, and the best way to understand it is to see it debated and discussed. Because contemporary racial ideology tends to squash open discussions of race; many people never get the chance to see or discuss race in public company and in mixed race company. Once this is done, the unstable nature of race emerges.