For whatever reason, many white Americans seem to think that ‘white’ = WASP (white Anglo Saxon Protestant) and that folks whose forebears came over on the Mayflower are the actual whites, not the Italians, Russian Jews, Irish Catholics, etc. It’s certainly true that non-Anglo European ethnic groups were once considered nonwhite. But the definition of whiteness changed generations ago to encompass pretty much any European ethnicity that embraced white supremacy. So nonwhites from Europe got to become white ethnic Americans and enjoy white privilege. And nonwhites from every other continent remained nonwhite…because what’s the point of being white if there are no nonwhite people around to oppress?
Yet I’ve had many conversations with white Americans who’ve tried to employ that throwback definition of whiteness, to treat ‘white’ as though it only means ‘WASP’. Conveniently, this distancing from whiteness tends to only occur during conversations about racism. I don’t think they realize that whiteness is achieved, but that non-whiteness is thrust upon you. Their European ancestors gladly handed in their nonwhite badges as soon as they were able to do so. This was an opportunity that many others at the time did not have (though some tried) because their ethnicity was visible in their skin color, hair texture, eye shape, etc.
What’s particularly annoying is when white Americans not only deny their whiteness, but attempt to use their immigrant ancestry to appropriate ‘person of color’ as an identity. ‘People of color’ was devised as a positive, empowering alternative to terms like ‘minorities’ and ‘nonwhites’, which can be inaccurate or suggest otherness and inferiority. The term subverts the usual racial dynamic by suggesting that white people lack color instead of us lacking whiteness. ‘People of color’ is a specifically racial term. It does not mean ‘ethnic people’ or ‘non-WASPs’.
It is also a modern term that began gaining prominence by being employed by racial justice advocates in the 1960s and ’70s. It is nonsensical and self-serving to use an archaic definition of non-whiteness in order to claim a label that modern nonwhites popularized.
So the fact that your ethnicity wasn’t considered white generations ago doesn’t mean you can get away with claiming to be nonwhite or a person of color today. You still benefit from white privilege. And claiming POC status so on the basis of your Euro ethnic identity is particularly offensive since your ancestors chose to leave non-whiteness behind by stepping on black people, Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, and other nonwhites on their way up the racial hierarchy.
Some further reading: