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White, White, White . . . Non-white? 
No Country for Old Men


Andrea Mantegna, "The Adoration of the Magi," circa 1495–1500

1,216 words

In daily life, how do we determine who’s white?

Most whites never think about this. We have a psychological tendency to assume the answer is obvious.

All of us are locked irrevocably within ourselves, within the context of our personal lives and experiences and, especially, within a (very) narrow slice of historical time.

But from a slightly longer historical perspective, the issue looms larger.

The line between whites and non-whites is fast disappearing due to massive non-white immigration, the suppression of every barrier to interracial social and sexual intercourse, widespread hybridization (the multiplication of part-whites, whose racial makeup is difficult to ascertain), suppression of white consciousness and identity, and cultural homogenization (misleadingly referred to as “Americanization” or “Westernization”).

Cultural homogenization is significant because we often distinguish foreigners not by external physical traits but by cultural cues. If such cues are leveled or eliminated, reliance upon physical appearance (phenotype) alone, which as a practical matter is usually all we have to go by, becomes exceedingly difficult.

This is particularly true with Jews, who frequently look white and more often than the members of any other group actively conceal their ethnic identity. Think of name-changing alone. Names are important cultural cues. Name-changing suffices to significantly disguise the Jewish presence in host countries.

The problematic nature of phenotypic identification of so-called “brown” and “red” men (to use Lothrop Stoddard’s terms) also increases greatly once cultural leveling occurs.

This is because we key on skin, hair, and eye pigmentation to identify people as white. (Think of the havoc wreaked by the universal dying of hair.) And the unconscious models we employ for this are northern and eastern Europeans.

Southern Europeans (“Mediterraneans,” “Latins”) and peoples originating along the southeastern Eurasian land divide, are sometimes impossible to distinguish from non-European Caucasians or Amerindians.

In those cases we can distinguish, we often employ residual (still surviving) cultural cues rather than physical race to make the determination. As long as such cues exist, are authentic and correctly interpreted, they can be enormously helpful, even render racial identification simple.

Still, we must recognize in such cases that we are not relying primarily or solely upon physical race.

The unfortunate truth seems to be that the only races whites can consistently differentiate on a purely physical basis are black-skinned peoples such as sub-Saharan Africans and Australoids, and unmixed East Asians.

The psychological ability to identify race is probably analogous to facial recognition. According to anthropologist Peter Frost [2],

Natural selection tends to hardwire recognition of objects that regularly appear in our visual environment. One such object is the human face. As shown by Zhu et al. (2009) through a twin study, the ability to recognize faces is innate and not learned. This heritability is further shown by the two extremes of prosopagnosics and “super-recognizers.” The former cannot recognize faces better than any other object, whereas the latter have exceptional face recognition ability.

It seems likely that sensitivity to racial differences (absent cultural cues) is similar to this, with some people highly sensitive to differences and others insensitive.

Suppression of white consciousness and identity must also be taken into account. Social and legal suppression of identity dulls or eliminates the ability to make racial distinctions. Explicit race consciousness is a survival prerequisite formerly, but no longer, instilled by the culture.

To illustrate some of these points, think about the Coen brothers’ film No Country for Old Men (2007). Here is the movie trailer. I’m not certain the clip will suffice to make my point for those who haven’t seen the movie, but those who have will know what I mean.

No Country for Old Men (2007) Trailer


http://youtu.be/YBqmKSAHc6w [3] [2:26 mins.]

In the film, you look at each major character in turn, save one, and instinctively think to yourself, “white, white, white, white . . .” This is true even of the minor characters shown in the clip.

But one major character (assuming you don’t know beforehand, and don’t peek by researching) is different. You will automatically think to yourself, “Non-white.”

This raises two questions:

What is the intended race of the fictional character in the film—and why do we think so?


What is the real-life race (or mixture) of the actor portraying the character, and the implications of this?

The actor and character are not black-skinned. They fit instead into the vast range of highly problematic brown- and red-skinned races. (I don’t know where the usage of “red” to indicate skin color originated [but see here [4]], although Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus and others were employing the term even in the 1700s. Amerindian skin isn’t red; it’s brown.)

The task of thinking about race in the context of No Country for Old Men is a useful practical exercise in the study of “whiteness.” The actors we pick out as unequivocally “white” are unmixed northern Europeans—a rapidly diminishing breed.

In an interesting sidelight, Kelly Macdonald, the actress who played Josh Brolin’s wife, is Scottish. Seeing her interviewed, I assumed from her looks and pronounced accent that she was Irish, because Scots are rarely seen nowadays, whereas Irish are quite common. (Of course, many Irish settled in Scotland and England.) Perhaps also I can’t distinguish Irish and Scottish accents; at least I couldn’t within the context of the brief interview I saw.

I should break in to mention that in the interview, Macdonald described her character in a positive light. But in a separate interview, the directors (who also wrote the screenplay), after praising Macdonald’s work in the obligatory manner typical of Hollywood, laughingly denigrated her character, who, as one of them put it, “lives in a double-wide [trailer] and works at Wal-Mart” in a blatantly racist way. This comes as no surprise to viewers of the Coens’ films, which display a peculiar, deeply implicit and crudely overt anti-white prejudice distinctive to Jews.

In the movie, Macdonald was required to play a character with a West Texas accent. The accent differs markedly from her native speech.

Accents, like foreign languages, are cultural cues. Remove these cues by homogenization or deception, and we become easily confused about race and ethnicity.

Macdonald did not speak a large number of lines in the movie, but her accomplishment was impressive nevertheless. It was a surprise to hear her real speech. Not knowing anything about her when I saw the movie, I assumed she was American (though not necessarily Texan).

A more impressive exhibition of the same skill is provided weekly by English-born actor Hugh Laurie, star of the American TV hospital drama House [5]. When interviewed, he has a pronounced accent; but over many years on the television program he has spoken thousands of lines in American English without the slightest trace of the accent.

The presumptively non-white character in No Country for Old Men likewise speaks with a foreign accent, a cultural cue which, combined with his phenotype and the movie’s Texas setting, is one of several attributes that cause us to conclude with a high degree of certainty that he is non-white.

In real life, the actor who played the part fortunately married actress Penélope Cruz instead of someone like, say, Kelly Macdonald. (The couple has a son; Macdonald married a fellow Scot, and also has a son.)

What about this statement, which reflects my true feeling? Viscerally, does it strike you as offensive, or acceptable?