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What is the origin of the phrase "that's mighty white of you, brother"? Is it simply a racist statement, as it appears to be, or does it have another, older or obscure derivation? I've always wondered whether the statement was straight up racial-superiority idiocy, or if there was another historical origin which might justify its retention in the great bank of English complimentary speech.

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  • Are you looking for the origins of that particular phrase only, or of the use of 'white' to signify 'honorable and/or pure, etc'? Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 4:23
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    Is this in modern usage? I've never heard it before Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 4:47
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    @AzorAhai It's almost never used anymore—because it's commonly considered to be a racist term. (Whether you believe that or not, and whether you believe it's racism targeting blacks or targeting whites, that's how it's taken.) Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 5:17
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    It's a relatively rare term, and likely limited to black and middle-class white speakers (and middle-class whites are rarely "notable" in literature). I first heard it in Minnesota ca 1975 (it would have been considered "radical" in Kentucky where I was born), and have only heard it maybe a half-dozen times since (though I've probably used it myself a few dozen times).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 13:03
  • I was curious about the use of the term "white" which, in the context of this expression, I had always took to mean fair, stand up, or "good of you to have done ___". To our modern ear - better versed in PC ways - very few people would use the expression oblivious to the likelihood that using "white" as a synonym for good begs the assumption that the speaker believes also in its corollary, i.e. that if white=good, then ' black' must be the opposite, i.e. ' bad'. So my question/curiosity pertained to whether this simplistic assumption - if pinewhite is good and black is bad Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 18:54

6 Answers 6

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I've looked around and there are many people who think it's racist because of the impression that it means to be act like a good person, and the association between being a good person and being white is seen as racist. As Hot Licks mentioned one of the most common meanings going around is that the person thinks they did something altruistic or helpful, when in fact their action wasn't appreciated much or at all. For this reason it can have a connotation of thinking you did something good but are actually oblivious to the fact that you were useless. So it's possible it doesn't have racist meaning at all.

I found this meaning in Urban Dictionary and the message board of phrase.org.uk:
phrase.org.uk
Urban Dictionary

However the Wikipedia entry doesn't mention this particular negative association with the term:

A similar American expression is That's mighty white of you, with the meaning of "thank you for being fair".
Play the white man

Furthermore on the phrase.org.uk page someone gave an excerpt from Eric Partridge's "Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British, and it didn't seem to have the connotation of being unhelpful, but possibly a racist one:

Of the US usage, Prof. John W. Clark, 1977, has noted that it was, at first, used seriously--'like a white man, not like a Negro., it just seemed to mean a good or generous person.
phrases.org.uk

Sorry I couldn't find the primary source for that dictionary.

So I can't find a definitive meaning for this one.

Also I found this: Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry) saying "That's mighty white of you" directed I think to a black person. I don't know the context of this one, maybe you can investigate it or figure it out.

That's mighty white of you

I just remembered we had a brand of bread called Mighty White. I'm unsure if it was an allusion to this. These ads are from the late 80s, but I'm pretty sure they were sold into the mid 90s, I think.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1T8_M8Fjy0
https://youtu.be/WRIDroRbDHc?t=2m12s

Their website is still up, no idea if they still sell it. It's marked copyright 2015 and isn't working 100%, so it may be no longer. In today's weird PC world I wouldn't be surprised if people took offence at the mere name of this bread. All I know is they don't sell it where I'm from anymore.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 5, 2018 at 20:17
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Originally used under colonialism and before civil rights, this phrase expressed appreciation for honorable or gracious behavior, under the assumption that white people were inherently more virtuous. Today, it is generally used sarcastically in reference to underwhelming acts of generosity.

-urban Dictionary, which conforms to how I’ve always heard it used

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mighty white of you OED

c. colloq. (orig. U.S.). [Initially] Honourable; square-dealing. Also as adv. Now somewhat rare and generally regarded as offensive.

As in:

2004 T. C. Boyle Inner Circle i. i. 26 I never really got to thank you for what you've done..—it was really white of you.

As recently as 2004 (as in the above) the sense was 'fair'. Now it is rarely used as the working is considered offensive.

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Early instances of 'mighty white of [someone]'

Publishing database searches suggest that the exact phrase "mighty white of [someone]" first reached print fairly late in the nineteenth century. I found eight works published before 1908 that contain the expression. Hamlin Garland is responsible for half of them, including the earliest three.

From Hamlin Garland, "The Night of the Election," in Black Beetles in Amber (1892):

"But if with noble zeal you stay to note / The outcome of your patriotic vote / For Blaine, or Cleveland, and your native land, / Take—and God bless you!—take my overcoat."

"Done, pard—and mighty white of you. And now / guess the country'll keep the trail somehow. / I aint allowed to vote, the Warden said, / But whacked my coat up on old Stanislow."

From Hamlin Garland, Her Mountain Lover (1901):

Hastings himself developed much admiration for the mountaineer. "You must let me see you in London," he said several times. "I'll put you down at my Club; and then, the governor will want to see you in the country."

Jim had no idea of what was involved in being put down at a Club, but he consented. "That's mighty white of you, old man, but I don't know where I shall make down."

...

"Jim, I like you, and I m going to help you sell that mine."

"That's mighty white of you," he replied. " If I don't sell I'm sure side-tracked in Lonesome Valley."

From Hamlin Garland, Hesper (1903):

"I'm a jackass carpenter myself," Nary added.

"You're a jackass, all right—I don't know about the carpenter part," put in a wag, and the tension of the moment was relieved by laughter.

"“That's mighty white of you, boys,” responded Raymond; "and if I could see any way to do it, I'd take your offer, but I don't. However, if you want I to stay in the shack for a day or two, do so; things may clear up by that time."

From Edward Root, Huntington, Jr.: A Romance of To-day (1906):

"What? Throw college away just on this account? I guess not! My father gives me twelve hundred a year; take half of that and we'll get along. You can pay me back in ten years if you want to."

Dick's eyes told all he wanted to say. "That's mighty white of you, Bobby, but it isn't the lack of money that troubles me. I'd be only too glad of the chance to earn my way here. But Father's affairs are in such shape that I've got to pull out. ..."

From Burt Standish, Dick Merriwell's Distrust: Or, The Boy Who Had to Be Watched (1907):

"Merriwell, I want to be a man—a man in the sense that you are a man."

Dick glanced at Ditson in surprise.

"It was mighty white of you, Merriwell, to get me out of that scrape over there. You did it for my sister's sake, I know. But all the same, I am the one whom it most benefited, and I want to thank you sincerely."

Dick Merriwell is described as "the most popular student at Yale," which is where the quoted conversation takes place.

From a reply by the editors to a letter writer in Everybody's Magazine (1907):

Dear Mr. B.: That is a bully letter of yours about the [Ridgway's] Weekly and it was mighty white of you to write it. The man who believes in the Resurrection has the best end of the bargain.

From Hamlin Garland, The Outlaw and the Girl: The Singular Romance of a Girl in the Rocky Mountains, serialized in The Ladies' Home Journal (May & June 1908):

Mrs. Adams lifted one of the coverlets, and stealing softly up was spreading it over the sleeper when he woke with a start, a wild glare of alarm in his eyes. “Oh, it's you,” he said in relief. Then he added, as he felt the extra cover, “That's mighty white of you. Sure you don’t need it?” “We can spare it. But won't you come inside? sorry we drove you out of your cabin.” “That's all right. I’m used to this....

....

She still kept to ambiguous speech. "Wouldn't it be better to give up and take your—misfortune, and begin again? Professor Ward and I will do all we can to help you."

"That's mighty white of you," he responded slowly. But I can't stand the thought of confinement. I've been free as an Injun all my life. Every way of the wind has been open to me. No; just as long as I can find a wild spot I must keep moving. ..."

From Katherine Pettey, "Old Tige—My Pard," in Outdoor Life (June 1908):

You say you'll help me sell my mine an' charge me a little, too; / I shore would like the money an' it's mighty white of you / Fer helpin' so. / But I'm afraid I'll turn you down; you see it's this a-way; / What would you do about ole Tige, fer him you'd have to pay / To let me go.


Assessment

Hamlin Garland grew up in the U.S. Midwest, moved to Boston in 1884 at the age of 24, moved to Chicago in 1893, and traveled to the Yukon in 1898 "to witness the Klondike Gold Rush" (according to Wikipedia). The extent to which he is responsible for the popularization of "mighty white of you" is unclear to me—but he certainly used it early and often. The expression seems to have really taken off in 1910, although it had already made the jump from the backwoods rustics of the early Garland instances to collegiate settings by 1906.

Even with a fair amount of contextual matrix in place, it is difficult to say with any confidence whether the equating of "white" with "kind, friendly, or virtuous" in the earliest occurrences of "mighty white of you" had an intentional racial component or was conceived entirely in terms of white as spotless, virginally pure, or the like.

Eric Partridge & Paul Beale, Dictionary of Catch Phrases, revised edition (1992) has this entry for the expression:

mighty white of you!it's or that's. That's very decent or forgiving or generous of you : C20. Orig. Southern US, it soon became gen. US, and has been heard in UK since the 1930s, often with an understood implication of its origin. Of the U.S. usage, [University of Minnesota professor] J[ohn] W. C[lark] 1977, has noted that 'it was, at first, used seriously – "like a white man, not a Negro", Now used everywhere, by everyone to anyone, but always jestingly (and sometimes sarcastically), and with full consciousness that it is a provincial expression – and not racist'. ...

Professor Clark's explanation would be a lot more persuasive if the expression were, in fact "Orig. Southern US." But the early examples that I came across suggest no such thing.

Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (1986) has this entry:

mighty white of you, sarcastic expression used to refer to patronizing action characterized by putting on airs; sometimes used in pure jest.

Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994) offers a somewhat narrower view of the expression than she did eight years earlier:

THAT'S MIGHTY WHITE OF YOU! A SIGNIFYIN expression referring to someone patronizing you or making up your mind for you; from the perception that whites typically do this to Blacks.

I see no way today to disentangle the racial subtext in the expression from the nonracial one (if the latter even exists today). At least as early as the early 1960s, observers were calling out the human implications of multiple phrases that align on a "white is good, black is bad" interpretation of color. From an unidentified article in Negro History Bulletin volumes 24–25 (1960–1961[?]) [combined snippets]:

There are other ways in which we have come to disrespect ourselves too—subtle ways, ways that affect our subconscious mind and blunt our demand for "Freedom Now," and the human dignity accorded all other peoples. For example, it is difficult to think of even one instance in the English language where the word black is used in anything other that a negative manner. Black market, black sheep, black deed—all carry the connotation of something evil or something bad. Linking this idea from words to people, takes only one easy mental slide. On the other hand when we say, "That's mighty white of you" we mean that's mighty good of you. The white in our flag stands for purity. And, of course, when we tell a harmless, innocent falsehood, that's a "Little white lie" and could not possibly be as bad as a "Big black one."

Perhaps the most interesting point that the writer (who is evidently Black) makes in this excerpt is that "when we say 'That's mighty white of you' we mean that's mighty good of you." I read this statement as indicating that at least some African American speakers (and presumably some European American speakers as well) were using the expression unsarcastically and without intended racial overtones as late as 1960. It seems far likelier that an expression that began without an obvious racially invidious component might find its way into race-neutral African American speech than an expression that began as a bald assertion of White superiority.

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The OED lists the meaning as sense 5c of the adjective white. The OED says it is of American origin. Indeed, as a British person born during WW2, I don't recall having ever heard it used - though I have certainly heard and have been familiar with the term white man used similarly e.g. "he acted the white man and did the decent thing". The OED also has a separate entry for this quoted below.

The notion of white being good, clean and innocent, and black being diabolical, and bad is deeply ingrained in Anglo (and no doubt other European) cultures. Metaphors and expressions such as "pure as the driven snow" are manifold in English.

White

5c. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Honourable; square-dealing. Also as adv. Now somewhat rare and generally regarded as offensive. Cf. white man n. 3. In origin probably chiefly reflecting racial and cultural stereotypes formerly associated with European descent (and hence implying contrast with people of other races), although perhaps partly informed also by sense A. 7a.

1837 M. Huxley in T. M. Cooley Sketches Life & Char. L. Haynes iv. 73 ‘The preacher had not proceeded far in his sermon,’ said the man, ‘before I thought him the whitest man I ever saw.’

1865 ‘M. Twain’ Sketches (1875) 74 The parson..was one among the whitest men I ever see.

1876 W. Besant & J. Rice Golden Butterfly II. v. 83 A good fellow is Rayner; as white a man as I ever knew.

1913 E. Wharton Custom of Country xviii I meant to act white by you.

1948 K. S. Prichard Golden Miles 374 Tom Gough's one of the finest, whitest men ever drew breath. There's not two like him born in a century.

2004 T. C. Boyle Inner Circle i. i. 26 I never really got to thank you for what you've done..—it was really white of you.

White man

  1. slang (orig. U.S.). A man of honourable character. Now somewhat rare and generally regarded as offensive. Cf. white adj. 5c. 1883
    Cent. Mag. 26 913/1 You've behaved to me like a white man from the start. 1887 Pall Mall Gaz. 22 June 5 Tricoupis the President is a white man—an extremely white man. 1936 ‘F. Gerald’ Millionaire in Memories iv. 114 I shouldn't have stayed as long as I did if I hadn't met two ‘white men’—the definition of a ‘white man’ in this case being ‘a decent soul’.
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In comments, Hot Licks wrote:

It's not expressing racial superiority -- quite the opposite. It implies that the target of the epithet is behaving as if he were "entitled" to something. Ie, he is behaving as if he were better than everyone else (when, in fact, he's quite clearly an idiot).

It's a relatively rare term, and likely limited to black and middle-class white speakers (and middle-class whites are rarely "notable" in literature). I first heard it in Minnesota ca 1975 (it would have been considered "radical" in Kentucky where I was born), and have only heard it maybe a half-dozen times since (though I've probably used it myself a few dozen times).

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  • Pretty sure this is a more modern use (to describe podcast-listening, quinoa-eating, sustainable-products-buying, etc.), not the original meaning that the OP's asking about. Commented Dec 19, 2023 at 8:29

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