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the invention of white people

(This is part two of a three part series on what we talk about when we talk about whiteness. Check out part one here.)

In my last post, I shared my view that although race is a shared, complicated, and complete fiction, common ways of talking about race are such that these fabricated boundaries are often taken as literal fact. But from where did this sure system of human difference emerge?

From the steps of the Montgomery State Capitol building at the conclusion of the Selma march, Martin Luther King described the problem as he understood it:

“The southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow…when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man…and when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide…his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.”

What King is referencing is the historic truth that there were sinister groups of wealthy European-American men (they weren’t yet “white” as we understand it) who came together to figure out ways to prevent their exploited workers of various national backgrounds from working together to oppose their economic predation. In a sinful stroke of brilliance, they decided to offer a thin strand of privilege to some of their human fuel by creating legal and social systems of advantage for people they deemed “white.”

“Through their control of mass media,” King insisted, “they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved.”If you picture monied devils gathered cackling in a castle as lightning crackles outside, theologically speaking you would not be far off. These pioneers began to split apart people groups based on national origin and skin color, enforcing these whimsical distinctions with the full and brutal power of the law.

Generations colluded to codify and propagandize formal rules around who exactly would “count,” racially, as “white,” “black,” or “other,” coining the desperate lie that a person’s genetic ancestry automatically slots each human into a caste system of worth, intelligence, temperament, and social privilege. These rules, while fictive, were not incoherent or random – they, like racism itself, were fully intentional, always linked to persons, economic power, and territorial conquest.

If you have a single African ancestor (one drop of their blood in your veins!), the elites plotted, under the law we will consider you “black” – this, they reasoned, would fulfill the dual purpose of preserving the children of our white-on-black rape as chattel and would multiply the forced labor needed to sustain our slave-fueled economy.

Next, the councils determined: if you have Native American ancestry but do not have a certain “percentage” (or “quantum”) of “non-white blood,” then welcome! you are now considered “white,” which means that we can continue to shrink your Native population in the name of our blatant occupation and theft of your tribal lands.

Human beings have not always attempted to group all the globe’s peoples into wooden categories called “races,” demanding solidarity and sleuthing shared traits from each bloc. Yet my continent’s slavers and social alchemists didn’t have to start their work from scratch – in many ways, they were working directly off a rich European tradition of anthropological classification that continues to serve as modern racism’s template.

The Age of Enlightenment produced in many participants the desire to “rise above” culture, to collect specimens, and to spread the reign of impartial, rational Civilization for the good of all “uncivilized” peoples (read: non-Christians living free from Western colonial rule). A popular pastime materialized among many of these educated thinkers, who drove their scientific minds towards the project of slotting humans into distinct categories and divining which characteristics are innate to each separately evolved race.

Whiteness’ inaugural architects could never quite agree on race’s supposed clear organic markers – some looked at the world’s human population and said there were two races. Others named three, seven, eleven, or twelve subspecies. All erased tribes and tongues and gave each of their pet breeds awful names – Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid. This discordance did not slow the folk scientists in their work of measuring skulls, regulating cranium dimples and nose lengths, publishing books and landing speaking gigs where they taxonomized and assigned worth and intelligence to some persons while advocating for the sterilization and subjugation of others.

pick one

This practice – from which the concept of “the white race” and “white people” was first birthed – emerged in tandem with increased violent and paternalistic contact with foreign peoples, in the form of eager European participation in the African slave trade and the frantic plunder of the “New World.”

The validity of these peculiar classifications has been embraced for centuries. This strained racial logic echoes in the halls of the universities and museums this era produced, in white claims of culturelessness and colorblindness, and in more popular views that race is scientific fact, and not a product of histories of compulsive rationalism and colonial exploitation.

When the United States Census’ creators noted in 2000 that all of their categories “generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country” and “do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria,” they did so specifically to combat this legacy. That is, these categories, and the practice of ethnic data collection itself, has been used as a weapon by those who insist that race is indeed “biological, anthropological, and genetic.”

skulls

This is our cognitive heritage in the West: ruminated in Europe among the founders of modern science, prayerfully invoked to justify chains and slave auctions across oceans, seeded in the United States as a tool for the wealthy to split apart their chattel.

All the rules around race we accept without blinking were carefully concocted by well-fed men, with names, university degrees, and great-great-grandchildren. Charlatan academics in Europe dug up the wells, and poor whites in the United States drank this spiritual poison and swallowed the bastard Eucharist of white supremacy out of desperation rather than malice, internalizing their racial better-ness as a survival mechanism, sanctioning the subjugation of black bodies because they were hungry, because their children were hungry.

The “divisions of race” do not exist as some innate part of “human nature.” As others have observed, there have always been human beings with lighter and darker skin, straighter and curlier hair, taller and shorter stature, brown and blue eyes,  it is the forced grouping of these people into differently-valued races that is a more recent act of colonial violence. There was a time before this current system, and there may, we hope, be a time after the reign of white supremacy.

Now that we’ve heard a bit about race’s foundational history, is there anything we do about it? What are solutions or possible ways forward people of different ethnic backgrounds can speak into this context?

This will be the focus of my final post.

what we talk about when we talk about whiteness

(This is part one of a three part series on “what we talk about when we talk about whiteness.”)

Sometimes I engage in conversations about whiteness that make people bristle. Questions are often raised like: so is “white” automatically wrong? Why is “whiteness” evil? Are you saying “white people” are inherently bad? My impression is that there is a bit of talking past one another that happens in these discussions, so it is my hope to define terms and better flesh out my perspective here.

First, it may be helpful to recognize that “whiteness” can be understood as a synonym for white supremacy: the pervasive belief that people can be hierarchically sorted into separate “races” based on what regions of the world their ancestors came from, and that “the white race” is the best of these groups. This is an ideology that is actively enforced through bodily and psychic violence directed towards the groups of people who are assigned immutable “racial” traits and deemed undesirable.

Secondly, we might note that “whiteness” as a social and historical trend has relatively little to do with skin color. Indeed, what constitutes “being white” today is not the same thing as fifty, much less two hundred and fifty years ago. German, Greek, Jewish, Irish, Spanish, and Italian immigrants to the United States are all examples of ethnic groups once rejected for their racial inferiority, considered subordinate, but who are today viewed as an allied coalition of groups under the banner of being fully and simply white.

To interrogate these supposedly stone-ingrained logics, we might ask: are the Sami people “white?” Is each new mixed race person the marker of another race? Are Armenians and Iranians, whose countries the Caucasus mountain range runs through, actually Caucasian? Although the United States has historically classified “Middle Eastern” people as white, explosions of anti-Arab antagonism, from lynching to post-9/11 attacks and hate crimes, make it clear that although Central and West Asian people must continue to check “white”on the census, they are not so easily absorbed into whiteness.

Then and now, cultural groups can be either pushed out of the good graces of whiteness, or ushered deeper into its realm, for good time served. The tricky racial alchemy by which a people are made into an inferior or superior race might be called the careful art of “racecraft” – the pseudo-scientific assigning of humans into categories of worth based on each race’s “fixed” physical characteristics and emotional temperaments.

This washing white of ethnicities once considered “non-white” or less-than has always been tied to the economies of immigration, finance, and the preservation of political power. We can unearth these legacies through a basic historical surveying in which we are not left to guesswork – we can easily track popular definitions of race over time, through perusing government documents, editorials, exclusionary laws, formal propaganda, and the analysis of formal tools of measuring race like the official United States census.

Through this social archaeology, what we might detect is that although it is often invisible, whiteness is never neutral – rather than a neat tool for categorizing individuals based on skin pigmentation, it has historically served as an organizing principle for the gifting of power to some and for the social predation and economic disenfranchisement of others.

gift of whiteness

When James Baldwin verbally jousted with an interviewer in July of 1968, insisting that white “is not a color, [but] an attitude,” he was pointing out that there is no actual biological classification for “being white.” There is no defined genetic criteria you can meet to enter this category and there is no country or region of the world called “whiteland.” If you believe you are “white,” you are generally acknowledging you have been socialized into a majority “cultureless” culture, and lost, to some degree, the traditions your ancestors held. “You’re as white as you think you are,” Baldwin insisted, “It’s your choice.”

As author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ has explained, while today we ask questions about “the black race” and “the white race” and think this framework legitimate, seventy years ago Americans spoke as if “the Japanese race” were a distinct entity. One hundred and fifty years ago Southerners believed that their “white” Northern foes were actually a separate racial group, “a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs” rather than the descendants of Jacobite and Huguenot settlers like them, the noble “Southern race.”

“I think race is oppression, and nothing else,” writes the Irish socialist writer Richard Seymour in a blog post called “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.”  What he is revealing is that the belief that race is reality, and not epic fantasy, drives the mechanisms by which we continue to harm each other based on culture and physical appearance. Because there is no medical or biological definition of race we must acknowledge that “race” is only linked to powerful systems of Enlightenment-era classification and colonial exploitation. Our compulsive desire to coalesce cultures into discrete racial groups has undergirded many of the most awful social projects in human history, including Eugenics and the Holocaust.

We must name this awful duplicity – the odd truth that it is actually our own dogged determination to assign race that creates racism. That is, it’s not the “fact” of race that fosters discrimination. It is in believing in the “reality” of race – insisting that each separate continent has essentially “birthed” its own discrete racial group with its own innate characteristics – that gives rise to the practice of prejudice.

Race is oppression and nothing else – it is a fictional belief maintained by physical violence, undergirded by a gnostic and colonial insistence that our individual bodies and cultures do not matter and should be either crushed by or subsumed into Something Bigger. Now, as much as our culture of American individualism might profess the importance of personal agency, an odd racial formula seems to persist – if you and your immigrant descendants remain in the United States long enough, as long as you meet certain criteria, you can be treated as white.

What are those criteria? Community organizer Scot Nakagawa has pointed out that “anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy,” by which he means that whiteness by nature is constantly positing itself above and against blackness as its opposite, the sole defining mark of unwelcome, antithetical otherness. Among the only requirements for smooth participation into whiteness is that you are at least a) willing to be treated as the dominant racial group and b) okay with being anti-black.

Segregation sign

To be white is not about your skin color but about your ready socialization into a privileged group membership that defines itself against blackness, a legacy emerging from an understanding of black bodies as fuel, the needed refuse by which a capitalist, slave labor economy can sustain itself. As long as blackness is its opposite point, whiteness is willing to cross all sorts of awkward ethnic lines in strange, irrational ways in order to ensure its survival.

For example, when my father, a Japanese man from the big island of Hawai’i, was told to check “White Other” on his census form when entering the police academy, he was being invited to erase our culture under the guise of a benign, gift-wrapped welcome into social privilege, instructed to do so by defining himself primarily against blackness.

Japanese Americans who visited the segregated South from concentration camps were sometimes confused when they were ordered by bus drivers to move up from the “colored” section and sit at the front of the bus, as their very presence frustrated determined “whites good/blacks bad” binary logic. The cases of various Asian Americans who petitioned the courts to be either legally treated as white or as black are all revelatory of whiteness’ frantic, obsessive drive to organize immigrant groups against black people, who are viewed as the idle, perpetual counterpoint of the American dream.

When we say race is a “social construction,” we are saying it is a “shared delusion.” It is a superstition we all participate in spreading, whose sacred power is fueled by our active belief in its existence. Our understanding of race itself is a porous, shifty thing that has changed over the centuries, and continues to morph along the fault lines of political power today. There are well-established historic reasons for this logic and other racial classifications, and it is to this point that I will turn in the second part of this post.