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.
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.”
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.