Updated: Apr 3, 2021
There have been a few outstanding moments in my life when the foundation of my perspective shifted so dramatically that I no longer had access to my former self. I'm feeling a bit like that now, as I turn the lens around and explore the notion of whiteness itself, where it comes from, and why it's here, how it functions and has changed over time, and how it negates our country's ability to live up to its ideals. And then, of course, where I stand within.
When I'd thought about race, I tended to focus on people of color, with whiteness almost a non-issue — when in fact it is the defining issue. And though I'd known that race has been defined as a social construct, I clearly never understood, more than superficially, what that meant. So, let's begin there.
A 'social construct' is defined as something that does not exist in objective reality, but because humans agree that it exists. So, somewhere along the way — actually less than a century ago — humans decided that race should be a thing. It's literally manmade. And even though racial scientists tried for centuries to pin race on biology, we now know from the Genome Project, that all humans are 99.9% genetically the same, and that race is not biological. Nature didn't make humans into distinct races, Humans invented race. But why?
Even though racial scientists tried for centuries to pin race on biology, we now know from the Genome Project, that all humans are 99.9% genetically the same, and that race is not biological. Nature didn't make humans into distinct races, Humans invented race.
As complicated as the history is, the answer is pretty simple. The concept of race was invented to justify slavery and other forms of human exploitation. If you begin to look at the evolution of race — and, by extension, the evolution of whiteness — it becomes clear that it's about power. White people wanted it, they constructed race to attain it, built systems around race to keep it, reinforced structures in our culture to bolster it, and changed laws and policy to make sure white supremacy continued to reign. That is a lot to unpack. Let's do it.
Okay, science now tells us that, a couple hundred thousand years ago, we were all African. Over time, our ancestors left Africa, spread out to other climates, people lost their melanin in the colder areas, and we all turned different shades, from the darkest to the lightest of us. Back then, there was no notion of race, so you need to fast forward to the beginnings of Western Civilization, in the 15th century, to understand where and how it began.
If you begin to look at the evolution of race — and, by extension, the evolution of whiteness — it becomes clear that it's about power. White people wanted it, they constructed race to attain it, built systems around race to keep it, reinforced structures in our culture to bolster it, and changed laws and policy to make sure white supremacy continued to reign.
At that time, people everywhere classified themselves and 'others' according to what clan, tribe, kingdom, locale, religion and/or other identities they belonged to. They could see human differences in height, and skin color, but those differences were explained according to religion, climate, geography, cultural habits, even wealth, but not yet by 'race' — until there was a need to justify slavery. Once the first slaves were brought from Africa to Portugal, it was then that these humans, Africans, were labeled as "inferior beings who lived like beasts." These writings and words spread, and were commandeered by the British slave traders, who also needed to justify their slave trade into the 1600s. And so the codification of Black people begins.
You see, there was this New World: a burgeoning economy of wealth accessible through the labor-intensive industries of cotton, rice, and sugar — but without cheap labor, unattainable. So white people stole this labor, de-humanized the laborers, enslaved this labor, and then propagated literary and scientific fake news to justify the idea that they should be able to exploit these people because they were inferior.
Coming full circle to the idea of the social construct: if the people who were to be placed in the lowest caste in society had the capacity to be equal, what would justify enslaving them? The answer was that they could not be equal — that they had to, biologically or otherwise, be inferior. And so, racism became the justification, born out of the need for exploitation to gain wealth and power.
If the people who were to be placed in the lowest caste in society had the capacity to be equal, what would justify enslaving them?
By the 1600s, scientists like Carolus Linnaeus tried to group humanity into categories that validated the 'natural order,' and named four human 'races' corresponding to the then-known four continents: Europe, America, Asia and Africa. And then came the Age of Enlightenment (18th century), where we see scholars starting to classify humanity into groups that came to be called 'races,' newly defined according to body characteristics like eye color, skin color, height and even skull measurements (Johann Blumenbach tied skull measurements into five human 'varieties': African, Tahitian, Asian, Native American and the highest ranking — and first use of the word — Caucasian). I mean, you can't just kidnap and enslave millions of human beings without reason, can you?
Still later, anthropologists would say, no, it's not 4 or 5 races, it's actually 3: Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid. Images I vividly remember from my social studies textbooks, presenting race as a scientific, biological fact. So untrue. So duped. And this idea of whiteness versus 'other,' this exploitation of Black Americans, this pillar that holds up our caste society, has been baked into Western imperialism and pervades every system and structure in our society today.
Because even though race may have been invented by white people, the effects of race as this social construct on Black communities is very real, from wealth distribution, health issues, mass incarceration, to educational access and equity. It is on this construct, this ideology, that we have built a nation.
In the process of learning and growing my brain (as we like to say at my place of work), I came across a pretty incredible podcast, Scene On Radio's "Seeing White." I highly recommend making your way through the 14 episodes of Season 2 (and then some) with the humble and provocative, John Biewen as host, and his erudite and thoughtful partner, Chenjerai Kumanyika. So many important stories they tell, but I keep thinking about something Kumanyika said in one of the episodes: "I don't know what it means about trying to salvage the idea of 'good whiteness,' you know, when was whiteness good?"
When was whiteness good? Pause. Repeat. It's a reckoning for sure. But maybe, as I become more aware of where my privilege comes from, and the role that I can play in combatting white supremacy, I can begin to change the meaning of my whiteness to be closer to the goodness I see in myself.