The Idea of Whiteness

The Idea of Whiteness

This week, in the context of continuing our previous blogposts about banned books and the demonization of CRT (Critical Race Theory), we’re going to touch on, albeit in a cursory manner, the subject of Whiteness.

As regular readers know, I’ve tried tackling this subject before, notably, in “The Heart of Whiteness” (June 22, 2020), and “A Meditation on Whiteness”(March 15, 2021). Let’s give it another go. Perhaps the legal intricacies of CRT will seem less obscure (not that it matters to people who would weaponize the subject and scream their outrage that it’s being taught to kindergarten kids — which it’s not). In any event, the subject certainly bears repetition. And perhaps that subject might seem less alien and frightening if we put the emphasis where it really belongs: on Whiteness.

Because Critical Race Theory really is a story about Whiteness. We don’t have space to go into the long history of Whiteness or the ways in which it’s different from other racial and ethnic identities because it’s clearly had a different history than they have. As Robert P. Baird pointed out a few years ago in The Guardian, “across 3 1/2 centuries Whiteness has been wielded as a weapon on a global scale; Blackness, by contrast, has often been used as a shield.” (As W.E.B. DuBois put it, what made Whiteness new and different was “the imperial width of the thing — the heaven-defying audacity.”)

As Baird pointed out, it’s easy enough to agree in theory that the only reasonable moral response to the history of White supremacy is the abolitionist stance i.e., to make Whiteness meaningless as a group identity, to shove it into obsolescence alongside “Prussian” and “Etruscan.” James Baldwin described Whiteness as being a moral choice, as a way of emphasizing that it was not a natural fact. But Whiteness is more than that; it is a dense network of moral choices, the vast majority of which have been made for us, often at times and places far distant. In fact, Whiteness is a problem like sexism or climate change or economic inequalities: so thoroughly imbricated in the structure of our everyday lives that it makes the idea of moral choices look quaint.

Yet Whiteness is a complete myth, a fantasy, a fiction.

Science clarifies this once and for all: read Spencer Wells’ The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, to grasp that this is all simply about how much Vitamin D you have in your body, which melanin can absorb and which determines pigmentation of skin. That’s IT.

In general, White Americans have polled as seeing that attention to racial issues signifying a major change in American attitudes about race all fell far short of those changes actually leading to policies ameliorating racial inequality. At the same time, this new focus on race has prompted confusion among White people unused to thinking of themselves in racial terms–because they assume that they are the generic. Half of White Americans still think there is “too much” discussion of racial issues, and a similar proportion suggests that seeing racism where it doesn’t exist is a bigger problem than not seeing racism where it does. Yet nearly everywhere in contemporary society “White” is presumed to be a meaningful index of identity that, like age and gender, is important enough to get mentioned in news, accounts, tallied in political polls, and recorded in government databases. Yet what that identity is supposed to tell us is still substantially in dispute. Whiteness resembles time as seen by Saint Augustine: we presume we understand it as long as we’re not asked to explain it, but it becomes inexplicable as soon as we’re put to the test.

A little more than a century ago, in his essay “The Souls of White Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois proposed a durable insight: the discovery of personal Whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a mid 19th and 20th century matter — and a racial category like Whiteness is more akin to a religious belief than a biological fact.

With only slight exaggeration, we can say that one of the most crucial developments in the discovery of “personal Whiteness” took place during the second half of the 17th century, on the periphery of the still young British empire. Historians have largely confirmed Du Bois’ suspicions that the invention of a White racial identity was motivated by Eric Williams, who later became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago; in other words, “Slavery was not born out of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

There was an overlap here — a vital one — with religiosity, in particular Christianity.

Whiteness itself became the watchword for purity (particularly for White women). And that religious overlap soon morphed into a legal one, with colonial laws giving special privileges to Christians who, as the laws’ authors, apparently never entertained the possibility that Africans might someday wish to become Christians themselves. And, too, there was the economic utility of the idea of Whiteness, which helped it spread rapidly around the world. In effect, it was a religion, since like religion it operated on every psychological, sociological, economic, and political scale from the most intimate to the most public. Moreover, it proved wonderfully adaptable to local conditions! What it meant to be White in British Virginia was not identical to what it would mean in New York before the American Civil War, or in India during the Raj, in Georgia during Jim Crow, in Australia after federation, or in Germany during the Third Reich. But what united all these expressions is a singular idea: the same group of people called White was naturally superior to all others.

The idea of Whiteness, in other words, was identical to the idea of White supremacy. It infected everyone. Even Gandhi, during the early part of his life, argued that “the English and Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan, and the White race in South Africa should be the proper dominating race.”

What’s more, White supremacy – the idea of Whiteness — was a movable feast. On the one hand, there was the nonsense logic that claimed anyone with Black ancestry could not be White and regulated the boundaries of Whiteness: the one drop rule in the US, for example. There were endless arguments over what “Caucasian” was supposed to mean, over the “honorary Aryan” status that Hitler extended to the Japanese, and so forth. Yet if the religion of Whiteness was never able to gain acceptance as an unchallenged scientific fact, it was hugely successful at shaping social reality. In 1751, Ben Franklin could claim that only the English and Saxons “make a principal body of White people on the face of the Earth,” and nearly 80 years later Ralph Waldo Emerson would insist that the Irish, like the Chinese and the Native Americans, were not Caucasian. Over time, however, the definition of who counted as culturally White expanded to include Catholics from southern Europe, the Irish, and even Jews, who for centuries had been seen as quintessential outsiders. So Whiteness was an expanding category, and all the while it secured its power through conscripting laws, institutions, customs, and churches to enforce its prerogative. Furthermore, it relied on the threat of force and on force itself – the near total extinction of Indigenous peoples in North America, Belgian atrocities in Congo, the bloody colonization of India and east Africa and Australia by Britain, the equally bloody colonization of north Africa and west Africa and Southeast Asia by France, the deployment of The Final Solution in Nazi Germany, and the apartheid state in South Africa — of which these are merely the most extreme examples.

In the 1980s and ’90s, a group of legal scholars that included Derek Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Richard Delgado produced a body of research that became known as critical race theory, which, in Bells’ words, was “ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in and by law.” Alongside critical race theory, and in many ways derived from it, “Whiteness Studies” took shape: historians working in the sub field demonstrated the myriad ways in which the pursuit of White supremacy, like the pursuit of wealth and the subjection of women, had been one of the central forces that shaped Anglo American history. But by the mid 2000s the “color blind” ideological system had become so successful that it managed to shield from censure even the most blatant operations of Whiteness: overwhelming numbers of White people in corporate board rooms, for instance, or in the media, or in tech industries. Additionally, Whiteness has managed to escape predictions of demographic doom by integrating select groups it had previously kept on its margins.

The truth is, we don’t need to become colorblind — we desperately need to become color literate. Whiteness may seem inevitable and implacable, and Toni Morrison had it right when she said that the world “will not become unracialized by assertion.” Even so, after 350 years, Whiteness still is only an idea, not a fact. It’s up to us to transform that idea, and that change must begin with the idea of ourselves.