This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on DailyKos.
This is a meme that I see coming up again and again: But nobody I know thinks of themselves as white! I’m Dutch-Irish! I’m Norwegian! I’m a proud Polish-American! And so on. A lot of white folks get confused, or hurt, or angry when people of color start talking about how “white folks say this” and “white folks do that.” And most of them get pretty upset when “white” is used as a pejorative term in by people of color and their allies. As a white person who doesn’t take offense at this, I’ll explain the history that lies behind that category called “whiteness” and try to help you understand why “white” has become a shorthand term to describe a power structure that, in truth, most progressives, of any color, should oppose. I will also explain why “white” and “black” are not equivalent descriptions of individuals or groups, since both definitions were imposed by white authorities on both black and white people. This is, by the way, a long-ass essay, because some things are just too complex for sound bites.
As always, a history lesson is a good place to start. In the U.S., in the period leading up to the Civil War, slave or free status often turned on an almost incalculable percentage of “black blood.” Those deemed to possess “black blood” were defined as salable commodities. From the period of Colonization until the Civil War, and even after the Civil War, “black blood” determined where you could live, where you were physically unsafe, where you could work and play, and whether or not you could vote.
In the beginning, the Colonies imported both Africans and indentured servants for use as labor, and the status of Africans was somewhat ambiguous. Slavery had not yet been established as the “peculiar institution” that came to distinguish the U.S. But for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, it was more convenient and attractive to European colonists to retain the labor of African slaves, rather than to allow them the freedom and rights that indentured European servants inevitably earned. Eventually, African descent marked the difference between servants who were to be manumitted and servants who were to retain slave status throughout their lives. Indentured servitude was eventually phased out, and slavery became the foundation of the laboring body that built America. It is important to note that the children of indentured servants were not indentured, but that the children of African slaves inherited the servitude of their mothers. Slavery was thus determined by one’s “African blood,” and the condition was inextricably bound to the notion of “blood” and “blackness.”
I would like to note, here, that European and U.S. notions of Native American “race” were the product of another crucible. Unlike blacks, who were defined as valuable property (or potential property, if free), after a number of failures to successfully enslave Native Americans, they were defined as “non-people” — neither valuable property nor potential American citizens, but members of a vestigial group whose eradication was either celebrated or lamented, on the path to extinction. I cannot follow this trajectory in this diary, but there are very fine Native American bloggers whose work documents the genocidal policy of the U.S—Ojibwa comes immediately to mind.
The problem with the “African blood” demarcation is that, sufficiently diffused, African genetic heritage is invisible. And plenty of African blood was diffuse, due to generations of sexual slavery and rape. Property that can talk and walk just like free people needs to be distinguished in some fashion, and if you can’t see a distinction, you need to invent one. Because African heritage was often invisible after several generations, it became crucial to define the category of people who didn’t possess it: thus “whiteness” was invented. Continue Reading…