Just as “Blackness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and shades of brown—beginning around the time Gomes De Zurara’s bogus descriptions of African peoples as a beastly lot, in order to justify Prince Henry’s enslaving prowess—so “Whiteness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and lighter shades of brown to form the “White Race.” There simply was no such thing as “White People,” the “White Race,” or “Whiteness” as a concept defining distinct people-groups until, really, the turn of the 18th century.
Prior to the development of colonial governments in the Americas, people-groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of 6 years under British common law.
“Whiteness,” a Created Concept, with Purpose and Effect
A notable divide first appears in the American record when, in 1640, a group of indentured servants, mostly of European descent, escaped from their master in Virginia and were captured. When the captives were sentenced, John Punch—the lone African—was sentenced to life long servitude, whereas the Europeans were simply given additional years of service.
Next, Elizabeth Keys, the daughter of a wealthy European man and an African slave, sued and won her freedom in 1656. How? Because her father was European, had asked for her emancipation in his will, and she was a baptized Christian. Laws were soon changed to state that the status of a child was to come from the mother and not from the father, coupled with laws stating that non-European men could not have marital relations with European women, effectively allowing “white” men the special status of having sex with and impregnating whom they will, while their offspring would increase their human property. Just five years later, it was also determined by the Virginia General Assembly that Christian baptism would not require manumission.
Then in 1682, The House of Burgesses limited citizenship to those of European descent alone, specifically excluding “Negroes, Moors, Mullatoes, and Indians” who were to be considered “slaves to all intents and purposes.” And, largely, in response to Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-7), wherein both European and African slaves revolted against their masters, legal protections for indentured servants were granted to all and only those with “Christian” nations of origin (Virginia Slave Codes 1705), with the “Negro” alone failing to meet the stated conditions for such protections, becoming thereby the lone permanent chattel slave class.
Why the Slave Codes? To ensure that Europeans, no matter how poor, landless, or indentured, would never again unite in rebellion with the permanent slave class, viz., those of African descent. But, in 1690 we see the first use of “white,” as distinguishing a people-group, in the legal code, via Virginia’s House of Burgesses:
Whatsoever English or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro, mullato, or Indian man or woman, bond or free, shall within three months after marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever.
“White” was now a legal category, and included all of European descent—specifically all those not “negro, mullato, or Indian.” (“Indians” would likewise later be excluded from life-long servitude, as had the Irish been excluded before them.)
In the 18th century, we are also given pseudo-scientific reasoning to buttress this created category of “Whiteness,” through, e.g., Carolus Linnaeus’ and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s fabricated anthropological “race” categories. Of course, “Whites” or “Caucasians” were determined to be the undisputed superior race. It was also at this time, though already disproven by Robert Boyle a century earlier, that the Curse of Ham was peddled by Christians to claim the “White Race” as descendants of Shem, the “Negro Race” the descendants of Ham, with the latter cursed by God Himself to perpetual slavery under the former.
Last, we could say the needle of “Whiteness” was fully threaded at the first gathering of the then newly formed U.S. Congress in 1790. The first census counted only white men over 16, white men under 16, white women, all other free persons, and slaves (at 3/5’s). But even more importantly, the very first act of this very first United States Congress, the Naturalization Act of 1790—deciding who were to be considered citizens, who could vote, receive land, etc.—excluded all non-Whites:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof….
It is no wonder that the Dred Scott decision would later declare,
When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its ‘people or citizens.’ Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them.
Of course, “citizens,” as stated many times throughout the decision, included only the so-called “white race.”
It is also no wonder that, in the 20th century, men like Takao Ozawa (Japanese) and Bhagat Singh Thind (East Indian) would have to prove their “whiteness” in federal court in order to receive citizenship—and no wonder that both were denied, and on contradictory grounds. Ozawa had adopted Christianity, was light skinned, and spoke only English, but was denied because he was not Caucasian; Thind proved that he was Caucasian, but was denied the very next year based on religion and skin color (see Takao Ozawa v. U.S.  and U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind ).
(For a fuller history, with primary sources and citations for the above outline, please see the series starting with “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to ‘Partus Sequitur Ventrem’.”)
I would further argue that, following the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction, and 100 years of both legal and de facto nationwide Jim Crow, it is no wonder that in the 21st century the average “white” child is born into a family with ten to twenty times the wealth of his “black” peer (HERE and HERE and HERE), is twice as likely to live through infancy (HERE), 2.5 times as likely to live in a two-parent household (HERE) (though will likely spend less time with his father than his black peer [HERE]), is much more likely to go to a well-funded, academically superior school (HERE and HERE), is more likely to be put into advanced coursework as opposed to remedial or special needs coursework, regardless of ability (HERE); the white child is likely to live in de facto segregated neighborhoods, attend de facto segregated schools, and worship in de facto segregated churches (HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), is much more likely to make it to college without being incarcerated, even if he commits the same or similar crimes as his black peer (HERE, HERE, and HERE), is more likely to graduate from college (HERE), is much less likely to be shot and killed by a police officer (HERE), is more likely to secure a job, even with precisely the same resume (HERE and HERE), is likely to be paid more for the same work (HERE), is likely to accumulate 3 times the net worth of his black peer (HERE and HERE), is likely to have significantly more wealth mobility, while his black peer is more likely to spend what he has to care for his aging parents (HERE and HERE), is much more likely to own a home (HERE), will likely have greater access to healthcare, and the care his black peer does receive is likely to be lower quality (HERE), and in the end, the white child is even likely to outlive his black peer (HERE).
“Whiteness,” the Pejorative
To be frank, this is why people speak pejoratively of “Whiteness.” “Whiteness” is not a natural category, not a creational category, nor even an ancient category. It is also not definitionally the many individuals of various nations, tribes, and tongues that it has been historically used to enfranchise and aggrandize. No, “whiteness” is a socially created system and concept designed for the very purpose of according rights, privileges, and legal standing. It was inscribed into law, society, culture, and the hearts and minds of men and women for generations as a shibboleth of biological, intellectual, and moral superiority—and of course, the right to exercise such superiority.
In the colonies, “Whiteness” replaced “…of Christian national descent” in order to make permanent comrades of European poor, landless, or indentured servants and European governors, property owners, and businessmen, aligning them against stolen Africans, imported to be treated as their livestock, with no rights, and who alone would legally suffer permanent life-long servitude—they and their children. It was used in the creation of the United States government to allot rights, citizenship, and distribution of voting power. It was used in the church to determine legitimate leadership. It was used in the post-war South to determine employment, access, voting, and civil rights. It was used nationwide to determine living arrangements, neighborhoods, union protections, and access to industry. It was used to allocate FHA loans and GI Bill benefits—the two greatest wealth distribution projects in American history.
And lest we continue on too long, let us note that it is still used to define normalcy, American nativism, the non-“ethnic,” the unmarked, the not-“other”, the socially safe, the likely moral, the likely educated, and, ironically, even the right to define and determine the course, guidelines, and rules of the race discussion itself. In short,
“Whiteness,” like “colour” and “Blackness,” are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior. (Colour of Democracy, pp. 46-47)
A Possible Concession
But the reality is many, if not most, Americans hear “that class of individuals normally called white” when they hear the term “Whiteness.” While I do believe this is simply misinformed, I am nevertheless often reminded by a very wise individual in my church that “we are not only responsible for what we say, but also for what is heard.” Knowing that few in our culture conjure up the history and categories outlined above when they hear the term “Whiteness,” it should not at all be surprising that there is mostly just visceral defensiveness in response to its pejorative use. As such, I would agree that we must be very careful when employing this concept, and show grace in response to what we might call (tongue-in-cheek) the un-initiated reaction to its use. I personally am not married to the term.
On the other hand, I do wonder: what would be an acceptable term or phrase to capture the concept described above? Would it have to completely obscure the reality that “white” was in fact a concept created for the allocation of rights and privileges? Would it have to totally exonerate the history of white oppression? In other words, would it have to fit nicely within the system and normalization of “Whiteness” itself?
I mean, the very fact that the most common objection I’ve heard—”What if we spoke pejoratively of ‘Blackness’?”—shows that it is the very history and concept itself that is being rejected, not just the misapplication of the supposed descriptor “white.”
But I’m still thinking……
This is a very thoughtful article, thank you. I completely agree with you that the responsibility for what is heard lies as much with he speaker as with the hearer.
Part of the issue — a part that we must come to grips with — is that a great many people are resistant to the notion that the meaning of words changes. Some simply find the idea difficult to grasp; others are sure that if you claim such a thing, you’re trying to put one over on them. To such people, words simply mean what they mean! I vividly remember a long, fruitless argument during which I completely failed to convince someone that the word “leprosy” today refers to a particular disease that is not necessarily related to the various skin disorders referred to by that term in English translations of the Bible. (Modern day leprosy is not actually a skin disease at all.). I could not even convince them that the idea was conceivable. To this person, who was in many ways quite intelligent, “leprosy” obviously must have meant the same thing for all time, and for me to argue otherwise was preposterous.
As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, many people will simply never be able to hear “whiteness” as anything other than a description of themselves, who they are — characteristics that they have no choice over. Like you, I have no clear idea of what term would be more successful. But I am convinced that, no matter how true it might be to history, to insist on the term “whiteness” is to set up obstacles to real understanding.
Do you mean that you’re trying to think of a replacement for the word ‘White’? Not sure if that’s what you mean…
I think that it’s worth asking why ‘white’ people have not used the term ‘European American’ when African Americans embraced that term decades ago.
‘European American’ is terminology that I would consider to be ethnic. It fits the biblical precedent of identifying people based on place of origin – Saul was from Tarsus, Naaman was from Syria etc. This is theologically positive because it is an embodying term. Where the word ‘white’ is ethereal and doesn’t have to do with the real skin of ‘white’ people, nor does it relate at all to real places, European American is absolutely related to real places.
Anglo-American is terminology that I’ve seen some people use. That could be useful, although Anglo is specifically related to someone with English ancestry, so a Polish American or Italian American would not be able to use it. Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s good, but it’s not a replacement for ‘white’, and for people that have a mixed European background, Anglo-American would be imprecise.
Both terms would still be problematic in terms of becoming placeholders for the concept of whiteness, but I don’t see any possible way in which continuing to use ‘white’ is acceptable. White is a term that we should fully reject. Not because I want to cover up for past sins. There is a whole lot more work that needs to be done than simply altering vocabulary, but I can’t imagine moving foward against racism without helping ‘white’ people to find their ethnic identity, and that will require at minimum rejecting ‘white’ identity.
I think it’s important to note that (1) a listener who does not want to hear will not hear, a significant problem in the race conversation context, (2) obscuring reality has always been part of white supremacy, and (3) the fact that American history isn’t triggered when many Americans hear the term “whiteness” is a consequence of the propagation of whiteness which necessitated a significant sanitation and manipulation of history. That manipulation of history is responsible for “the very history and concept [of whiteness]…being rejected.”
If you can see that people are rejecting reality, don’t you think that’s a superseding problem that needs to be dealt with first?