The last few weeks have subjected Americans to images of atrocities that Black Americans, sadly, are all too familiar with: killings at the hands of police and horrendous but routine instances of racial discrimination. These injustices have been going on for decades, with Black people staging protests largely alone. This time feels different, because anti-police brutality and anti-racist demonstrations have occurred in all 50 states, in small towns as well as big cities, and indeed around the world. The demonstrators are not solely Black this time; they display a beautiful range of races and ethnicities, in the streets together to proclaim that Black lives matter.
That history includes white people who think of themselves as individuals without a meaningful racial identity as well as white nationalists and Klansmen.
Demands arise now for cultural change, for education that imparts the history of white supremacy in America and the history of Black Americans as citizens and creators. Please don’t think those two are the same thing. Black history, on the one hand, and anti-Black injustice, on the other, are two distinct histories, even though African American history includes the devastating toll of anti-Black atrocity.
I’m delighted to see so many flocking to the histories of Black Americans and white supremacy, two subjects that every American should be familiar with. Because we need to know that the construction of whiteness has its own history. That history includes white people who think of themselves as individuals without a meaningful racial identity as well as white nationalists and Klansmen parading around in theirs. There’s so much more to the history of white people.
Americans still struggle to understand that race is an ideology, not a biological fact, more like witchcraft than empirical science. Just as difficult to grasp, it seems, is the idea that our idea of one big white race, which you’re either in or out of, is less than a century old.
White identity didn’t just spring to life full-blown and unchanging, which is what most people assume. Whiteness is severely under theorized, leaving millions unaware of a history whose constant characteristic is change. Whiteness has changed over time, over place, and in the myriad situations of human ranking.
Let me say it again: Whiteness has a history whose meanings change. Neither scholars nor ordinary people have been able to agree upon the definition of white people — who is white and who is not — nor on the number of races that count as white. Disagreement reigns and has reigned since the modern scientific notion of human races was invented in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Nota bene: invented in the 18th century.
Before the Enlightenment, people classified themselves and others according to clan, tribe, kingdom, locale, religion and an infinity of identities dependent on what people thought was important about themselves and others. Before the Enlightenment, Europeans could see human difference, they could see who was tall, who short, who light-skinned, who dark, differences they explained according to religion, cultural habits, geography, wealth and climate, among the most usual characteristics, but not race.
But Enlightenment scholars started to classify humanity into groups that came to be called races, defined according to bodily measurements such as eye color, skin color, height, and skull dimensions. The most enduring classification came from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a professor in the German University of Göttingen. Blumenbach based his classification on skull measurements and divided humanity into five “varieties,” which he laid out according to his aesthetic preferences.
Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week’s most important cultural analysis
At the two extremities Blumenbach placed the skulls he considered ugly, the African and the Asian. Next to the African was the Tahitian. Next to the Asian was the Native American. In the middle was Blumenbach’s “most beautiful skull” — of a young Georgian woman who had been a sex slave in Moscow, where she died of venereal disease. Her beautiful skull became the basis for the name given to white people; a native of the South Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas), she inspired the label “Caucasian.”
The history of American whiteness since the Enlightenment bristles with an abundance of fascinating figures. Everyone from Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franz Boas, Malcolm X, Michael Novak and Toni Morrison have influenced our thinking about whiteness. I have written a whole long book about how this thinking evolved, conveniently entitled “The History of White People,” which elaborates on what I just said.
It’s too easy to think of Irish, Italian, Slavic, or Greek immigrants and their children as “becoming” white. But that rhetorical construction ignores how Americans thought about whiteness before the 1940s. Then, race scientists and ordinary people thought there were several white races, such as the Celtic (Irish) race, the Northern Italian Race, the Eastern European Hebrew race, the Southern Italian race, and so on, which were ranked high to low beneath the Anglo-Saxon/Saxon/Teutonic/Nordic white race on top, depending on when you were speaking and to whom. Adult male immigrants of these supposedly inferior white races could vote when Black men born in the U.S. could not.
Why were the 1940s such a turning point? Because Nazis in Germany were committing racist crimes while arguing that Jews were different racially from Germans.
Why were the 1940s such a turning point? Because Nazis in Germany were committing racist crimes while arguing that Jews were different racially from Germans, that Jews were not Aryans, which an embarrassingly large proportion of Americans also believed, e.g., Henry Ford, an ardent anti-Semite.
In the 1940s, with another world war looming and national unity a top priority, experts taught Americans that whiteness was unitary, a key point used to prop up anti-Black segregation.
Unitary whiteness held up until the late 20th century, when immigrants from Latin America and Asia complicated the classification of American races. We now live in an age where race (Black, white, etc.) coexists with ethnicity (Hispanic, non-Hispanic). Who knows what classifications the future will bring? Some things we can see already, that whiteness was most valuable when laws and customs of exclusion protected it, laws no longer enforceable and customs falling by the wayside as Americans trample color bars and marry whomever they wish, regardless of race. At the same time, whiteness continues to reconstitute itself, as Hispanic Americans increasingly declare themselves to be white, along with a constellation of Americans who boast mixed races and a kaleidoscope of skin tones.
Whiteness isn’t done with us yet, but it need not be the same whiteness as two or three generations ago, as a generation ago, despite the heroic efforts of white nationalists to shore it up with guns. This is a good thing. Since the George Floyd protests, fewer and fewer white Americans are now able thoughtlessly to think of themselves as unraced individuals with no role to play in undoing white supremacy. May their embrace of human rights, especially Black rights, change yet again the meanings of American whiteness.