Consider: How does being white grant certain privileges? How might white people experience oppression through other social identities, e.g., class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.?
There’s a general conception of racism that goes something like this: just as some people are naturally short or tall, we are all born into one race or another. Racism is unfair discrimination, but the racial categories themselves are natural and universal. Just as we might imagine someone in Shakespeare’s England or the 16th century Mali Empire being short or tall, we would imagine that person fitting into one of the modern U.S. census’s racial categories.
But race is a social construct, and social constructs have social histories. Our modern understanding of race was created at a specific historical juncture in colonial Virginia. Prior to that, it did not exist.
This doesn’t mean that everyone previously looked the same. If those subjects of the Mali Empire and Elizabethan England met, they would have recognized differences in skin pigmentation or eye color or any number of other things.
Similarly, I notice people’s heights. But I do not have a mental map that divides people into either The Talls or The Shorts. I do not think of The Talls and The Shorts as two different sorts of human beings. I do not immediately make a subconscious decision on whether someone I am talking to sight unseen is either A Tall or A Short person. And our society isn’t designed to universally provide one of these groups of people more power, privilege and opportunity than the other. This is an absurd example, but we all make instant judgments of this sort concerning race. Not necessarily because we are racist, but because race is a fundamental feature of social life in ways the fictitious Tall/Short division is not.
In colonial Virginia, landowners brought workers from England, Ireland, and countries across Africa to cultivate tobacco. These enslaved or forced laborers were poorly treated, and none had many rights, but African and European laborers were treated largely the same. African laborers able to acquire their freedom could exercise voting rights in the colonial legislature, accumulate wealth, and hire European laborers. People of African and European ancestry intermingled and intermarried without penalty and there is no evidence that they thought of themselves as members of two great camps of Black and white people (Understanding Race).
But after African and European servants joined forces in 1676’s Bacon’s Rebellion, the colonial legislature began passing laws to make such solidarity impossible in the future. The rights of African people were reduced until African descent was synonymous with slavery. On the other hand, a new category appeared: white. For the first time, people who might have been referred to as Christian, or English, or Scottish, or Swedish were all lumped together under this new name. Even the poorest white person now had greater rights than any enslaved African.
“What colony leaders were doing was establishing unequal groups and imposing different social meanings on them,” said Audrey Smedley. “As they were creating the institutional and behavioral aspects of slavery, the colonists were simultaneously structuring the ideological components of race” (Understanding Race).
Much later, when mass Irish immigration began in the 19th century, Irish people were not yet considered properly white. Racial stereotypes about Irish people abounded in popular media. For Anglo-Americans, the Irish were thought of as being much closer to Black people than to whites. Black people were even referred to as “smoked Irish.”
Irish Americans today are a nationality firmly within the universe of whiteness. What changed wasn’t any physical characteristic of Irish people but rather their political position within American white supremacy. Irish Americans largely rejected calls by nationalist leaders like Daniel O’Connell to join forces with Black people, instead of opposing abolition and acting “unabashedly American in the way they dealt with the slavery controversy” (Irish Times).
“Essentially what happened was the Irish became white,” said scholar Noel Ignatiev. “To the extent to which they could prove themselves worthy of being white Americans–that is, by joining in gleefully in the subjugation of Black people–they showed that they belonged… Having fair skin made the Irish eligible to be white, but it didn’t guarantee their admission. They had to earn it” (Z Magazine).
Whiteness is a social construct, but that doesn’t mean we can just wish it away. Police officers and Lutheranism and Thursdays are also social constructs, but we can’t snap our fingers and make any of them disappear, either. Your non-belief in police officers won’t help you when you get pulled over; if you choose to ignore Thursdays you’ll always have the wrong day of the week. To say something is a social construct implies it has not always existed and could exist otherwise or not at all. Nonetheless, there are practices, policies, and institutions that make social constructs real, powerful, and potentially deadly while they exist.
Ignatiev’s suggestion was to instead work collectively towards the abolition of whiteness, meaning the destruction of those privileges associated with being part of the “club” of whiteness. “The white race is like a private club based on one huge assumption: that all those who look white are, whatever their complaints or reservations, fundamentally loyal to the race. We want to dissolve the club, to explode it” (LA Times).
It is not just that some white people or institutions are racist but rather that the category of whiteness in the United States has always had racial oppression as its function. To “explode the club of whiteness” does not require self-pity and hand-wringing by self-proclaimed white allies. If the fundamental assumption of whiteness is that all white people–neighbors, bosses and employees, police officers and civilians, family members or strangers on the street–have some basic loyalty to each other, a more powerful response would be to break the color line, practicing disloyalty to whiteness in favor of loyalty to humanity.
Understand, unpack, and abolish whiteness.
We often think of racism as unjust discrimination between objective racial categories.
In fact, categories like “white” didn’t always exist. Whiteness was created as a legal category in colonial Virginia to prevent lower-class solidarity.
Racial categories have always been part of a racial hierarchy.
To interrupt racism, we need to disrupt whiteness, including white intra-racial solidarity at the expense of people of color.