Feb 10, 2018

"Whiteness" Was a Term Invented by Elites to Divide the Working Class and Create Racial Hierarchy. It's Time to Give It Up.

By Tim Hjersted / filmsforaction.org
"Whiteness" Was a Term Invented by Elites to Divide the Working Class and Create Racial Hierarchy. It's Time to Give It Up.
"Before the 17th century, people did not think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race." - Robert P. Baird

Many of us have heard the arguments for discarding the faulty logic behind "white pride" but what about "whiteness" itself?

With our present knowledge of history, continuing to refer to ourselves and other people as "white people" is akin to continuing to affirm our identities primarily as "colonized and assimilated people." Yes, that's probably a shocking statement to most folks, because the history behind such a conclusion is still widely unknown, but if I've got your attention, a brief primer:

In the 18th century, wealthy elites in America labeled several groups of (at the time, differentiated) people "white" as part of a very strategic economic plan to disempower them and prevent them from rising up against their bosses. Irish, Swedish, German, Italian, and many other distinct cultural identities became subsumed into the all-encompassing identity of "whiteness," which conferred an increasing number of material privileges. By granting specific legal, economic, and cultural privileges to "white" people that were denied to others, the ruling class of that era created an affinity between poor whites and their rich white bosses, preventing "multi-racial" rebellions which at the time had begun to seriously scare the capitalist class.

This is perhaps the greatest con of the last four centuries, because it is a con that continues to this day, as we can see clearly with the many poor and working-class whites who believe they have more in common with Trump and other obscenely wealthy white people than the black, brown, immigrant, and other working-class folk who work beside them. The fact that most people regardless of skin color around the world continue to refer to themselves or others as white unironically (including liberals, anarchists, progressives and leftists) is a testament to the powerful legacy that this con retains today. Let's set aside talk about white nationalists for a moment, who have internalized the con of whiteness most of all.

Even many, perhaps a majority of, anti-racist activists use this colonial terminology without challenging it. Sometimes we challenge it, as an aside, or as an occasional side-point, but nowhere have I seen a movement of significant scale focused on challenging and dismantling the con of the white identity itself. 

For the most part, most anti-racism focuses on promoting equality between the races and ending racial injustices but stops short of dismantling the racial categories themselves. This is understandable to a large extent because of an inherent catch-22: There are systemic injustices that affect people historically labeled black or indigenous that don't affect people historically labeled white, and it's simply difficult to talk about present injustices without using these old racist terms. Even I, wanting to move beyond them, have difficulty escaping them, so it is an understandable problem that we all face during this transition to a post-racist society.   

That said, there are ways to weaken the spiritual significance of these terms, and there are ways that anti-racism can inadvertently strengthen them. Racial essentialism, where it still manifests within our anti-racism movements, is really the subconscious philosophy that needs to be deeply questioned and discarded, in my view, in favor of a non-essentialist anti-racism. 

Racial essentialists divide people into "white" and "non-white" categories not just out of linguistic convenience, but because they see our racial identities as primary attributes of who everyone is. They imbue profound meaning into these racial categories, which reaffirms the material and spiritual realness of the term.

If you've ever said "You're white, of course you'd say that," you might be a racial essentialist. If you've ever said a particular person wasn't Black because they don't conform to certain cultural signifiers or a particular school of politics, you might be a racial essentialist. If you've ever believed that individual white people are symbolic stand-ins for the entire sordid history of white supremacy or on the other extreme, believe white people are to thank for modern Western civilization and all its wonders, you're probably a racial essentialist. If you've ever subconsciously viewed an individual black, Asian, or native person as a representative of their entire community, you may have been socially conditioned to be a racial essentialist. Racial essentialists don't tend to interact with people primarily as individuals but as members belonging to a racial group, with whatever positive or negative stereotypes applied. 

As Anna Stubblefield writes:

Those who would attempt to answer the question "what is race?" must either choose between an essentialist and a non-essentialist stance or be condemned to struggle endlessly and fruitlessly between them. Essentialist conceptions of race hold that the characteristics of physical appearance referred to by racial terms are indicative of more profound characteristics (whether positively or negatively construed) of personality, inclinations, "culture," heritage, cognitive abilities, or "natural talents" that are taken to be shared by all members of a racially defined group. Proponents of non-essentialist views, on the other hand, believe that essentialism about race grants inappropriate and excessive meaning to features that are "only skin deep." Non-essentialist conceptions of race claim that similarities and differenccs in physical appearancc do not entail further similarities and differences. They have as support genctic studies such as those of Lewontin that show that the overall genetic differences among groups of humans classified by race is so small as to render race irrelevant as a determinate of any other human attribute.' For non-essentialists, race has meaning only as a socially constructed category, a way of dividing up human beings that is conventional rather than natural.

When the question being asked is "what does it mean to be "black'?" the conflict between essentialism and non-essentialism has been continuously at the heart of the debate. Historically W.E.B. Du Bois adopted an ultimately essentialist approach (albeit with some internal tension); Fredcrick Douglass took a non-essentialist stand. For those who accept an essentialist understanding of race, the primary issue involved in the identification of oneself and others as members of a racially defined group is the issue of definition: what are the criteria for identifying someone as belonging to the group?

Here's one example of a non-essentialist approach to activism:

 

We are Human Beings Not Political Abstractions

We have forgotten that to be a human being means that we are complex paradoxes, contradictory, messy, and unable to be pidgeon-holed into ready-made boxes or paradigms.

It is this realization that is a critical first step for transformative change. 

 

Criticize to Uplift and Empower, never to Tear Down or Destroy

If we want someone to change, we must believe in their capacity to change. 

In other words, if we want someone to change, ultimately, we have to demonstrate that we believe in them. It is by anchoring our criticism in a desire to see another human be successful that changes the interaction for all involved. 

 

Lead with Love and Compassion

This is ultimately the summation of the Theory of Enchantment. When we are aware of the complexity of what it means to be a human being, and the need to criticize in order to bring about flourishing, we are more likely to lead with love and compassion.

This will enrich our relationships and our sense of self in the long-run. 

With particular emphasis on Chloé Valdary's first principle, I can't help but love this philosophy on activism. Being a long-time student of Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, this philosophy instantly resonated with me.

Now, given I love this school of activist philosophy so much, I don't believe anyone should be faulted for perpetuating the racial con of whiteness because we have all been colonized to see the world in these terms. It's very understandable that as society has progressed, we would be able to decolonize many aspects of our consciousness, but many deeper layers of the onion would remain. To decolonize our consciousness is one of the most difficult things anyone can do, much like the difficulty it would take for a fish to understand water. 

As a quick example, it's become normal in progressive circles to see European Americans as historical colonizers and indigenous Americans and Africans as the colonized. But what has been forgotten is that the ancestors of European Americans were also colonized by Christianity and the dominant colonial powers of their time. The cultural amnesia is so strong and the process of colonizing our consciousness was so complete that most white people do not even remember their ancestral identities pre-whiteness or pre-Christianity. It was Chase Iron Eyes, who pointed this out to me and others at a talk he gave in 2014.

For further reading, I highly recommend these references on the historical creation of whiteness:

The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy
Thandeka · "With a swelling slave population, the masters faced the prospect of white freedmen with disappointed hopes joining forces with slaves of desperate hope to mount ever more virulent rebellions. The elites’ race strategy decreased the...
The Invention of Whiteness: the Long History of a Dangerous Idea
Robert P Baird · Before the 17th century, people did not think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race. But once the idea was invented, it quickly began to reshape the modern world
Before the White Race Was Invented
Jonathan Scott · Theodore W. Allen The Invention of the White Race Volume One: Racial Oppression and Social Control Volume Two: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (London and New York: Verso, 1994 and 1997). THERE ARE FOUR main theses...
How White People Got Made
Quinn Norton · 'There’s a perception that whiteness is working for white people. It’s not. Whiteness is one of the biggest and most long-running scams ever perpetrated.'
Introduction To The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America by Theodore W. Allen
Jeffrey B. Perry · Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, with its focus on racial oppression and social control, is one of the twentieth-century’s major contributions to historical understanding. This two-volume classic, first published in...

 

So here's my big pitch: To end the era of white identity politics, we need to stop implicitly affirming the realness of whiteness and, instead, help people realize that "whiteness" is historical fiction. As modern science informs us, whiteness has virtually no relationship to our current understanding of biology or genetics. Common genetics among humanity are far greater among every so-called race than within them. The concept of whiteness is primarily a political and economic tool, which has succeeded quite marvelously in dividing the working class and preventing us from organizing together for the last 240-odd years. We should not continue to identify ourselves with a label given to us by our historical enemies.

Because (formerly known as) white people underwent a process of colonization, ancestral amnesia, and assimilation, all of this historical knowledge surrounding whiteness has been lost. It had to be lost for the con to succeed. Only in the last decade, with this knowledge becoming widely accessible via the internet, has the potential for mass awakening among European Americans become possible.

The task for anyone previously socialized as white is to unlearn everything we have been taught about whiteness. Our task must be to throw off this identity of whiteness, which has been woven so deeply into our essential concept of self. We must embark on a journey of decolonization. But first, we have to realize that our minds have been colonized.

It's not enough, however, to remember that we once primarily identified, not as white, but as English, Irish, Swedish, German, Scottish, and many other identities, each with its own history and culture. We must go beyond our original ethnic identities, pre-whiteness, and remember that before our ancestors were European colonizers, they were themselves colonized by Christianity and the imperial/religious wars that swept the region many centuries ago.

Before that, our ancestors were pagan, animistic, far more rooted to the land, and overall expressed a much greater diversity in culture and belief. Paganism was a term given to our ancestors by Christian invaders - another example of a people being labeled by their enemies. But pre-Christian Europe had a great diversity of culture, including Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, and Basque mythology; Celtic polytheism; Etruscan, Finnic, Georgian, and Norse mythology; Germanic, ancient Greek, Slavic and Vainakh religion and more. Before that, we can trace all of our human ancestors to Africa, and before that, we can trace our relatives to other species of animals and the rest of the tree of life. Finally, if we go back far enough, we can see that our oldest ancestors are the Earth, the sun, and the stars.

This lineage, which we can trace back to the explosion of stars, represents the true cosmic story of our ancestry. It is a story far grander, far more beautiful, and far more meaningful than the story that sees people formerly racialized as white as mere colonizers or conquerors whose ancestry curiously only goes back a few generations.

This is something that I have become more and more passionate about writing about, as I believe that this process of subverting the realness of whiteness is key to undermining the resurgence of white nationalism and white identity politics. I don't believe that we can attack white racism by creating standards to divide "good whites" from "bad whites." Attacking "bad whites" for their racism, prejudice, and other toxic beliefs, while effective to some degree, has also served to harden and solidify their own identity as white. It has hardened the edges between "us" and "them," and with this hardening of edges, we are implicitly playing a role in "their" continued existence as a "them." This divide strengthens the foundational assumption that both racism and the need for anti-racism must necessarily spring from, that it is natural and ordinary to classify people by color. By fighting and directly attacking the "bad whites" they accept the second part of our framing and become more determined than ever to fight us and resist in return. All force creates an equal counter-force. Instead, the concept of whiteness itself must be dissolved.

Rather than counter our opponent's blows with a more powerful blow of our own, we must redirect their energy in an unexpected way. Conservative, alt-right or white nationalist whites expect us to attack them. They expect us to label them racist, deplorable, and other epithets. Instead, we must respond in a way that surprises them, in a way that has the potential to get them to escape their habit forms of listening and responding and to question our shared reality.

One inventive way that some anti-racists have put this into practice is by flipping the script on privilege: That being privileged isn't actually a good thing; it's a false bargain, a fishing hook with poison bait, a scam with some marginal benefits that keep us fighting and competing amongst ourselves within the working-class while the owners of capital keep screwing us all.

This activist strategy takes inspiration from Aikido and the principles of Kingian Nonviolence. It is a strategy that has the potential to be liberating for both them and us, creating one "us."

This strategy is also necessary because we cannot end white supremacy by attacking it and replacing it with nothing. R. Buckminster Fuller's classic advice to activists and paradigm-shifters holds true for racial identity as well:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Fighting racist "white" people strengthens the realness of the white identity, ensuring that those who identify with whiteness will feel threatened and under attack, and thus, will rally around this identity out of their shared instinct for self-preservation (an instinct we all share). The best way we can fight racism is to undermine the identity of whiteness itself. We must strip it of its cultural power and meaning. A "them" that organizes around a shared identity of whiteness cannot persist if the foundation of that identity is dismantled, through education and widespread decolonial critique. 

We should no longer give the term "white" any further power or significance by invoking it without a direct challenge. 

Former white people in America can identify as European-American, English, Swedish, or German-American, etc. We can join our brothers and sisters around the world as "star people" - acknowledging the ancestors common to every human society on Earth. We can identify as Unitarian, Christian, Pantheist, Buddhist, Jew, atheist, or Muslim. We can identify as working class, as a part of the 99%, or the 100%. We can identify with our consciousness, which is entirely unique to ourselves, regardless of the body we were born into. 

We can go back to how our ancestors saw race several centuries ago, before this racial con swept the world, giving our skin color no more significance than the size and shape of our nose. 

These are just a few ideas. I can't entirely imagine how people will identify in a post-colonial culture, but I'm hoping you will join me on this journey to imagine a new way of seeing ourselves.

As Inaya Folarin Iman writes, We can’t just oppose racism: We must transcend race" itself.

As a brilliant guide to this journey to decolonize our consciousness and connect with the animistic and pagan roots of our European ancestors, pre-Christianity, I'll leave you with this utterly fantastic conversation with Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen:

 

Postscript:
This passage from Rhyd Wildermuth offers an example of how anti-racism and anti-cultural appropriation activism rooted in essentialist assumptions about whiteness can inadvertently reinforce white nationalist goals:

In a podcast with Alkistic Dimech and Peter Grey, Gordon White used the term “Woke Nationalism” to describe [a] particular kind of purity politics. “It’s the ‘nothing on the plate can touch’ idea” he said, adding that it was not much different from white nationalism.

He’s right. White Nationalists build their fascist ideology around notions of purity and separation. Whites and Blacks should never mix, never love each other (and definitely never have children together). Whites must be kept separated from other bloodlines and other cultures, must keep their culture distinct and pure. Whites must not do non-white things, adopt non-white customs or modes of dress or beliefs.

This is unfortunately the same logic of the social justice fundamentalist view of cultural appropriation. But while a White Nationalist claims that doing non-white things is tainting the race, the social justice activist claims that doing non-white things is theft. The end result is the same: a pure, untainted, culturally-distinct white race. White Nationalism and Woke Nationalism want the same thing, just for different reasons.

When they look to cultural forms and ethnic groups with a fundamentalist perspective, social justice activists repeat the same racism of white nationalists. Whites must only do ‘white’ things, whether that is the fascist desire to purify the white race or the liberal command to avoid ‘cultural appropriation.’ Social justice obsession with white purity becomes indeed a sort of ‘woke’ nationalism, a white-knuckled grasp on the dying construct of Whiteness, insisting that symbols and people and cultures are closed, divinely-created systems, and that races and cultures should never be allowed mix.

Both make the same two mistakes: there is no such thing as a white race, and cultures have never been pure.

Ending the White Race

Whiteness isn’t actually a tribal or cultural form (no one was “white” 500 years ago) and thus there is no such thing as ‘white ancestry.’ Caucasian isn’t a tribal or cultural term either–it was invented by a race theorist at the end of the 18th century.

Whiteness is a very recent idea, and comes from the complete erasure of ancestral and cultural histories. To be ‘white’ is to no longer have a cultural history; in order to become fully white, European immigrants (especially from places still not fully considered white in Europe, like Ireland, Poland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) needed to forsake their specific cultural and ethnic backgrounds. By doing so, they gained access to white skin-privilege in the United States and Canada and became assimilated into ‘whiteness.’ All their history, their beliefs, traditions, modes of dress and food and their languages were bleached out of them, but in return they gained a new settler-colonial identity which granted them a little more access to wealth and security.

We need to go a little farther here, though, because there is actually no such thing as ‘ancestrally-French’ or ‘ancestrally-German.’ Neither of those places actually existed three hundred years ago. Instead, one might have been ancestrally-Breton or ancestrally-Bavarian. Go back a little further and those ancestral connections existed on the level of village or countryside, not ethnic people-groups.

Even more fascinating, however, is that there were no pure or pristine cultures back then, either.

People moved, and moved a lot. They traded, they inter-married, their cultural and religious forms becoming mixed in precisely the way that terrifies both social justice activists and white nationalists. Vikings “culturally appropriated” by making clothing with Islamic verse on them. Celts “culturally appropriated” Egyptian and Greek deities in what is now London, 2000 years ago. Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims and Iberian pagans mixed their cultures and languages fluidly in Al Andalus. Semitic Phoenicians traded as far up to Cornwall, littering the Atlantic coasts of Europe with their artifacts.

Cultural exchange is not only an ancient thing, but it is unavoidable. When peoples come into contact with each other, they trade, they talk, they borrow, they teach and mimic each other. Likewise, racial purity is impossible–people have an odd tendency to want to sleep with each other, regardless of where they’re from.

That both social justice activists and white nationalists have trouble understanding this comes from the very same mechanism by which social justice activists saw red boot laces on an advertisement and screamed ‘racism.’  Both are certain that ‘whiteness’ means something, and both insist that whites cannot be anything else but what they’ve decided they are.

To get out of this mess isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

First, we must release our fundamentalist death grip on symbols and meaning, and especially our white-knuckled grasp on ‘whiteness.’ To do so, we’ll need to look at our past with a different perspective, rejecting the fundamentalist narratives of both white nationalism and ‘woke’ nationalism.

Because though whites have lost their ancestral connection, European spiritual and cultural forms didn’t just disappear because Americans forgot them. Here where I now live in Bretagne, spiritual and magical traditions still exist–there’s no need for anyone here to hire a plastic shaman or join an online witch course to learn about Ankou, the Korrigan, or any of the other spirits and gods of their land–they can just ask their grandparents. The same is true in many parts of Europe, especially in non-urban areas.

Reconnecting to cultural and ancestral traditions will require giving up something, though. Because whiteness is not just built upon the erasure of ethnic and cultural history, but also upon the lie that whites are enlightened, progressive, and ‘modern’ while all the rest of the world (now and in the past) was primitive, unenlightened, superstitious, and stupid.

Here, again, liberal social justice ideas actually get in the way of dismantling whiteness by painting the current regime of rights and technology as more enlightened than anything that existed before. Whiteness itself is founded upon this idea, the certainty that we know the true meaning of things. That the order of the world that came about with whiteness is the best one, that all other ways of being are wrong. In this way, even people who are not white but who hold on to this lie are making sure whiteness never ends.

And finally, we must talk about cultural appropriation in a way that actually fights those who are turning what belongs to everyone into property. The pharmaceutical companies and petty capitalists that patent ancient medicines, the universities that steal indigenous artifacts for ‘research,’ the media conglomerates who sell us fictive versions of our own history, all the plastic shamans and spiritual teachers who sell us knowledge that was once free, and anyone who would try to police our cultural, spiritual, and social expressions, be they white nationalists or ‘woke’ nationalists–they are the ones stealing meaning from the world.

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne.

For further reading:

We Can’t Just Oppose Racism: We Must Transcend Race
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I Don’t Think I was Born White. I Think White Children are Manufactured.
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