How Did Europeans Become “White People”?
(CC: “How did white people become white people? I’m so glad you asked!
I find that most white people have no idea how they came to identify as white. And because they don’t know that history they often fundamentally misunderstand the push against whiteness and white supremacy.
You see, white people didn’t exist before the middle of the seventeenth century. As in, the middle of the 1600s. And, if your mind immediately went to the year 1619, you’re on to something, more on that later. And, this isn’t to say that lighter-skinned people didn’t exist. Of course, they did. Europe is a real place with real people. But those people didn’t identify as white people. They were Englishmen, Dutch, Germanic, Slavs, Greeks, Gauls, Scythians.
Princeton history professor, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter chronicles the invention of this diasporic, pan-European white identity in her book, The History of White People. She demonstrates how the white identity was constructed, primarily as a justification for the enslavement of African people.
Whiteness was, from the very beginning, constructed to be the antithesis of blackness. Enslavers needed some moral and philosophical cover for what they were doing to African people. And so the myth of whiteness, moral purity, superiority, ruling destiny was born. And as such, whiteness is, and always has been a political identity. A fraternal order. A loyalty rewards program that depends entirely on all of its members agreeing to maintain the myth. And even though this myth has been thoroughly debunked, many are working overtime, to this very day, to maintain its power.”)
What identities do you have that are more specific to you than whiteness? Please share your thoughts with us in a comment below!
-Your Friends at Undoing Racism