Op-ed: Why are you ‘white?’

By James Michael Brodie
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I recently posed a question to my friends on Facebook who identify as white: “Do you know how you came to be called white? Do you know why?”

Those who responded shared their experiences of living in white skin, but none could cite the source of those experiences or of their identities.

This is not surprising. We live in a society in which “other” is often the subject of fascination and debate, while a discussion of whiteness is often taboo. Bring up the subject of blackness, and there will be more than enough opinions to go around.

But bring up whiteness and the crickets show up. To be white is to be so normal that any discussion of it is considered unnecessary. Anyone else is odd, different, strange, exotic and not “normal,” therefore available for dissection.

This default of normality means those who identify as white don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America or even explain it. That is left up to the others.

The search for understanding in matters of race has become an exclusive exploration of blackness, where blacks are placed in the position of explaining assigned deficits while providing absolution to those asking the questions. Examining whiteness, on the other hand, as a social construct would offer more answers, but the conversation is fraught with so much incredulousness as to become burdensome.

But such conversations are crucial to tearing down barriers that were created to sow discord. To know where we are and where we are going we must first know how we got here.

How we got to ‘white’

In his 2012 two-volume book, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen starts us on that journey. Allen looked at how America’s ruling classes coined the term “white” as a tool for social control.

Even in Jamestown in 1619, there were no “whites.” Europeans, Africans and Native peoples enjoyed similar legal standing in society, and were recognized in terms of their nationalities, not their skin tones.

Several laws passed in the mid-1600s would begin to change that, specifically, lifetime servitude for Africans (Maryland 1664, Virginia 1670). Other laws followed: banning European but not African women from field work, denying Africans the right to bear arms, prohibiting interracial marriages, denying voting rights and the ability to testify in court, as well as forbidding Africans to own Europeans. There would be others.

These laws established European rule over Africans. But there was still no mention of the label “white.” Bacon’s Rebellion of 1697 was the turning point. Armed Africans and Europeans had fought together in part to end slavery and indentured servitude but were defeated. Laws written from that point forward included the term “white.”

In her 2011 book, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter noted that in the decades following the defeat of the rebellion, the colonial ruling class passed a series of laws that singled out descendants of Africans for special oppression. “By importing African slaves to ensure a steady supply of labor, racializing perpetual servitude, and employing poor and indentured whites as an armed force to repress Black slave revolts, colonial planters created a system of divide and rule,” she wrote.

Enslaved peoples were non-Christian, so Europeans exploited religion as a barrier. As Africans converted, the word “Christian” was replaced with the word “white.” The 1697 law titled An Act for Keepeing a Register of Birthes Marriages and Burialls in each Respective County declared that “every white Man professing the Christian Religion, the free and natural born Subject of the King of England, or naturalized, who hath attained to the full Age of One and Twenty Year, and hath Ten Acres of Freehold … shall be deemed a Freeholder.” It was the first time that the word “white” was used in a legal document.

This law excluded Negroes (Africans), mulattoes and Indians from those statistics. An African’s condition as a free person did not make him or her any more worthy of inclusion. The law became the basis for the race laws that followed, legitimizing to the African Slave Trade, the Plessy and Dred Scott Supreme Court decisions, the Articles of the Confederacy and the doctrines of the Ku Klux Klan.

That mindset allowed the scientific community to use enslaved Africans as guinea pigs for medical experimentation. James Marion Sims, know as the “father of modern gynecology,” developed a surgical technique to address the issue of complications of obstructed child births, using enslaved Black women as subjects who were intentionally not sedated because, in his view, black  women did not feel pain as white women do.

This disregard for Black life extended to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service in which the progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama was monitored under the guise of offering free health care. And let’s not forget that cancer research today is undergirded by the immortal, but stolen, human cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore who died in 1951 from cervical cancer.

That same 1697 law set the stage for the Civil War.

In their articles of secession, the Confederate states of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia made a case for slavery and white genetic superiority.

After the end of the Civil War, though defeated, the Confederates pressed on, dismantling gains made by Blacks during Reconstruction and establishing white supremacist groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was created with a mandate to protect Blacks from a hostile Southern environment, but it actually functioned to keep Blacks “in their place” as laborers to allow production on the plantations to resume so that the South could revive its economy. Notably, constitutional conventions held in 1865 in Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia all included language to “guard them and the State against any evils that may arise from (Blacks’) sudden emancipation.”

Black Codes restricted the rights of newly liberated African Americans to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land, and move freely through public spaces. Confederate sympathizers began erecting monuments glorifying Confederate icons as heroes of white supremacist ideology.

President Woodrow Wilson screened the pro-KKK D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation in the White House, while completing the unraveling of Reconstruction by purging every Black employee from the rolls of the federal government in Washington.

In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale Law School graduate tried to buy a home in a white community. The city enacted an ordinance to preserve “peace,” and prevent “conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races in Baltimore city.” The law was the first of many mandating the confinement of black people to certain blocks and areas.

Nationwide, in the early 1930s, a ranking system designed to represent neighborhoods in northern and southern states was implemented as a means to further enforce segregation. The system included four strata from highest to lowest; A: green; B: blue; C: yellow; D: red.

White neighborhoods were green. Neighborhoods with Jews or foreigners were rated B or C. Communities with any black presence, regardless of class, were rated D. Thus redlining was born. Black people were then denied mortgages and home insurance, preventing black families the possibility of private housing.

The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, developed rating maps that designated where neighborhoods fell within the housing stratum. Banks used these maps to guide their decisions on where mortgage funds would be allocated.

Germany’s anti-Jewish laws based on American racism

In 1934, less than two years after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, Nazi lawyers met to create the Nuremberg Laws, the basis for anti-Jewish legislation. Central to their discussion were U.S. race laws and customs. The Third Reich debated using a form of Jim Crow segregation against Jews and other non-Aryans. They noticed that 30 U.S. states had outlawed interracial marriages, and how states determined who counted as “Negro” or some other “subhuman” category based on the “One Drop” rule.

Nazi policymakers drew inspiration from the United States. In his 1925 manifesto, Mein Kampf, Hitler applauded the United States as “the one state” making progress in creating a healthy racist society.

By the 1940s anthropologists created a new classification system in which white, Asian and black were the only “real” races. Everyone considered white was the same as everyone else considered white. No Saxons. No Celts. No Irish. No Southern Italians. No Eastern European Hebrews. Mexicans and Native Americans were not mentioned. This classification is with us in varying degrees today.

But all myth-making comes with an expiration date. It is time to end this one. So here we are, locked into a moment where the historic chickens have come home to roost. The reality is right in front of us.

White supremacy, and whiteness itself, is based on a lie.

People around the world are taking to the streets, not just to mourn the death of one man or one woman, but to stand up for all of the men and women who have had their lives destroyed by an ideology built on a falsehood, built on a bed of hatred, intolerance, and small-mindedness.

Confederate monuments to slavery and bigotry are coming down. And the horrific truth about such cultural icons as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson and others is now being told.

But destroying white supremacy will take more than protests, more than the toppling of statues that were built only to intimidate, or setting the record straight on centuries of brutality.

Which brings me back to my original question: Why are you white?

And now that you know why, where do we go from here?


White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots

The History of White People

Understanding Whiteness

Whiteness: The Definitive Conceptualization of an American Identity

The Invention of the White Race

James Michael Brodie is a Baltimore-based writer, journalist and author. His books include “Created Equal: The Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators” and “Sweet Words So Brave: The Story of African American Literature.” A University of Colorado graduate in English, Brodie’s current project is a collection of personal narratives titled “The Black and Gold Project.”

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  1. James Michael Brodie says:

    Actually, Michael, that is what I am saying. Race is a created concept. You are no more White than I am Black. Our families hail from different places on the planet, which exposed bodies to certain conditions and altered appearances.

    What happened in the United States is that the leaders assigned a significance to those outward differences.

    Not included in my essay was the practice of separating blood plasma based on skin color, as if getting blood from a Black donor would somehow make the White recipient “unclean” or “impure.” Charles Drew, the African American scientist who perfected the system for storing the plasma, resigned from the Red Cross over this policy.

    Today, we hear people discussing “Black-on-Black crime, as if it is a separate and abnormally unique compared to crimes committed by Whites against other Whites. Crime globally is about poverty, lack of education, and proximity.

    The color of the skin is not a factor, but racism defines how the society defines.

    BTW, since it appears to have been established that the first human beings originated in Africa, wouldn’t that make any conversation about race irrelevant seeing as how we all come from the same source?

  2. Vyrginia Blake Clark says:

    Why are you white reminded me after WWII I lived in Rochester, NY. We lived in a garage apartment of a well to do family. The family had a lovely black lady who came once a week to clean. The children all loved her. One day my four year old daughter suddenly said to her,”Vannie, why are you black? Her answer was simply “Well honey why are you white? You see your mummy and daddy are white and my mummy and daddy were black so that’s your answer. My daughter said “Oh OK” and off she ran. As the song in South Pacific tells us, “you have to be carefully taught”. I was glad my children learned early that the color of ones skin fades as we get to know one another!

  3. Michael Hopf says:

    Very good article. I am inclined to argue that while ‘whiteness’ is clearly a legal concept which you demonstrate, I don’t know if that’s the same thing as suggesting that being white is some kind of short lived cultural whim. It almost sounds like you are saying ‘there was no such thing as being white before 1700’. But certainly this is very fascinating history, much of which I was unaware of.

  4. Alvirita Thomas says:

    Excellent! I am always eager to learn history that is difficult to research. You ask questions like where do you start? How do you bring it all together? Magnificent job! Thank you and well wishes on your current world “The Black And Gold Project”. Looking forward to reading it!

  5. James Michael Brodie says:

    John Mountain, stay tuned, my friend. In order to have a conversation about the future, we have to be clear about how we got here, and how that history informs even this conversation. If this was truly about the past, we all would have studied it, known about it, talked about it, learned from it. Because we have not, the past is still with us. Those people were elders, grandparents, people who endured to make us possible.

  6. John Mountain says:

    Mr. Brodie, well researched, sir. While we’re clearly looking in the rear-view in this op-ed, I’m curious to know if there is more behind your question, “where do we go from here?” Do you feel like any of the lessons history has to teach us have been lost, and if so–what specifically can we do to lessen their impact? How do you feel, for example, about current movements, such as ‘defund the police’ or ‘8 can’t wait initiatives?’

  7. Les Berry says:

    Excellent work!

  8. Ken Slater says:

    Good read, and it filled in a few details in history I was ignorant about. Thanks for publishing this well written piece. Having read a few of Brodie’s pieces in the Telegraph now, he consistently creates thought provoking, well reasoned articles.