How White People Invented Racism

by R.L. Stephens II on August 4, 2014

When it comes to racism: No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative — it get’s the people going.

Racism has no simple definitions. In a sense, understanding racism is an attempt to grasp the foundation of the modern world — no easy task. It’s no wonder that we find racial hierarchy so difficult to discuss, let alone combat and remedy. In the following weeks, it is my aim to develop a conceptual and historical framework that can help us move beyond the endless “conversations about race”, and begin to identify strategies with the potential to undermine racism’s dominance.

Racism = Ideology + Power

Drawing from the Encyclopedia Brittanica (a surprisingly good resource for race theory), racism’s core ideology has three components. First, it’s the belief that humans are separated into biological categories called “races”. Second, it posits that racialized physical traits are the source of personality characteristics like intelligence, sexuality, and work ethic. Finally, the ideology holds that these racial categories exist within a hierarchy and that some races are superior to others.

While scientists have challenged race’s biological foundation, and many of us now understand race to be a social construct, “race has not lost its biological origins“. Although ethnocentricism, nationalism, and tribalism all predate race, it’s racial hierarchy’s pseudo biological foundation that sets it apart as a distinctly European invention. The treatment of the Ainu and burakumin in Japan, which was based in part on a biology-like concept of “polluted blood”, is the only precolonial non-European social hierarchy with similar characteristics to racism. Given the overall lack of precolonial non-White concepts of race, racism (and race itself) is the original “white people problem”.

Biological determinism and physical traits like skin color are prominent aspects of race-making, but they are not the only considerations. When determining a person’s racial identity, a number of social and interpersonal factors also come into play. Even in an age of strict biological determinism, race was just as much a social performance as it was a physical marker. Walter Johnson, a historian and author of The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s, notes that under slavery, US American courts found themselves using personal history, reputation, behavior, and social role — in addition to biology — to determine if a person was Black, and therefore a slave.

There really was a recognized set of behaviors that constituted “acting Black” and “acting White”.  Furthermore, how a person “acted” or performed could determine their racial status and the benefits and/or punishments that came along with racial classification. The performative aspect of racial ascription continues today — despite contemporary claims that there is no such thing as “acting White”.

Racism is much more than just an ideology, it also requires the power to turn ideological belief into a structured social reality. Institutions (i.e. the legal system) and institutionally-sanctioned violence (i.e. lynching and militarism) ensure that racial categorization has consequences in the real world. As Walter Johnson’s work shows, under US American slavery, your ascribed race determined the difference between enslavement and freedom.

The Colonial Roots of Racial Hierarchy

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes the merging of racial ideology and social power as creating “racialized social systems” — social systems which are not naturally occurring, but are instead a continuous and “highly political act” — most notably colonialism.

Historically the classification of a people in racial terms has been a highly political act associated with practices such as conquest and colonization, enslavement, peonage, indentured servitude, and, more recently, colonial and neocolonial labor immigration. Categories such as “Indians” and “Negroes” were invented in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to justify the conquest and exploitation of various peoples. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era

The intimate link between colonialism and racial hierarchy has been present from the start. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, traces the earliest vestiges of race and racial hierarchy (Bonilla-Silva’s “racialized social systems”) to the 16th century and the Spanish Inquisition following the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims in 1492 and 1502 respectively.

So to ensure that only truly faithful Christians remained within the realm, the grand inquisitor Torquemada reformulated the Inquisition to inquire not just into defendants’ religious faith and practices but into their lineage. Only those who could demonstrate their ancestry to those Christians who resisted the Moorish invasion were secure in their status in the realm. Thus was born the idea of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre), not fully the biological concept of race but perhaps the first occidental use of blood heritage as a category of religio-political membership.History of the Concept of Race, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s no coincidence that as the Inquisition was occurring, and Spain’s proto-racial concepts were first forming, property stolen from Spain’s expelled Jews would partially finance Colombus’ voyage across the Atlantic. Though racism’s conceptual seeds were planted during the Spanish inquisition, it was the nurturing waters of transatlantic colonialism that truly brought racial hierarchy to bloom.

Racism’s colonial roots are even more apparent in the United States. In the U.S. the social meaning of race coalesced in the late 17th century, which marked the beginning of racial slavery — a racialized social system that gave birth not only to modern racism, but to “Black” and “White” identity itself. Michael Omi and Howard Winant call this process “racial formation”.

The racial category of “black” evolved with the consolidation of racial slavery. By the end of the seventeenth century Africans… were rendered “black” by an ideology of exploitation based on racial logic — the establishment and maintenance of a “color line”… With slavery, however, a racially based understanding of society was set in motion which resulted in the shaping of a specific racial identity not only for the slaves but for the European settlers as well… ‘After about 1680, taking the colonies as a whole, a new term of self-identification appeared — white’ Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formations

Due to European colonialism, racial hierarchy became a defining element of social, economic, and political life throughout the globe — the concept White supremacy attempts to capture that process. According to Ania Loomba’s Colonialism and Postcolonialism, though the particular content of racial ideology is always contested, and changes to the prevailing racial logics occur over time, “the race relations put into place during colonialism survive long after many of the economic structures underlying them have changed“.

In fact, colonial era configurations of social and economic relations exist synergistically with contemporary dominant articulations of power — namely capitalism — they never actually disappeared. If we begin to understand the colonial foundation of racism, then it becomes much easier to see how racial hierarchy functions today.

From racism’s earliest formations under the Spanish inquisition to its emergence during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it’s clear that colonialism played a key role in the creation and promulgation of racial hierarchy. Unfortunately, colonialism has been all but erased from our modern conceptualizations of racial hierarchy. Instead, racism has become understood as a character issue best remedied through interpersonal dialogue and education — with virtually no attempt to challenge the entrenched material dynamics that make racial hierarchy possible. 

Fortunately, with the release of Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from Antimperialistic Defense, Swedish filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson’s follow-up to the Black Power Mixtape, it seems that anticolonial theory is making a comeback in popular culture. Until we understand and acknowledge the colonial roots of racial hierarchy, we will find it nearly impossible to successfully combat it.

‘Concerning Violence’ Clip from The Playlist on Vimeo.

2 responses to “How White People Invented Racism”

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