Why We Need To Know The Story Of Whiteness
October 30, 2017 at 8:30 pm
Every year around our birthdays, our mom tells my brother and me the story of our births. This is the gift I look forward to most. Origin stories are important. They literally root us. Not everyone has full access to their origin story, however. Perhaps the most tragic end result of enslavement in the Americas is that many of our origin stories have been lost, manipulated and erased. Yet, we insist on learning about and from our past to direct our own futures, as seen by the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
One origin story we have access to — but that has not been fully told — is the story of Whiteness. How did White people become White?
When I say the story of Whiteness, I do not mean a story about a person, hero or villain who happens to be White. We have plenty of those. I’m talking about the period between 1619 — with the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia — and some 60 years later when laws created hierarchies based on an invented concept called ‘White.’ There are a lot of enslavement narratives, but why don’t we have films and TV shows about who counted as White at the time, and, most importantly: why?
In many ways, Whiteness origin stories have been manipulated as much as ours have. We may know about the Confederacy and White supremacist groups from the KKK through those who sparked the horrific violence in Charlottesville. But what about our classmates, professors, co-workers, supervisors, friends — and even some of our family members. What do they know — and what do we know — about how and why they are called ‘White’?
Citizenship status in the U.S. is directly connected to the Whiteness origin story. In the coming months, Congress may decide the fates of over 800,000 DACA recipients (most of whom are not considered White). For perspective, we need to know the story of the Ozawa and Thind Supreme Court decisions in the 1920s. In Ozawa’s case, the Supreme Court of the United States used ‘science’ to determine that Ozawa was not White, and therefore could not be a citizen. Just three months later, a man named Thind produced clear evidence that he (having been born in India) was, according to science at the time, White. SCOTUS decided in this case science was not reliable and, instead, "the common man" knew Thind was not White. Here, “the common man” equaled self-proclaimed White people. SCOTUS never could define what White was (only what it supposedly wasn’t) and no one has been able to since.
Whiteness based on law is only one part of this origin story. W.E.B. Du Bois examined and challenged this invention as early as the 1800s. The Irish, Italians and Greeks became White before our very eyes, over the course of many years. These harmful ways we hurt each other — including shadeism — are direct results of the creation of White identity. James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have written prolifically on Whiteness. There are even White heroes whose stories should be told more broadly, like the abolitionist John Brown. And who knew that Albert Einstein was an anti-racist activist and worked closely with Paul Robeson? Today, we have scholars like Robin DiAngelo and David Roediger, and celebrities like Matt McGorry (How to Get Away with Murder), who acknowledge their own White privilege and commit themselves to using it to dismantle White supremacy. These are all important parts of the story of Whiteness. And there are many, many more.
The next time a production company or major studio announces that a White director, writer or producer plans to helm another story of Black and Brown pain (e.g. as it relates to enslavement, drug addiction, criminal behavior, racism), let’s ask them this: why don’t you tell the story of Whiteness? Black Twitter is in part responsible for the success and change of award shows representing more and more of us (e.g. #OscarsSoWhite), and even for getting an executive who posted racially inflammatory material on social media fired before her plane landed. Let’s harness that power to insist that mass media be used to tell the FULL Whiteness origin story.
As we uncover the origin story of Whiteness, so-called White people can begin to focus more on geographical regions to learn their history and describe their identities. Black, Latino, Asian and Native people — whose identities in the U.S. are formed through resistance, resilience and cultural traditions — will see when and how the seeds were planted that deeply affect our material and spiritual well-being today.
Then, we might all come together to constantly challenge racial hierarchies until this origin story is only part of our past — and no part of our future.