Everyone knows what racism is, right? Why bother writing another long essay about racism and its historical context…
But that’s precisely it, in many of the discussions I’ve had about race over the past four years it has become pretty clear to me that race and racism aren’t clearly understood as having a particular historical context. Recently, I’ve been delving into the origins of scientific racism and eugenics. Spending my free time reading primary sources from the actual people who created racism.
Even people who would be inclined to reject the dictionary definition of racism still tend operate within that conceptual framework for understanding race and racial relations. And, to be really honest, I don’t actually blame them. One of the interesting things about the history (and general study) of racism is the way that both it and race have become this generic, ahistorical concept that can and has existed at all times and amongst all people.
The major point this essay is making is that racism is bounded to a specific historical context and limited in its application to those contexts.
Saying so, in a large way, goes against a lot of modern and contemporary scholarship on racism. I’m feeling fairly fortunate, at this point, that I’m not actually a scholar and I don’t really have to engage or constrain myself to their garbage. And I won’t.
Unlike a lot of the stuff I write, this essay will have far more links and citations to academic stuff and, this especially, to primary sources on racism. By ‘primary’ I mean the documents and ideas written by the very people who created and invented racism and turned into the global ideology it currently is.
Which does lead into a warning for people reading this. I will be quoting directly from these people. I will edit out what slurs I’m able to identify (but I honestly have trouble telling which of the old historical terms are slurs and which are just derogatory bc these white ppl were fucking racist). But… You should take it as a general trigger warning that there will be quotations with horrible racism (especially in the parts where I talk about eugenics).
Another caveat that I have to make, because some people really don’t understand that when I’m relating historical information it doesn’t mean I, myself as an individual, am asserting the truth and validity of this information. However, because of the general influence and impact that some of the people I’ll be quoting had on the development of race, I will be asserting that the system of race I’m relating via their words is the system of race. Nonetheless, when I’m talking about what some crusty, old, white german guy said about any given race in 1795, this doesn’t mean I’m asserting or endorsing anything he wrote. If people are unhappy with his classification of various races, they need to take it up with him, not me.
I truly resent the fact that I have to say this at all. But… I’ve written about some of this stuff before and it often results in me getting accused of all sorts of things.
But… I have nothing to do with what Blumenbach said over two hundred years ago. I also have nothing to do with the impact that he (and his contemporaries and inheritors) had on the global, historical construction of race. I’m not responsible for the creation and establishment of scientific racism as the basis for global organization and the ensuing shitfest that followed. And communicating this history is not me agreeing with or endorsing it.
What I’m saying here is that:
Me != random crusty white ppl who invented racism and eugenics.
If the discussion up to this point has upset you and you find that you cannot make a clear distinction between me and the ideas (which I didn’t think up on my own) am communicating, then this essay isn’t for you. Just… please stop reading and don’t track me down to convey how mad you are that I quoted some crusty old white German’s racist ideas. No amount of yelling at me will change what he wrote or how it impacted the world.
I recently read a paper (in two parts) on the ‘invention’ of race in the european middle ages by Geraldine Heng. Overall, I found it an interesting thing because it really discusses race before race was actually invented. To one extent, this is exactly the kind of academic wank that I’m arguing against. And, of course, my notion that discussing a sense of ‘pre-modern’ race and/or racism isn’t coherent is what Heng is arguing against1.
However, in looking at her discussion of the current/recent scholarship on race, it is pretty clear that I cannot be included in their camp, since part of what I’m aguing in this essay is contra:
Race theory – whose brilliant practitioners are among the academy’s most formative and influential thinkers – understands, of course, that race has no singular or stable referent: that race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content.2
This? Is not at all what I’m arguing. However, since I’m not nearly so unnuanced as this, I want to talk about the ways that racism is stable while also acknowledging that it shifts and changes:
In principle, then, race studies after the mid-20th century, and particularly in the last three and a half decades, encourage a view of race as a blank that is contingently filled under an infinitely flexible range of historical pressures and occasions.3
But I want to argue that the ‘flexibility’ of race and racism is not infinite and actually constrained by overall structures and frameworks laid out by scientific racism. If we work with a notion that race is infinitely flexible than anything and everything can be considered race if viewed from a particular perspective. Which is, more or less, what Heng ends up asserting as the reason why we should consider what is discussed of the european middle ages as ‘race’4.
The short answer is that the use of the term ‘race’ continues to bear witness to important strategic, epistemological, and political commitments not adequately served by the invocation of categories of greater generality (such as ‘otherness’ or ‘difference’) or greater benignity in our understanding of human culture and society…Or, to put it another way: the refusal of race de-stigmatizes the impacts and consequences of certain laws, acts, practices, and institutions in the medieval period, so that we cannot name them for what they are, nor can we bear adequate witness to the full meaning of the manifestations and phenomena they install. 5
And honestly? This section of Heng’s argument is exactly why I resist so vehemently the dilution and generalization of race and racism as concepts and historical phenomena.
This literally gets to the heart of something I continue to find baffling and inexplicable (and something that Heng never actually addresses): In what way is not calling certain things ‘racism’ de-stigmatizing them and not bearing adequate witness?
I do not understand. At all.
And this is something that is quite common in much of contemporary discussions of race and racism. This and that must be racism because, if they aren’t, we are denying lived experiences and the reality of the oppression. It creates this utterly bizarre hierarchy of oppression where different kinds of oppression are more or less bad than other kinds. Such that, racism is TEH oppression to end all oppressions. This is the measuring stick by which all oppression is measured against. Your exprience of oppression is more or less valid by its proximal relationship to racism.
But why? Where does this idea come from? Why is this considered just to be fact by Heng and so many other people?
In saying this, I’m not trying to diminish what racism is and how it oppresses, but simply unclear about why it is so fucking important to Heng and others to call certain things racism?
All I can think of, in response, is that thing discussed in The Incredibles (you know, the Pixar movie) where Syndrome (or whatever his name is) wants to make everyone special because that means no one is special. This is a theme repeated throughout the movie. Now, I’m not saying that I buy into this. But I honestly think that this is the logic driving this desire to make racism infinitely flexible such that anything and everything can be racism. Because if everything is racism, then nothing is.
Heng then proposes this as a working hypothesis/definition of race:
‘race’ is one of the primary names we have – a name we retain precisely for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes – attached to a repeating tendency, of the gravest import, to demarcate human beings through differences among humans that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, in order to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups.6
This hypothesis is what frames Heng’s discussion in second part of this article, where it continues: “My understanding, thus, is that race is a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content”7.
Heng goes on to explore how non-biological bases for making these structural relationships implies that there were races in medieval europe.
My initial response to all of this is: no.
However, to get deeper into this, I find it completely curious and interesting that in all of Heng’s discussion of racism, white supremacy never once comes up. I suppose Heng’s discussion of colour and how it becomes THE marker of race is perhaps a subtle acknowledgement that perhaps what people have been calling ‘racism’ as invented in the enlightenment in europe is actually white supremacy. That white supremacy, specifically, has a modern origin.
But then… what is the relationship between racism and white supremacy? According to Heng (and others) racism can and frequently does exist outside of the auspices of white supremacy.
When I started the research for this essay, I had no idea that I’d actually find some academics who articulate a similar view of the history of racism that I do. While it is nice to have some validation on this front, that it took a lot of digging to find these objections is pretty telling. Because, as I read more and more into this, it becomes pretty clear that I really do have an ‘unpopular’ understanding of racism. And that Heng’s view and description of the overall consensus in critical race is actually the accurate/popular one at the moment.
As Eric Arnesen writes:
Nothing in the previous pages should suggest that issues of race, racial identity in general, and white racial identity in particular are not tremendously important subjects deserveing fo the attention they have received and ought to receive in the future. Rather, what this essay has argued is that how one studies race and racial identity matters considerably and that many of the assumptions, interpretive styles and techniques, and methodologies pursued by cultural historians of whiteness are highly problematic.8
Up until reading this, I don’t think I quite understood how… whiteness studies has pretty much contaminated critical race. I don’t know enough about the overall devopment of the field to really say if this is the case, but I do know that many of the things that the whiteness scholars Arnesen critiques here have become ‘common knowledge’ in racial discourse (things like ‘the irish became white’).
I also didn’t realize until reading this article that one of the main distinctions between how I am looking at race and how a lot more people are looking at it is methodological in nature:
The protagonists in this debate prioritise different arenas as the source of their claims. On one side, Barrett and Roediger see the cultural domain as the one in which perceptions of ‘inbetweenness’ are made explicit, while Arnesen and Guglielmo pragmatically see the legal domain as predominant. Whatever people said or did, argue the latter, in law all white people were white.9
This still sounds a little vague, so let me use some examples. One of the pieces of evidence used by the ‘irish became white’ crowd is that you can find media/cultural evidence that, at one point in american history, people made drawings in an attempt to portray the irish as non-white. Basically you see drawings like this used as evidence for the non-whiteness of irish people:
This and other cultural artifacts, inclusive of evidence of social exclusion, is more or less what provides the evidence for an irish progression from non-white to white.
On my side of the ‘debate’, I look at laws, institutions, primary sources of scientific racism and eugenics (basically scholarly debate rather than popular). This is where my ‘controversial’ checklist for determine who was and who wasn’t white in america in the early days comes into play.
What I wrote, back then was this:10
In other words…
the Catholic Irish were perceived as uncivilised and degenerate because within the proliferating racial hierarchies, Celts had been posited as a less-developed white ‘race’, particularly relative to the Anglo-Saxon. This did not necessarily mean that they were black. Indeed they enjoyed the opportunity to become citizens, move without restrictions, and exercise rights unhindered. Yet they were not considered white, if that meant able for the responsibilities encumbent upon members of the American democracy. The point of difference between Irish and Americans on which pro-Protestant American nativist discourse concentrated was religion.11
Me? I cannot understand how a scholar can assert something so… contradictory and so full of cognitive dissonance. But this sentence really is emblematic of what is going on in this ‘debate’. irish people were ‘culturally’ or ‘socially’ non-white but salvageable for whiteness because they were legally white.
Because this basically sums up my feelings about this:
Ignatiev concurs: It was “not so obvious in the United States” when the Irish began “coming over here in large number in the 1830s and 40’s, that they would in fact be admitted to all the rights of whites and granted all the privileges of citizenship.” That they were, in fact, granted all those rights and privileges upon naturalization…does not give Ignatiev pause.12
What I’m trying to communicate in this section is that I find the ‘racism can be anything’ crowd incoherent and I don’t understand them.
Now, Garner thinks that prioritizing the ‘legal domain’ is a mistake:
Whatever people said or did, argue the latter, in law all white people were white. However, this reasoning is open to the criticism that in sociological terms, the law can just as easily be deconstructed as can popular culture: it is not a superior level of discourse. This is exactly what Cheryl Harris (1993), whose work we examined in chapter 1, argues. The legal domain was utilised from the nineteenth century to inject scientific rationality into decisions about who belonged to which race: and these decisions had material impacts. Yet the basis of the law was spurious, reliant as it was on unfeasibly accurate records about people’s ancestry, and understandings of definitions of ‘race’ that were not empirically provable.13
It’s funny because in a lot of ways, this is more or less what I’m arguing for. That the legal and scientific domains determined who was and wasn’t white, and that this had material consequences. What I don’t understand is why Garner thinks that noting that racial science wasn’t actually a science somehow changes the fact that the people making these laws and using this science thought it was real and objective:
In fact the concept of the ‘one drop rule’ of descent required knowledge of genealogy that could not always be proven, and was based on two contestable ideas: first, that ‘race’ is purely biological and has no social component; and second, that whiteness can be polluted in a way that blackness cannot.14
Yeah, and? Maybe someone smarter than me can actually figure out why Garner thinks that the fact that the laws/science of the day were based on bullshit actually changes their material consequences. At this point, it is fairly clear to most people that racism as science and how it manifested in the law was utter and complete bullshit and not science even in the least. Anyway. I don’t get this. Yes, the laws were (and still are) based on a lot of garbage ideas but none of this changes how they impact the people they are used against.
Above all, this is what I’m hearing from the other side of this ‘debate’:
Racism describes what both the Irish and enslaved Africans experienced. While one group was literally property that the other could own, because of their legal status as white people, their experiences of oppression are similar enough to warrant the same name. That the process of social exclusion of the legally white people has some similarity or resemblance to the fact that this other group wasn’t even people, but property.
Which is more or less confirmed by this:
The shift in status for European- and African-descended elements of the workforce in seventeenth-century America is the starting point for the process that ended with black bodies being the property of Whites. The early decades of settlement involved white indentured labour working alongside enslaved labour.15
So… yeah. This is critical race these days. Actually asserting that because “indentured labour worked alongside enslaved labour” that this somehow implies that there wasn’t a clear distinction between who was property (and who was capable of being property) and who wasn’t.
Of course the question becomes: “THEN WHY WEREN’T THE INDENTURED SERVANTS ACTUALLY SLAVES?”
But what this makes clear is Arnesen’s criticism in his article:
Only if whiteness is merely a metaphor for class and social power are these men and women not white. But if is merely a metaphor, then its descriptive and explanatory power is weak and its repitition in so many different contexts contributes only to confusion.16
Which is pretty much my argument for why calling anything and everything ‘racism’ is not only incorrect but actively harmful. It is a dilution of a discourse that, at its basis, should be about poc being free.
And, yeah, this view is biased and ideological on my part, but I’m not worried about that because I’m not (thank the ancestors) an academic. I actually think that it is non-accidental that this dilution and confusion is proliferating throughout academia, given that it is also an institution of white supremacy and oppression. The fact that this research is rewarded and encouraged while the opposing view is… much more difficult to find and access, is pretty telling.
Because there are real implications from loosing focus on the fact that racism and white supremacy are institutional oppressions, not just about social class or whatever. That this ideology is the foundation for the society we currently live in.
One of the things that regularly comes up whenever I discuss race in the way that I do, is (invariably) random white europeans will wonder what, exactly, does american law and policy have to do with them. Don’t I know that race works differently in europe? That being american centric is bad?
It’s something that truly boggles my mind because racism has always, always been global in scope. Or it has been if we are talking about scientific racism and white supremacy, rather than the generic, academic view that I disagree with. Which, interestingly, does assert that racism is global but in a different ahistorical, pan-cultural way (ie, that my imaginary interlocuters are correct in asserting that racism in europe can be somehow different than racism in america).
Something that always mystifies me is where, exactly, these random modern europeans think americans came from? Do they remember that the US is a settler state? Built on stolen Indigenous ground? That all the white people there aren’t ‘natives’ and actually came from europe? That where people go, so do their ideas and ideologies?
Additionally, as far as why I think it is important to study american law and policy, when trying to understand racism as a scientific and historical phenomenon, is that it is the first modern state explicitely, from its very inception, built with a racist, white supremacist ideology.
Yes, racism and white supremacy comes from europe (where they exported it globally), but all of those countries and previous laws, policies, customs, and such that already included stuff that Heng calls ‘racism’. However, the US is different in the sense that while they were obviously influenced by many european ideas, they really tried to build a new kind of nation from the ground up.
So all the racism and white supremacy of the day was literally encoded into every institutional aspect of the US. And it was explicit not just implicit or implied by custom. The US, as far as I know, is also one of the few countries that has had actual court cases to determine the limits and boundaries of whiteness.
Only for them, after building a white supremacist, settler state, to become the dominant world power today, where the european ideas that they used to create their state and the ways that the US refined these ideas are also/still global in scope and influence.
Once the american state was up and running (and probably before) the history of racism is one of continual exchange between the white supremacists in america and the white supremacists in europe. Ideas frequently travelled back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean, again creating a context and history of racism that has always been international and global.
Part of my argument/perspect on race is that it is more stable than a lot of people usually think it is. I find it interesting that it is actually not that easy to find resources that actually allow you to truly understand the impact and influence and importance of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.
When I first read parts of his monumentally important treatise On the Natural Variety of Mankind back in January, I found it interesting and informative. But it wasn’t until I started doing the research for this essay that I truly understood significance of this treatise and of Blumenbach. While the the past 200 years or so has made some adjustments and refinements to his theory of race, the treatise is still the framework for racism today.
Yes, I understand that this is kind of an incredible claim but… once you start digging into the history of racism he comes up literally everywhere and as recently as 50-60 years ago is used as evidence in US court decisions (which is about the time that racism as science became discredited and no one really openly uses it, even as it continues to structure and inform racism and racial relations today).
In the early 1930s Blumenbach was used as the authority for determining whether or not Filipinos were mongolian or malay in a anti-miscegenation case:
The appellate court’s decision hinged on examination of the theories of racial anthropology current in the late 19th century when the law was drafted, in an effort to discern the legislative intent. County officials cited the work of Aleš Hrdlička in arguing that Filipinos were indeed part of the “Mongolian race”. However, Justice T. Archbald, who wrote the opinion in the case, disagreed, stating that J. F. Blumenbach’s taxonomy, which classified “Malays” and “Mongolians” separately, was the dominant theory through the early 20th century. He also pointed out that the term “Mongolians” in popular opinion was meant principally to apply to the Chinese, in reaction to the late 19th-century influx of Chinese immigrants. The court thus concluded that Filipinos were members of the “Malay race” and not the “Mongoloid race”, finding Roldan and Rogers’ marriage legal.17
(Not long after this the Californian government amended the anti-miscegenation law to prohibit malays from marrying whites.)
And the more you read into this history, the more he pops up as a continual touching point for many different areas of racism. His treatise was the canonical one that people engaged when they wanted to advance their own theories of race. His treatise, as noted above, was used for a long, long time as one of the major authoritative scientific books on racism.
These days, its incredibly difficult to adequately describe the impact and important of Blumenbach and his legacy. In most contexts and situations, few people will outright affirm a belief in scientific racism. Indeed, the usual response to someone espousing scientific (or biologically essentialist) racism is to consider them an extremist and/or white supremacist.
Yet… the world is still largely divided into the very races he sets out in the treatise (minus the Malay race –which only only ‘disappeared’ within the last 50-60 years). Many of the racial stereotypes can be traced back to him or one of his contemporaries (or one of their intellectual descendents).
But the thing is, is that until about the 1950s or so, people really and truly believed that racism was a science. That racism had some objective reality that could be understood from observation, measurement, or other scientific inquiry. This means that from about 1795 to 1950 people (especially white people) were operating with the sincere belief that racism was an accurate, factual, and objective way to understand the world18.
Sure, sure, like many other areas of science there were disagreements and different theoretical constructions, but few people truly questioned Blumenbach’s authoritative treatise declaring that race existed and that is was biologically based, objective, and quantifiable.
This is how, despite the passage of more than a century, Blumenbach could still be cited as an authority when determining whether or not Filipinos are mongolians or malayans. Because while racism had become refined by the 1930s, it remained more or less within the framework set out by Blumenbach and other scientific racists of his time.
Its also why/how american courts thought that a german’s theory of racism was somehow relevant or authoritative enough to guide their judicial decisions over who was and wasn’t white. This is part of what I mean when I say that racism is (and always has been) global in scope. Blumenbach was talking about all the people everywhere and this came at a time when european white supremacy was starting to reach its zenith – which means that white people were everywhere colonizing and murdering.
Of course, if I’m going to be discussing and situating Blumenbach as having (more or less) creating the conceptual framework for race that lives on today, I should probably discuss what he actually has to say.19
Blumenbach is generally credited with popularizing ‘caucasian’ as the ‘scientific’ name for white people. He didn’t coin the term (that was Christoph Meiners, one of his contemporaries), nor was he the one who connected ‘caucausian’, ‘whiteness’, and beauty (again Meiners). But as noted in the previous section, his description and delineation became the authority on scientific racism. Sure, even he discusses competing racial theories in his treatise, but in the hindsight of history, we can see that his version more or less became standard (as standard as any such theory could be).
All mankind, as far as it is at present known to us, seems to me as if it may best, according to natural truth, be divided into the five following varieties; which may be designated and distinguished from each other by the names Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay.20
I could quote and describe everything he writes about each individual race, but honestly? You can probably guess since his descriptions and assumptions are largely what we continue to have today.
More interesting, to me, is the geographical boundaries for each race, since the scope of ‘caucasian’ for him is much broader than many would find desirable and it later causes some real problems.
Here is a map that I coloured in with his various races and their approximate geographic regions:
Its kind of breathtaking to behold, yes? Especially when you remember that Blumenbach himself never travelled outside of Europe. All of these distinctions are based on testimony and the ~scientific~ measurement of human skulls.
The other main thing to really note about his theory of race is that he considered caucasians to be the proginitor race and the rest of us degenerations. Thus, of course, white people are at the top of the racial hierarchy. But, the hierarchy sort of splits in two directions. At one extreme we have Mongolians, with (Indigenous) Americans as the intermediate race. At the other extreme we have Ethiopians, with Malays as the intermediate race.
Now, because this was meant to be ‘science’, this isn’t necessarily connected to culture. When reading it, it is pretty clear that he means ‘degenerate’ in a purely biological sense, with little comment about civilization or culture21. This is, in my opinion, historically significant.
First because, as he concludes the chapter (and the treatise) this means:
That no doubt can any longer remain but that we are with great probability right in referring all and singular as many varieties of man as are at present known to one and the same species.22
I think a lot of people miss out on the fact that this is his main thesis and conclusion. His discussion of race wasn’t about entrenching social categories or whatever, but actually his way of demonstrating that we are all the same species. It was, during his time, an ongoing debate whether or not the distinct races were the same or distinct species. And it is a debate that continued after him, but with a lot less fervour (especially post-Darwin).
The ‘white people as progenitors’ of the human race is also important because it begins to betray… certain notions of racial purity that become very important later in history. Also interesting is the various mentions throughout the text of an ‘Ancient German’ people who were more racially pure and archetypal of caucasian than they currently are (they all used to have blonde hair and blue eyes, but not so much anymore23). I’m sure the implications of this are pretty clear.
What is remarkable about reading through Blumenbach’s treatise is… how much of what he says about the various races is still part of the stereotypes today. And yet… people truly do argue that racism isn’t stable (and the referrents of race are changeable), despite there being over two hundred years of consistency in the ideology, framework, and structure of racism.
I think the most striking thing, and something I’ve only noticed after re-reading the context of the above quotation like five times’ is this:
Five principal varieties of mankind may be reckoned. As, however, even among these arbitrary kinds of divisions, one is said to be better and preferable to another; after a long and attentive consideration, all mankind, as far as it is at present known to us, seems to me as if it may best, according to natural truth, be divided into the five following varieties; which may be designated and distinguished from each other by the names Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. I have allotted the first place to the Caucasian, for the reasons given below, which make me esteem it the primeval one.24
Note how he says literally in one breath “these arbitrary kinds of divisions” but in the very next asserts that regardless of the arbitrariness of his own racial classification, one is always “better and preferable to another”. Moreover, in the next sentence he asserts that “according to natural truth” humankind can be divided into five races.
This paragraph boggles my mind because it demonstrates an awareness of the cognitive dissonance of scientific racism that I didn’t think anyone would be aware of for another few hundred years. Yet here is Blumenbach, pretty much the granddaddy of racism, himself saying that the divisions are arbitrary and natural at the same time. And that, even if arbitrary, one is still better than another.
And it isn’t necessarily surprising, given that Blumenbach’s own discussions of racial characteristics elsewhere in the treatise takes great pains in noting that many of the stereotyped characteristics can and do exist pretty much amongst all the races. This is necessary, of course, for his thesis that caucasians are the progenitor race and the rest of us degenerated from there. Moreover, it appears he is scientist enough to actually understand that race isn’t a biologically essential aspect of people25.
Yet he still asserts not only that one race is better than another, but that the caucasian race is the best of them all. I think this sort of answers one of the questions I’ve had re: a chicken/egg scenario regarding the relationship between racism and white supremacy. It is pretty clear, to me, that his racial classification is motivated by white supremacy. Because… if he can note that the divisions are arbitrary and his own ‘scientific’ conclusions basically state that all people are of the same species, thus, race isn’t an ‘essential’ aspect, what other motivation could he have for wanting to position white people at the top of the hierarchy?
My position for a few years now is that racism is one (of many) tools of white supremacy. Which means that white supremacy existed before racism, something that confirms what anti-Blackness scholars have been saying about the relationship between Blackness and whiteness. Rather, I think racism was a way to entrench white supremacy as a natural, necessary part of the world. In other words, racism was an attempt to pull in various ideas about white superiority in relation to various Others into a single, coherent system.
This is also why I don’t think that any construction or conceptualization of racism that isn’t about white supremacy is missing the point and ignoring this historical context. Many of the people who argue for non-biological foundations of racisms go on and on about how (because race is socially constructed) it isn’t necessarily all about colour. Except that… racism was socially constructed to explain, justify, and entrench white supremacy in and on people’s bodies.
And, regardless of what Blumenbach says about the arbitrariness of the divisions, it was a powerful explanation precisely because it ended up tying ‘civilization’ with largely immutable biologically essential characteristics. Because, sure, we are all one species but some are inherently better than others and that’s just science, amirite? All the proof and evidence is there.
Based on the responses I get whenever I discuss Blumenbach, it is pretty clear that a lot of people get upset by how broad his definition of whiteness is. I mean. Look at that map: all of Europe (minus the Saami), the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Central Asia, and South Asia? That’s a lot of fucking people. Inclusive of people who, at no point in history, were ever actually considered white or caucasian (like pretty much all of South Asia). It also covers a bunch of persecuted and oppressed people within Europe, flattening all the experiences therein as the same. Particularly as race is essentially tied to white supremacy.
But this was considered science and so white people legitimately had to grapple with a scientific, objective framework that said that a German was the same race as an Indian.
The fact that this was a real problem is exemplified by a different US Supreme Court case that helped define the legal boundaries of whiteness. In 1923 an Indian man, Bhagat Singh Thind, applied to be naturalized as an american citizen. At the time, only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” could be naturalized as citizens. His petition was granted. But then the State tried to cancel his naturalization.
Here is the argument Thind used:
Since the Ozawa v. United States court case had just decided that the meaning of white people for the purposes of the Court were people who were members of the Caucasian race, Thind argued that he was a white person by arguing that he was a member of the Caucasian race. Thind argued using “a number of anthropological texts” that people in Punjab and other Northwestern Indian states belonged to the “Aryan race”, and Thind cited scientific authorities such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as classifying Aryans as belonging to the Caucasian race. Thind argued that, although some racial mixing did indeed occur between the Indian castes, the caste system had largely succeeded in India at preventing race-mixing. Thind argued that by being a “high-caste Hindu, of full Indian blood” he was a “Caucasian” according to the anthropological definitions of his day.26
Obviously, the court didn’t buy this argument because they said that no one, beyond scientific circles, actually thought that Indians were included in the common usage of ‘caucasian.’ And so his citizenship was revoked. Then Indians became subject to a whole bunch of other racist laws that previously hadn’t necessarily included them (like California Alien Land Law).
I communicate this to again show how long of a shadow Blumenbach cast, but also how his definition of caucasian actually resulted in some very real consequences.
Of course, people might take this to mean that I’m wrong about racism being a fairly stable discourse. Didn’t I just present an example for how whiteness is unstable because of its changing boundaries over time? Doesn’t the case also fit within the three part test of whiteness that I proposed above?
Somewhat. While it is clear that Indians were able to naturalize as citizens at a time when no other Asians could and that they could also own property when no other Asians could, I think this is really the only case and group of people I can think of that their whiteness was revoked and these privileges stripped from them27.
What’s interesting to me, is that the people who claim that some ethnic whites ‘became’ white is that they can’t really show a similar transition. It isn’t that ethnic whites came to America and slowly, over time gain the same rights and civil privileges as white people (in the way that literally all other people of colour had to). No, they always had those. What changed was social and popular perceptions of these ethnic groups.
I think the Thind case demonstrates that, regardless of the science (which was still very important), white people generally had a good understanding of who was white and who wasn’t. The science was important to them up until it contradicted popular notions of whiteness (i.e., the ones needed to support white supremacy).
The fact that racism as science has largely been discredited and abandoned, yet racism as institution continues to live, has had an interesting consequence on the discourse of racism today (or at least since the 1950s or thereabouts). In a strange way, there was a positive aspect to the belief that race was a scientific and objective quality of human beings.
Namely, that because it was science, it was open to revision (and as such, was actually revised and adapted according to contemporary needs). However, now that it is generally believed that racism isn’t a science but a socially constructed idea, it has actually become more stable and difficult to revise or change. Moreover, it has also become more reductive and ‘primitive’ in how it assigns race.
In other words, there is no more ability to, for example, try to establish ones ‘whiteness’ in court. This isn’t open to debate anymore. You are either white or you are not. One could say that it isn’t necessary, because of legal changes, for anyone to establish their legal whiteness (I mean, poc can become citizens, vote, and own property these days, right?). However, as ongoing social and political issues demonstrate, having attained these minimal legal recognitions has not actually led to all rights being equally enjoyed.
Another way to look at this is that ‘whiteness’ before really was a golden ticket. If you were legally white, then everything was pretty much open to you. Sure, there were (as always) social hierarchies and some whites weren’t as popular as others (to begin with). Today, however, ‘becoming white’ isn’t a coherent strategy since it is impossible. Instead, we must fight to be ‘equal to’ whites and try to attain the same legal and social status.
Some interesting observations for the current state of race is, if I’m wrong about race as historically bounded phenomena and people like Ignatiev are right, why hasn’t any classically non-white ethnicity successfully followed in the path of the irish? The irish thing happened a while back.
I read (not too long ago) that the ‘invisibility’ of pilipinxs in racial discourse was largely due to our efforts to assimilate to whiteness. Given that we are also more than happy to leverage anti-Blackness in the same way as the irish to ingratiate ourselves with whiteness, why haven’t pinxys managed to make the transition? Especially considering our colonial relationship with America (at one point we were all american nationals – but not citizens).
Whiteness is and always has been stable.
But not for the reason that people usually assume. I think one of the most interesting things to come out of anti-Blackness (as theory) is the observation that whiteness is a response to Blackness. That white humanity is predicated on Black un-humanity. One of the most interesting aspects to contemporary racism, imo, is that more than any other race, Black ppl are still reduced to a colour. Gone is the classical Yellow, Red, and Brown races. All that remains is Black.28
Whiteness is stable because Blackness is stable. One of the other things I’ve seen through my research is that there exists resources discussing how “Yellow” changed over time and history. Same with ‘Red’. Also with ‘Brown’. That these colours did change and alter overtime (to disappear nowadays). And yet… there doesn’t appear to be the same issue with ‘Black’. Who is Black and what it refers to appears to be the least discussed racial category (until very recently).
In a lot of ways… this apparent stability of Blackness and the fact that it appears to have been interrogated far less often than any other racial category, confirms what Saidiya Hartman calls ‘the position of the unthought’:
On one hand, the slave is the foundation of the national order, and, on the other, the slave occupies the position of the unthought.29
That Blackness is a primitive within racial discourse only serves as further evidence for this30. So long as Blackness (and anti-Blackness) remain stable, primitive elements within racism and white supremacy, the system as a whole will remain stable. While there might be some… fluctuations within the other racial categories, they will remain (and have remained) fundamentally the same.
To sum up this part, in bullet points, here are the claims that I’ve made:
Heng, Geraldine. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 315–31. doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00790.x. 318. ↩
Heng, Geraldine. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 315–31. doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00790.x. 319. ↩
Shortly after the previous quote, Heng basically goes on to describe how race can function as class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc. Since I haven’t read the sort of things she is articulating and I’m probably never going to, I’m definitely just taking her word for it that people have coherently argued for all of these positions. ↩
ibid. 322-323. ↩
ibid. 324. ↩
Heng, Geraldine. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 332–50. doi:10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00795.x. 332. ↩
Arnesen, Eric. “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 60 (October 1, 2001): 3–32. 25. ↩
Garner, Steve. Whiteness: An Introduction. Routledge, 2007. 67. ↩
Originally, I had made mention of miscagenation laws but have accepted via arguments made by other people that this isn’t a good metric for various reasons. ↩
ibid 122. ↩
Arnesen, Eric. “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 60 (October 1, 2001): 3–32. 14. ↩
ibid. 67. ↩
ibid. 27. ↩
ibid. 26. ↩
Arnesen, Eric. “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 60 (October 1, 2001): 3–32. 20. ↩
“Roldan v. Los Angeles County.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, March 21, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Roldan_v._Los_Angeles_County&oldid=652906507. ↩
Or 1767 if you want to blame Linnaeus for really getting things started, especially since our current racial classifications are pretty much exactly the same as he described, “americanus-red, europeanus-white, asiatics-yellow, africanus-Black”. However, Blumenbach is where the whole ‘caucasian, mongoloid, etc’ come from. ↩
For anyone wanting some historical info on Blumenbach, I recommend reading the chapter about him in Nell Irvine Painter’s, The History of White People. Which, coincidentally, is pretty much the only book in ‘whiteness studies’ that I’d be willing to recommend. Well written, rich in historical details, and not written by a white man. I don’t agree with all of her conclusions or interpretations, but its a really good book nonetheless. ↩
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, Thomas Bendyshe, P. Flourens, John Hunter, K. F. H. Marx, and Rudolph Wagner. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach … London,: Pub. for the Anthropological Society, by Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, n.d. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/107931. 264. ↩
If not, it’s unlikely he would have put East Asians as a pole given that these areas were considered somewhat ‘civilized’ by european standards, whereas pretty much nowhere else in the world was. ↩
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, Thomas Bendyshe, P. Flourens, John Hunter, K. F. H. Marx, and Rudolph Wagner. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach … London,: Pub. for the Anthropological Society, by Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, n.d. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/107931. 276. ↩
On page 226 he writes “Blue eyes equally with yellow hair were formerly considered as natural characteristics of the ancient Germans”. ↩
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, Thomas Bendyshe, P. Flourens, John Hunter, K. F. H. Marx, and Rudolph Wagner. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach … London,: Pub. for the Anthropological Society, by Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, n.d. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/107931. 264. ↩
This is especially clear in the section where he is talking about the Ethiopian race, since he takes care to refute the notion that people of the Ethiopian race are not actually a distinct species of their own. Why? Because there is not unique or defining characteristic that they have that isn’t also present in the other races and because not all Ethiopians embody whatever stereotype is being considered (271 ibid.). ↩
“United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, September 27, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=United_States_v._Bhagat_Singh_Thind&oldid=683051183. ↩
Indeed, the wikipedia article on the history of Indian Immigrants suggest that Indians only enjoyed about 10 years of the the right to naturalize. The first Indian to naturalize was A.K. Mozumdar in 1913 and then 1923 the courts decided that they weren’t white and so couldn’t. ↩
While white is pretty prevalant, in most ‘official’ places ‘caucasian’ is more frequently used. Which is interesting in a different way, given that ‘caucasian’ is a more white supremacist way of saying ‘white’. ↩ ↩2
I’m using the word ‘primitive’ here intentionally. In my background as a logician, ‘primitives’ within a logical system are the undefined concepts. These are the concepts within the theory that are assumed to be ‘obviously’ true and not requiring arguments to support them. While this sounds like what assumptions are, it is actually some deeper and more fundamental. Since formal logic is, ultimately, about studying systems that based on certain rules, the truth of conclusions is guaranteed by the truth of the premises. Primitive concepts aren’t just assumptions. They are assumptions that are considered as obvious, indisputable truths, such that they can be used within a formal system without endangering entailment or logical consequence. Essentially, they do not require ‘thought’. ↩