Tell Me Who You Are

A Brief History of Whiteness

How one category became the norm and one ‘the other’

By Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

TThe racial categories that we’re familiar with developed only 200 years ago, primarily by England and Spain. Otherwise cut off from the rest of the world, England kept on invading Ireland, labeling the people as savages — in fact, the cruel saying “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” first circulated in England as “the only good Irishman is a dead Irishman.”

A little less than 2,000 miles away from England, Spain, loyal to the Catholic Church, was offering the Jewish and Muslim people under their rule three choices: “leave, convert, or die.” While many Jews and Muslims converted to Catholicism to escape persecution, church leaders questioned their sincerity, leading to the 1478 Spanish Inquisition, during which “interest in religious purity morphed into an obsession with blood purity,” as Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer write in Racial Domination, Racial Progress.

In both England and Spain during this time, nationalism and capitalism began to rise. To satisfy Europe’s growing sense of nationalism and hunger for capitalism, the Age of Discovery began — “or, from the standpoint of the indigenous people of Africa and the Americas, the ‘Age of Terrorism,’” write Desmond and Emirbayer. When Christopher Columbus “discovered America” — aka happened upon an island in the Bahamas that was already inhabited — the Americas were populated by approximately 50 million to 100 million indigenous people.

With Christopher Columbus’ lead, the Spanish colonized the Americas; the English followed a century later. From 1600 to 1900, 90 to 99 percent of America’s indigenous peoples died as a direct result of European colonization.

With the rise of nationalism, capitalism, and European discovery of the “New World” — which, again, was only “new” from a European perspective — a different worldview was desired to make sense of it all. Through colonialism, “race” became a key element of that worldview.

Whiteness remains the dominant category today — other races are compared and contrasted relative to it.

To further their capitalist interests in the “New World,” the English needed a labor force. So, indentured servitude started. Indentured servants were often kidnapped. They included Irish, impoverished English, indigenous, and African people. (Note how the English and Irish are identified as people from two separate nations, whereas indigenous and African people, all from different nations, are considered as two monoliths.)

Indentured servitude evolved into chattel slavery. Among all other indentured servants, why were Black people singled out to be enslaved? It couldn’t be Native Americans, because their numbers were reducing rapidly, they could escape their captors more easily since they were familiar with the land, and they were already relied upon as trappers in the lucrative fur trade business. It couldn’t be the “savage Irish” because, upon escaping, Irish slaves could “blend in” with their English captors.

Africans, however, could not blend in. Furthermore, Africans were not accustomed to the American landscape, making escape from captivity more difficult; they were also immune to Old World diseases, unlike Natives, and many were already farmers. Africans soon came to be seen as “the perfect slaves” and originally not strictly because of their Blackness.

Thus, Whiteness and Blackness were born: “twins birthed from the same womb, that of slavery,” write Desmond and Emirbayer. The White race began to be formed “out of a heterogeneous and motley collection of Europeans who had never before perceived that they had anything in common.”

Whiteness remains the dominant category today — other races are compared and contrasted relative to it. Whiteness positions itself against ideas of, among others, Blackness, Indigenousness, Asianness, and Hispanic-ness. This is why people of color, rather than White people, will frequently be identified by their race. Whiteness has become the norm.

From TELL ME WHO YOU ARE by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi.

A youth-led non-profit working to equip every American with racial literacy. Authors of #TellMeWhoYouAre. More chooseorg.org // @choose_org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store