Though I’ve touched on the development of the white mindset before, I continue to uncover more historical and present dimensions of it – in myself and in others. Most recently, Dr. Ibram Kendi’s National Book Award Winner Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America has been a source of new knowledge and understanding.
Using his research along with others listed in Resources below, here is a brief account of a pivotal point in what I’ll call the Great White Hoax:
For decades after Europeans came to this land, there was a distinct class system:
Wealthy white landowners, business owners and plantation owners were clearly at the apex, holding absolute power.
All others were in an amalgamated lower class that consisted of:
- Free laborers – of all “races”
- Indentured laborers – of all “races” (under term-limited contracts to those who brought them here)
- Enslaved laborers – of all “races”
Until the late 1600’s, these lower-class people intermingled, socialized, and intermarried. They shared a common bond: frustration with the oppressive systems devised by the wealthy power people.
In 1676 a white Virginian Nathaniel Bacon organized a rebellion, recruiting a thousand Virginians from ALL the lower-class categories. The rebellion was eventually quelled, but as author Kendi observes, in the eyes of wealthy owners, “poor Whites and enslaved Blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse.”
Those owners resurrected an ancient technique to defuse the possibility:
Divide and Conquer.
Convince the “white” people (free, indentured or slave) that they were clearly superior to those “black” people, and were more rightly akin to the wealthy “whites.” Over the next decades, a series of laws, codes and restrictions (property rights, voting rights, right to bear arms, etc.) were instituted to grant favor to “whites” over others.
The bottom line is this:
- We were taught to esteem our white skin and white unity
- More importantly, we were taught that white-skinned people are superior to black-skinned people.
- Why were we taught this? So that wealthy whites could count on poor whites to side with them against black-skinned people.
This strategy was an overwhelming success. The owners could now simply appeal to the higher status granted by whiteness to convince the white masses to join them in deriding, castigating and persecuting those inferior, bumbling, pathetic Blacks – successfully diverting the attention of the other whites from the injustices they suffered alongside the Black folks.
Thus, the racial divide was intentionally fostered and enshrined. Kendi recounts how bogus “scientific” research was devised to prove the superiority of white people, all debunked over time, but touted by many of our most esteemed leaders over the centuries. (One description of many from Jefferson: “In imagination are they dull, tasteless and anomalous, and in reason much inferior.”) The truth: Physical variations seen among “races” developed over centuries, due to a process of natural selection including geographic adaptation. Genetic testing now gives incontrovertible evidence that we are simply one human race.
That faux scientific evidence is rarely touted now, but the strategy of “Divide and Conquer” has prevailed. The infamous Southern Strategy, which turned the democratic South solid red, was articulated by Nixon campaign strategist Lee Atwater in 1968 (The Nation, Nov. 2012). Republican politicians of that era began to speak in a kind of racial code, designed to turn white working-class voters against government programs, the very kind of government programs that these workers themselves had benefited from for years, because those “Negroes” were taking advantage of them!
To be clear, this Southern Strategy was as effective in the North as it was in the South. It continues with today’s dog-whistle politics, but it also continues in many progressive/liberal minds in a more subtle and no-less toxic form: “helping.” Please consider the possibility that your good works may be tainted: tutoring, mentoring, making contributions, hiring minorities, serving on not-for-profit Boards, etc.. I’ve found that my compassion contains at least some traces of condescension, which is white superiority, which is white supremacy.
This does not mean that we stop trying! The point is not that we quit what we’re doing, but that we become more astute in recognizing how deep-seated our biases are, how entrenched white superiority is in our DNA. This consciousness can foster a “cleaner” approach to what we do, a more humble attitude. As I deepen my awareness, for example, I find myself listening more, absorbing the wisdom of those I had set out to “help.”
Join in this awakening by using the resources listed here.
Comments and suggestions welcome below.
Stamped From the Beginning – The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. National Book Award Winner by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Traces the development of the uniquely American brand of racism, tracking the calculated origins of the race idea. He details the extent to which white people have been duped into seeing ourselves as a superior people.
America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness by Maurice Berger
Race: The Power of Illusion, Episode 2, The Story We Tell. PBS Documentary
Scene on Radio Podcast “Seeing White” Series
“Guidelines for being strong white allies” 2 ½ page guide by Paul Kivel.
“Developing Authentic Anti-Racist Leadership” Brief list from Howard Eagle
Use these resources to intentionally increase knowledge and consciousness. Seek feedback in situations where you are helping.
10 thoughts on “The Great White Hoax: Who Told You You Were White? And Why?”
“how deep seated our biases are” leading to a posture of listening more and “helping” less. Can the listening and helping be simultaneous? I have found that in helping we are also
helped in many cases if only in our understanding to a better degree of “the other”.
And I definitely find the same thing, Dan. Most of the time now, I don’t even pretend that I’m helping. I’m often just sitting there learning!
Thanks for the reference and historical perspective, Frank. There’s also an element to white supremacy’s impact through history (American and world) that continues to this day: religion used to justify the enslavement or genocide of the “other.” When Roman Emperor Constantine saw political power advantage in establishing monotheism as the official state religion, he was raising up what was then a persecuted Hebrew cult minority to power his regime. It worked. Fast forward through the “Holy” Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Protestant Revolt or Revolution (depending on your Christian allegiance), to the genocide of indigenous people by a variety of British/European and now American empires. Economic interests and power harnessed military power then justified by religion to “save the savages” by converting them to “God” or enslaving them as sub-human compared to the noble white man. Always man.
Why were Japanese-Americans “interned” during WWII but not German-Americans like my mother’s family or my wife’s? Why is Churchill lionized while his documented racism against “inferior races” ignored?
Ta-Nah-Hisi Coates’ eloquent and accurate testimony before Congress brings into sharp focus the institutional racism that’s continuing to be leveraged by the white predators, in government and its corporate owners, to divide and grow their power.
All empires rot from within. Our American version, rooted in white supremacy since it was a British colony, is following that pattern.
Thanks, Bob. I always appreciate your thoughtful and factual input. And I’m sure you’re aware of this as well, but worth mentioning for others: the Doctrine of Discovery by the RC Church is also clear evidence of using religion to disguise what were essentially economic motives.
I don’t remember when I was identified as white, but I know when I became aware of my whiteness, and it was when I was in a roomful of people – or a neighborhood – that was mainly not white. Suddenly I didn’t blend in. The vast majority of the time, however, I am unaware of my whiteness, and the simple privileges it brings. Thanks for writing these blogs, Frank.
Thanks for this contribution, Joyce.
Several years ago a local writer by the name of Curt Smith who was a Nixon speech writer wrote some articles about what a great president Nixon was and I sent him an e-mail asking him about Nixon’s Southern Strategy and his reply was”what a brilliant strategy it was”.He currently teaches in the UR English Dept.Not a lot changes
Wow! I’m doing a talk there later in the summer. Maybe I should invite him.
I agree. Divide and Conquer is an approach used throughout human history, especially to set the “common person” in one group against a similar person in another group. The rulers and the wealthy use this approach to maintain and grow power.
Scientifically, race does not exist. I hope over the next 50 years, society will culturally get rid of it.
Agreed, Mike – though I hope it doesn’t take 50 years.