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
“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.