“Whiteness”: The origins and evolution of “whiteness” in the West

This picture will make more sense at the end of this post.

Recently headline news (namely Kony 2012 and Trayvon Martin) have made me think a lot about race and race relationships in the U.S. I quickly found that one question that needs to be answered if someone is going to enter into this conversation in a meaningful way is, “What does it mean to be white?” On the surface this question appears deceptively simple.  Broadly and generally speaking white-skinned Caucasians are “white” and other people are not “white.” Whatever white-skinned Caucasians value can be thought of as “white values” and their culture could be considered is “white culture.”

Growing up in a bi-racial home (my mother is Dutch and my father is Filipino) the definition of “whiteness” was visually clear but not as clear cut in reality. Taken purely as a label related to skin color my Dutch side is white, and my Filipino side is not white. However, my father values many of the things my mother’s family does.  Did he adopt white values or are Filipino values and white values one and the same?  Growing up I have occasionally been referred to as a “coconut”  by other minorities, meaning I am  someone who is “brown” on the outside but “white” on the inside. While this might have been rude it is also true. In terms of skin color I am certainly not white-skinned, but many of my values, beliefs and my approach to life as a whole all have been traditionally associated with people of white-skin color.

When I started thinking and reading about this concept more recently I found I was entering as a layman into conversations that have been going on for decades.  I quickly realized that the answer to the question “What does it mean to be white” is actually a lot more complex. I encountered many scholars and historians who have argued for a non-traditional definition of “whiteness,” one where “whiteness” is understood to be a social construct that had changed over time. While new to me, this this understanding actually made a lot of sense when it is applied to the broader conversation about race relationships in the U.S. and my own experiences.

In this post I will do my best to succinctly present this “new to me” understanding of “whiteness.”

A bit of a disclaimer: I will be writing about “whiteness” in a way that will be foreign to many of you. I will continue putting “whiteness” in quotation marks to highlight this fact. This is a broader way of talking about “whiteness” that involves much more than just skin-color. I am talking about things in larger cultural terms and realize there will be individual exceptions. I am not talking about what a white skinned person must think or do to be a “real white man/woman.”  I am not suggesting every white-skinned person agrees with, embodies or is uncritical of some of the values and power structures that have been associated with “whiteness.” If you are offended at something that I present, first check yourself to make sure you are tracking with what I am presenting.  If you are still offended, as usual, please feel free to comment.

The short version…

The briefest summary of the definition of “whiteness” as a socially constructed reality that I can manage is this:

Race was a concept that was invented for a variety of theological and pragmatic reasons during the 16th century.  It developed first to explain problems European Christians had with the Jewish people that for some reason refused to assimilate to the dominant culture and religion even after centuries of exposure.  It was suggested that there must be something in their blood and lineage that marked them as different from the rest of the Europeans. It was suggested they were a race separate from the rest of humanity. This was the theological origin of the concept of race. This concept was later applied to indigenous people encountered around the world who were incredibly foreign to the colonizing Europeans. A belief in the inherent racial inferiority of indigenous people and a belief in the inherent racial superiority of white-skinned Europeans were both used to justify the exploitative and oppressive practices in colonialism.

“Whiteness” was created during this same time. “Whiteness” was originally a socially constructed reality invented by the white-skinned rich/European elite. It was a social status with benefits that was conferred upon poor white-skinned people by rich white-skinned people. It would be part of what we would know today as class warfare. The invention and use of “whiteness” was an effort to “divide and conquer” the poor who the rich white-skinned European elite were exploiting. The rich white-skinned elite were attempting to prevent an interracial uprising of poor/indentured/enslaved people against themselves by pitting the poor against each other along skin color lines. To this end they elevated the white-skinned poor just enough to make them think they were participants and beneficiaries in a system of European power instead of victims of it. During this time “whiteness” was explicitly tied to the white-skin color. However, there were exceptions and the social status of “whiteness” and its benefits were also conferred upon non-white skinned people who obeyed the systems of power and adhered to certain values.

Over time “whiteness” has become a social status irrespective of skin color that has become synonymous with loyalty and obedience to the power structures of a society that has been and is predominantly shaped and controlled by “White”/Western/European culture and persons (especially the rich) and adherence to the values that have traditionally been “White”/Western/European values. The benefits of “whiteness” have become automatic for those that are obedient to the right power structures and adhere to the right values. While it continues to exist, “Whiteness” as a distinct social status is no longer talked about or named and it has become an invisible reality impacting race relationships in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The rest of this post will explain this short summary in more detail.  In many ways, this will represent the tracing of the evolution of “whiteness” over time.

The theological origins of race…

While various white-skinned Caucasian people have obviously existed for centuries, the concept of race in general and the concept of a “white race” are a relatively recent invention. Previous to the 16th century no on talked about “being white” or thought of white-skinned Europeans as a separate race distinct from all others. While they may have looked similar white-skinned Europeans were divided amongst themselves by a variety of geographical, cultural, linguistic, political and religious differences. They were by no means a unified group that identified with one another. In fact, they often hated and warred with each other for a variety of reasons.

The concept of dividing human beings into distinct races or ethnic groups based on physical characteristics and bloodline was created in 16th century for a variety of theological, cultural and practical reasons that all blended in together.

The theological origins developed as the dominant Christian societies of Western Europe began to wrestle with Jews, who were not assimilating to the dominant culture or religion. As previously mentioned European nations were divided by rather clear linguistic, cultural and religious factors.  However, many European nations had Jews in them and the Jews often did not fit this mold exactly. The Jews rejected Christianity, spoke whatever language they grew up with, and had been maintaining their own culture, religion and practices for centuries. They Jews were not seen as French enough in France, English enough in England, German enough in Germany, etc. These realities, mixed with anti-semitic rumors (such as the blood libel), led to the Jews being seen as a threat or problem that needed to be sorted out.

In addition to this, the Christians of Western Europe had to wrestle with the fact that the Jews had been exposed to Christianity for centuries and most had not converted. Those that had converted were suspected of doing so for pragmatic reasons. It was suggested that there must be some reason why the Jews were not accepting the truth of the Gospel, which was ostensibly plainly evident and true to everyone else. It was suggested that there must be something in their blood, something that went to their very nature, something that made them fundamentally different from other Europeans. It was suggested that this difference is what prevented them from converting to Christianity. This “blood myth” became accepted, it led predictably to what would be known today as ethnic cleansing (as nations attempted to purge themselves of these “others”). This was the theological origins of our concept of race/ethnicity and our practice of setting people apart according to their their blood lineage as a people.

(Sidenote: For more on the theological origins of the concept of race, read Willie Jenning’s book The Christian Imagination: The Theological Origins of Race.)

The evolution and extended application of the concept of race during colonialism…

Later, as Europeans encountered a variety of indigenous people in the Americas and Africa, the concept that people could be wholly different in their nature was extended to account for these new people groups. Indigenous people came to be seen as less than and different from Europeans in a fundamental way. They became seen as other races. Africans and Native Americans were seen as sub-human, or at least sub-European, an attitude that persists to this day in many ways.

This was a rather natural extension of the new concept of race.  Just as the Jews did not fit some of the neat categories of division in Europe, so the indigenous people were incredibly foreign. They did not organize themselves like Europeans did, they did not follow Christianity, and it was easy to think of them as other races entirely distinct from Europeans.

During this time of colonialism Europeans saw and scripted themselves quite naturally as the better race civilizing the other races.  As Noam Chomsky said the psychology behind this is quite transparent and, “When you’ve got your boot on someone’s neck and you’re crushing them you cannot say to yourself that ‘I’m a son of a bitch and I’m doing it for my own benefit.’ So what you have to do is figure out some way of saying that I am doing it for their benefit and this is the natural position to take when you are beating someone with a club.” The concept of races, the inherent racial superiority white-skinned Europeans, and the inherent racial inferiority of other races all developed out of European colonialism and at the same time provided a justification for it.

When was “Whiteness” created and why was it created?

The development of the concept of a “white race” and “whiteness” were parallel to these developments concerning race.  While all white-skinned Europeans agreed that they were all better than Jews and indigenous peoples they were by no means a unified “white race.” White-skinned Europeans were still very divided by a variety of political, cultural and linguistic factors.  While the British and French  might have both agreed that the indigenous people were subhuman and in need of European help, they still hated each other, and were in competition as they scrambled for resources and land in Africa and the Americas. So where did “Whiteness” come from?

Simply put, “whiteness” was created in the Colonial era by the European elite for very practical reasons in what would be known today as class warfare. But what do I mean by this?

The strategy of “divide and conquer” was regularly used by colonial powers. In many ways it was a tactic of necessity. A unified indigenous people being exploited under colonization could successfully revolt against their relatively small number of European oppressors, even with all of the technological advantages of the Europeans, due to sheer numbers. Therefore, the colonial powers played on existing cultural, linguistic and tribal tensions and differences amongst the indigenous people in order to keep those being oppressed at each other’s throats instead of recognizing their common interest and banding together against the colonial powers. The Belgians, for example, created the racial divisions among the Rwandans, creating the Hutsi and Tutsi groups, and played them against one another. This served the Beglians well, but it also set the stage for the 1994 massacre.

The creation of “whiteness” was an extension of this and indeed a legal differentiation between “blacks” and “whites” can be traced to colonial governments. The problem faced by the European elite was that in the colonial U.S. and elsewhere there were many white-skinned Europeans who had come over as indentured servants. The plight and position of these poor white-skinned Europeans in the early colonies was exactly the same as indigenous slaves. The upper class feared an interracial revolt by the poor so they resorted again to the tactic of divide and conquer.

This time instead of playing on pre-existing tensions and conflicts (which obviously did not exist) they elevated the status of poor white-skinned Europeans in very small economic and social ways. The rich whites did so making it known that these new benefits came because, while poor, they too were white-skinned.  W. E. B. Du Bois called these benefits the “psychological wages of whiteness” because they were benefits or “wages” that were “paid” to poor white-skinned Europeans just for being white-skinned. While these “wages” did little to change the economic situation of poor whites, they had a great effect on personal treatment and deference shown to them.

Du Bois highlighted a number of concrete examples of these benefits given to poor white skinned people. Indentured servitude, a common practice in Europe for a very long time, was done away with for white-skinned Europeans. Poor whites were allowed to attend “white only” events (even with whites of higher social classes), the police were drawn from their ranks, they were given leniency in the court system, favorable treatment in the local news and were given a position of power as they were relied upon to keep the non-white skinned slaves in line and “in their place.” (Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America.)

This was all done so that the poor white-skinned Europeans would identify with the rich white-skinned Europeans, even though their social positions were vastly different and the poor white-skinned Europeans were still being exploited by the rich white-skinned Europeans. In many ways this was an ingenious way to prevent revolt in rather turbulent times. In past times strong cultural bonds and loyalties to king, country and religion would maintain stability and guard against internal revolt no matter how oppressed the poor were.  However, in the turbulent times of colonialism, a time of revolution, of mass immigration, of religious schisms and new opportunities, these old loyalties were unstable. Something new was needed and “whiteness” increasingly became the locus of loyalty that protected against revolt, especially in the American colonies.

This worked wonderfully, to the point where many poor whites who had never owned a slave, and in fact had depressed wages because slavery still existed, fought and died fighting for the South in the Civil War.

This tactic continues to work wonderfully.

(Sidenote: If my writing at this point has not clearly explained how “whiteness” was created and used in this way, or how this continues to be used today, it may be helpful for some to watch this video of Tim Wise explaining it.  I think he does a better job, though he does not mention the theological origins of race. Wise also provides examples of how it continues to work.)

The evolution of “Whiteness” in U.S. history…

In U.S. history from slavery to segregation “whiteness” was a socially constructed social status with benefits that was very clearly tied to skin color.  However, even during this period this social status and some of its benefits were at times been conferred on non-white skinned individuals who had shown themselves to be loyal or obedient to the social order. (This would be the Native Americans who owned black slaves. This would be the “Uncle Toms” of slavery.)

Since segregation, it is argued that “whiteness” has evolved in at least two ways.

First, “whiteness,” and the process by which someone was conferred this social status and its benefits has in many ways collapsed and synthesized in on itself. “Whiteness” is now synonymous with participation and loyalty to “White”/Western/European power structures and synonymous with “White”/Western/European values. Where obeyed and adhered to in contemporary society, the benefits of “whiteness” are automatically conferred.

In many ways this was the natural trajectory for its development. Originally “whiteness” was a social status (and related benefits) that were conferred upon people who had white-skin who participated in a certain system of power and held to certain values. Then it became conferrable to non-white-skinned people who obeyed the system of power and adhered to the values, though this was the exception to the normal skin-color requirement. Now “whiteness” is loyalty and obedience to white/Western/European power structures and white/Western/European values. These can and are achieved without any reference to skin color. This has become so entrenched in Western society that in the past a poor white-skinned European or a non-white-skinned person had to wait to be conferred the social status by their betters in order to enjoy the privileges of it, but now, if one obeys the right power structures and values the right things, the benefits quite naturally flow to you.

The systems of power of “whiteness” are the systems of power that are the accepted status quo in Western society, a society with deep roots in Western European thought and politics. This is a society that has historically been and continues to be dominated by white-skinned people, and a society that continues to be run by the rich white-skinned people.

The values of “whiteness” are a set of values and beliefs that are distinctly Western European and values that have traditionally been held by white-skinned people.  These values are effectively synonymous with middle-class American values. “Whiteness” is valuing a certain type of education (“White”/Western education) in a certain way (as means to gainful employment, technological advancement, military research). It is valuing a certain type of family (the “White”/Western nuclear family). It is a belief about how and when it is appropriate to express emotion (the “White”/Western grid of understanding appropriate emotional expression). It is a valuing economic independence in a certain way (where home ownership is a prime hallmark of having made it). etc. etc. etc.

Second, in a closely related move, “whiteness” has gone through a process of ex-nomination. Ex-nomination is a concept that explains how certain realities become incredibly powerful by no longer being named or talked about.  They become “just the way things are” and fade into the background of our shared reality. In this they become incredibly powerful because they are passively reinforced in the culture and are effectively above critique or criticisms because they are not talked about.

For example, ex-nomination can be seen in how we talk about culture in the U.S.A. This is why we talk about the “American Dream” or “American Values” or the “American Way” and not the “White Dream” or “White Values” or the “White Way.” The latter statements would offend our politically correct sensibilities but would be more accurate because in reality what we are referencing these things we are referencing values and beliefs that used to be primarily if not exclusively located in white-skinned Europeans.

For example, ex-nomination can be seen in the fact that when people encouraged me to “go to college” what they were really encouraging me do was to pursue a specific type of education in a specific type of educational institution to attain a specific kind of lifestyle and function in a specific kind of society…all shaped primarily by the “white”/Western/European power structures and values.


What do you make of all of this?  Does this make sense to you (my readers)?  Would there be things you would add or question about this?
While I am still critically evaluating a lot of this argument it makes sense of so many tensions I have seen and experienced.  This understanding of “whiteness” will be referenced in some of my subsequent posts on  race related issues.


About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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8 Responses to “Whiteness”: The origins and evolution of “whiteness” in the West

  1. I think you’ve done a great job of discussing the nuances involved in “whiteness.” Thinking our way out of this, though is another thing entirely.

  2. African says:

    This is a great piece. You need a wider audience, I must say.

  3. Dan says:

    Very enlightening article. However, there is one crucial ingredient that is missing in the later part of it: The act of assuming a “white” identity simply by conforming to the norms of the dominant society does not actually apply to black people. Black people are the exceptions to the rule. There are other interesting articles that can be found online that talk about how blacks in America are used essentially as the “other” against which “whitehood” defines itself and how black people have historically served as the stepping stool by which other groups can rise to the position of “whiteness”.

  4. Thanks, I appreciate your research and your own thinking on this. And there is an addition: in the Colony of Virginia there was an uprising in the 1680’s called Bacon’s Rebellion. It lasted a year and did include indentured servants and slaves! See the Yputube video, BIRTH OF A WHITE NATION by Jaqueline Battalora.

    I, personally, use “pale-skinned person of European descent” to identify myself, because there “white” is a social construct that was invented as a divide and conquer tactic of the ruling elite. But I also admit that I have materially benefitted from white privileges, while morally and spiritually been harmed by it. While I agree with what you describe, I also think that white supremacy is alive and well and quarter-backing much of what you describe.

    One last thing; white people/pale-skinned folk of European descent comprise only about 10% of the worlds population!

  5. Pingback: The Roots of “Whiteness” – Joe to the Core

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