Friday, October 13, 2017

Becoming "White"?

I could almost feel something in my thinking shatter. It was when I was reading about how the white identity was specifically and intentionally created by peach-skinned people in order to justify stealing land and enslaving people with brown skin. The terms “white” and “black” were not designed to be objective descriptions of skin colour difference, rather they were a statement of who is better and who is less.  The label “white” is birthed in greed, dominance, theft, and exploitation.  I had never really thought about that. I knew that judging someone by their skin colour was racism and wrong, but never really thought about where this label had come from – I had assumed that it had  always been.  

When and how did people become white and black?

Until 1600 and 1700 people defined themselves by their tribe or ethnicity, not their skin colour. Certainly there was lots of prejudice, discrimination, superiority and inferiority, but these were along ethnic differences. This terms is called ethnocentrism. 

"Historian Dante A Puzzo, in his discussion of Aristotle, racism and the ancient world writes that: Racism rests on two basic assumptions: that mankind is divisible into superior and inferior stocks. Racism, thus defined, is a modern conception, for prior to the XVth century there was virtually nothing in the life and thought of the West that can be described as racist. To prevent misunderstanding a clear distinction must be made between racism and ethnocentrism. The Ancient Hebrews, in referring to all who were not Hebrews as Gentils, were indulging in ethnocentrism, not racism. So it was with the Hellenes who denominated all non-Hellenes - whether the wild Scythians or the Egyptians whom they acknowleged as their mentors in the arts of civilization - Barbarians, the term denoting that which was strange or foreign. 
The reference for this quote is: Read more about ethnocentrism at

So let’s look at the factors that worked together to lead to the creation of the term “white” and “black”

1. Plato’s influence

Plato wrote about the “Myth of the Metals” which is explained below. This birthed the idea that some people were more valuable and more able than others. Although his writings were written long before racism, and was not related to skin colour, the thinking provided a foundation for the belief that some people are inherently better than others.
 “According to this ‘myth of the metals’, every citizen is born out of the earth of the State and every other citizen is his brother or sister. Yet God has framed them differently, mixing different metals into their soul: gold for the rulers, silver for the auxiliaries, and brass or iron for the husbandmen and craftsmen. Children are usually made of the same metal as their parents, but if this is not the case the child must either descend or ascend in the social order. If ever a child made of brass or iron was to become a guardian, the State would be destroyed.”

Also read:

2. British and Irish

Wallis (2016: Kindle location 1941- 1952), quoting sociologist Allan G Johnson, show how this belief that some are inherently better influenced the thinking of the British in their domination of the Irish from the 12th century. This “gave rise to a cultural belief that the Irish were an inferior and savage people, not  merely in organisation of their societies, but in their very nature as human beings. The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next”.

What we see here is a framework that some humans are less, in fact subhuman, and therefore one does not need to have compassion for them in the same way as one would for a human.
"Johnson goes on: It’s important to emphasize that prior to the British experience with the Irish and the enslavement of Africans in North America, the concept of race, including categories such as “white” and “color” as social markers of inferiority and superiority, did not exist. Notice, then, how cultural ideas can come into being as a way to justify structural arrangements, and how those same ideas can go on to play a role in shaping other systems in various ways,"

3. Pope Nicholas and slavery

It is important to remember that slavery hadn’t always been driven by the belief that slaves are “inferior people”. Wallis (2016: Kindle location 1992) explains:
"Historically, slavery was often not based on race at all. For example, Greek “slaves” were tutors and mentors for the children of elite families in ancient Rome. Never did anyone think Greeks were inferior to the Romans; on the contrary, they were looked to with respect—they had just lost wars, which was often the reason for slavery." 

Below we see how Harper (1989: 146) highlights how the Catholic Church’s thinking about humanity condoned and encouraged the act of domination:
“Fast-forward to 1452. Pope Nicholas V paved the way for the Portuguese slave trade in West Africa when he authorised Alfonzo V of Portugal to perpetually enslave anyone not Christian, especially Muslims. Three years later, the same pope issued the papal bull Romanus Pontifex declaring that Catholic nations had the right to “discover” and claim dominion over non-Christian lands. The bull also encouraged the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of conquered lands.”

4. Science and Society

“The term "white race" or "white people" entered the major European Languages in  the later 17th century, originating with the racialization of slavery at the time, in the context of the Atlantic slave trade and the context of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the enslavement of native peoples in the Spanish Empire. It has repeatedly been ascribed to strains of blood, ancestry, and physical traits, and was eventually made into a a subject of scientific racism, which was later widely repudiated by the scientific community. According to historian Irene Silverblatt, "Race thinking … made social categories into racial truths.” 

In 1758 Carl Linnaeus developed the “natural taxonomic categories of humans”. He actually created a human subspecies as he distinguished homo sapiens from homo sapiens europeaus! And later he added 4 geographical subdivisions:  White European; Red American; Yellow Asian; Black African. “Although Linnaeus intended them as objective classifications, his descriptions of these groups included cultural patterns and derogatory stereotypes.” (Reference:

In 1775 Johan Blumenback defined 5 human races and argued that physical characteristics (eg. skin colour and skull shape) correlate with group character and aptitude. The fairness and relatively high brow of Caucasians were held as apt physical expressions of loftier mentality a more generous spirit” 

Visit Wikipedia to learn more about “Scientific Racism”. I have just mentioned two scientists here, but there were many others. This view of humanity not only gave permission for racism, slavery and colonisation, it actually justified it because black folk were scientifically declared to be less or part human, and were scientifically categorised as savage, barbaric, less intelligent and almost “childlike”. The scientific community has denounced all these pseudo-scientific findings in the 20th Century.  

5. Divide and conquer in North America

In North American during the 1660s there were many indentured servants of African and European origin. Indentured servants were not paid money, but given food, clothing and accommodation in order to work off a loan for a specific time period.  The elite class were nervous at the protests emerging from this indentured servant class who were crucial to the economic stability of that time. Note, there was a partnership between indentured servants from African and European origins. The elite class, therefore, used skin colour to create division, and bestowed benefits only on the white indentured servants. This created a false sense of connection between the white people across class, and served well to break up any co-operation between the white and black indentured servant class. 

Sharon Marinas, who wrote “Changing White Supremacy Manual”, explains: "So, certain privileges were given to white indentured servants. An important point to note - until that point in history they had never been legally referred to as "white"; they had been called "Christian", "Englishman" or "Irishman", etc. It was in the very act of giving these privileges that the term "white" came into creation. These privileges were given solely based on the colour of skin and continent of origin. Though it is largely a lost fact in the history most of us are taught in school - the term "white" would never have come into existence had the elite not felt threatened by a rumbling lower class. That made them "superior" to blacks (and Indians). Thus whiteness was born as a racist concept to prevent lower class whites from joining people of color, especially blacks, against their class enemies. The concept of whiteness became a source of unity and strength for the vastly outnumbered Euro Americans -- as in South African, another settler nation. Today, unity across color lines remains the biggest threat in the eyes of a White ruling class."

Jim Wallis (2016: Kindle location 1922) summarises how the term white was created to dominate: "But all became white when they arrived in America, taking on not only a new national identity but also a new white cultural identity. Indeed, being "white" meant being part of the "white race," which in reality was merely a social and political construction, created to supply the ideology and justification for slavery and racial oppression."

6. Greed

Greed, or as some called it “economics”, with the support of science and religion, agreed that “white” was human, and “black” was subhuman or even nonhuman, and therefore did not feel their conscience prick as they bought and sold slaves, or stole or annexed or claimed land.

"But given the English (and later American) ideals and rhetoric about human rights, equality, freedom, and democracy, slavery had to be justified by making the slaves less “human.” The ideology of white supremacy, of course, was economically motivated—slavery was enormously profitable—but it had to be philosophically and religiously tied to false ideas of white superiority and black inferiority. To put it most bluntly, racial ideologies had to be created to cover up greed." (Wallis 2016, Kindle location: 1934)

In summary

We can clearly see that the terms “white” and “black” were not just a description of difference, but a declaration of who is better and who is less; who is human and who is less than human or only part human. The term “white” was designed out of greed to protect the wealth and land of the rich, and to give unearned privileges purely based on skin colour. 

The South Africa Context

I have not been able to discover the actual moment when Europeans in South Africa started defining themselves as “White”. We know that there were many Europeans settlers, as they called themselves. Initially in 1652 Dutch, French, German came, and a later after Great Britain annexed the Cape in 1806 many British arrived, as well as Eastern European and Baltic Jews.  In 1806 there were 26 000 Europeans, by 1865 there were 181 500, and by 1911 there were 1 276 242.

The Union of South African, under British rule, was established in 1909. The country became a self-governing nation state under British dominion in 1936 and counted  over 2 million European or white people. Finally in 1961 South African became a republic totally separate from Britain and by then we know people from European origin were now identifying as “white” and not their ethnic origin.

However, there has never been a time when Europeans saw themselves as equals to the indigenous people of South Africa. As explained above, the colonial mindset viewed Africans as sub-human, and this perspective endorsed by religion and science paved the way for the legal and systematic oppression of apartheid.

The history of the racial identity is all in the past now - or is it? Read my second post to learn more how this thinking influences us here in 2017. My third post will look at how we respond to all of this. 

Harper, Lisa Sharon. 2016. Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Waterbrook, New York.

Martinas, Sharon. Challenging White Supremacy Manual – Self Published. 1997

Walls, J and Stevenson, B. 2016 "America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America" Africa

Here are some more resources that explain how Europeans became "White": 

Listen to a talk by Tim Wise on the concept of Whiteness and White Privilege:

Read these three online articles:

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

Recommended books on this topic:

·         Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B Du Bois

·         The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings


  1. Thanks Jax...very helpful for me to read this history. .

    1. Hey Grant - would love to hear what you thought was helpful? As this is "work in progress" I so appreciate different perspectives.

  2. Wow Jacqui you have done a lot of processing and work thanks for sharing this, I would to share this with a group we have formed at FJ called being white.

    1. Thanks Shawn, it has felt a bit like a birthing process with the perspective growing and being fed by more and more reading. I would appreciate feedback - what was helpful, what was jarring? Also would love to hear more about your group!