Great Britain

The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea

In 2008, a satirical blog called Stuff White People Like became a brief but boisterous sensation. The conceit was straightforward, coupling a list, eventually 136 items long, of stuff that white people liked to do or own, with faux-ethnographic descriptions that explained each item’s purported racial appeal. While some of the items were a little too obvious – indie music appeared at #41, Wes Anderson movies at #10 – others, including “awareness” (#18) and “children’s games as adults” (#102), were inspired. It was an instant hit. In its first two months alone, Stuff White People Like drew 4 million visitors, and it wasn’t long before a book based on the blog became a New York Times bestseller.

The founder of the blog was an aspiring comedian and PhD dropout named Christian Lander, who’d been working as an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles when he launched the site on a whim. In interviews, Lander always acknowledged that his satire had at least as much to do with class as it did with race. His targets, he said, were affluent overeducated urbanites like himself. Yet there’s little doubt that the popularity of the blog, which depended for its humour on the assumption that whiteness was a contentless default identity, had much to do with its frank invocation of race. “As a white person, you’re just desperate to find something else to grab on to,” Lander said in 2009. “Pretty much every white person I grew up with wished they’d grown up in, you know, an ethnic home that gave them a second language.”

Looking back at Stuff White People Like today, what marks the site’s age is neither the particularities of its irony nor the broad generalities of its targets. There are still plenty of white people with too much time and too much disposable income on their hands, and plenty of them still like yoga (#15), Vespa scooters (#126), and “black music that black people don’t listen to any more” (#116).

What has changed, however – changed in ways that date Stuff White People Like unmistakably – is the cultural backdrop. Ten years ago, whiteness suffused mainstream culture like a fog: though pervasive to the point of omnipresence, it was almost nowhere distinct. When the sorts of white people for and about whom Lander was writing talked about being white, their conversations tended to span the narrow range between defensiveness and awkwardness. If they weren’t exactly clamouring to dispense with their racial identity, and the privileges that came with it, they were also not eager to embrace, or even discuss it, in public.

In the years since, especially among the sort of people who might have once counted themselves fans of Lander’s blog, the public significance of whiteness has undergone an almost wholesale re-evaluation. Far from being a punchline for an anxious, cathartic joke, whiteness is now earnestly invoked, like neoliberalism or populism, as a central driver of cultural and political affairs. Whereas Lander could score a bestseller in 2008 with a book mocking whiteness as a bland cultural melange whose greatest sin was to be uninteresting, just nine years later Ta-Nehisi Coates would have his own bestseller that described whiteness as “an existential danger to the country and the world”.

Much of the change, of course, had to do with Donald Trump, for whom, as Coates put it, “whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic, but is the very core of his power”. But it was not only Trump. Whiteness has been implicated in events on both sides of the Atlantic, including Brexit; mass shootings in Norway, New Zealand and the US; the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings; and the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol. Alongside these real-world incidents, a bumper crop of scholarship, journalism, art and literature – by Coates, Nell Irvin Painter, Jordan Peele, Eric Foner, Ava DuVernay, Adam Serwer, Barbara and Karen Fields, Kevin Young, David Olusoga, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Colson Whitehead and Claudia Rankine, among many others – has spurred the most significant reconsideration of racial whiteness in 50 years.

This reckoning, as it is sometimes called, has had measurable effects. In a Pew poll last October, nearly a third of white Americans said that the recent attention to racial issues signified a “major change” in American attitudes about race – another 45% said it was a “minor change” – and nearly half believed that those changes would lead to policies that would ameliorate racial inequality. In the UK, a YouGov poll from December suggested that more than a third of Britons reported that they were having more discussions about racism than they had previously.

At the same time, this new focus on whiteness has prompted much confusion and consternation, especially among white people not used to thinking of themselves in racial terms. The Pew poll found that half of white Americans thought there was “too much” discussion of racial issues, and a similar proportion suggested that seeing racism where it didn’t exist was a bigger problem than not seeing racism where it did.

What these recent debates have demonstrated more than anything, perhaps, is how little agreement still exists about what whiteness is and what it ought to be. Nearly everywhere in contemporary society “white” is presumed to be a meaningful index of identity that, like age and gender, is important enough to get mentioned in news accounts, tallied in political polls, and recorded in government databases. Yet what that identity is supposed to tell us is still substantially in dispute. In many ways, whiteness resembles time as seen by Saint Augustine: we presume we understand it as long as we’re not asked to explain it, but it becomes inexplicable as soon as we’re put to the test.

A little more than a century ago, in his essay The Souls of White Folk, the sociologist and social critic WEB Du Bois proposed what still ranks as one of the most penetrating and durable insights about the racial identity we call white: “The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.”

Though radical in its time, Du Bois’s characterisation of what he called the “new religion of whiteness” – a religion founded on the dogma that “of all the hues of God, whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness and tan” – would have a profound effect on the way historians and other scholars would come to understand racial identity. In part this had to do with his insistence that a racial category like whiteness was more akin to a religious belief than a biological fact. Du Bois rejected the idea, still common in his day, that the races reflected natural divisions within the human species – as well as the nearly inevitable corollary that the physical, mental and behavioural traits associated with the white race just happened to be the ones most prized by modern societies.

That had been the view, for instance, of Thomas Jefferson, who had attempted to delineate “the real distinctions which nature has made” between the races, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1781. It was also the view that would appear, at least in attenuated form, two centuries later in Charles Murray and Richard J Herrnstein’s Bell Curve, which was published in 1994. Murray and Herrnstein argued that “the most plausible” explanation for the differences between Black and white populations recorded on IQ tests was “some form of mixed gene and environmental source” – in other words, that at least some of the discrepancy owes to natural differences.

By the time The Bell Curve appeared, Du Bois’s assertion that racial categories were not biologically grounded was widely accepted. In the years since, the scientific evidence for that understanding has only become more overwhelming. A 2017 study examined the DNA of nearly 6,000 people from around the world and found that while that while some genetic differences among humans can be traced to various ancestral lineages – for example, eastern African, southern European or circumpolar – none of those lineages correspond to traditional ideas about race.

WEB Du Bois.
WEB Du Bois. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

If it’s easy enough for many people today to accept that whiteness is a purely sociological phenomenon – in some quarters, the idea that “race is a social construct” has become a cliche – the same cannot be said for Du Bois’s suggestion that whiteness is a relatively new thing in human history. And yet just as in the case of genetic science, during the second half of the 20th century a number of historians demonstrated that while Du Bois was off by a few hundred years, he was correct that it was only in the modern period that people started to think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the case: the evolution of the idea of whiteness was messy and often indistinct. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter has cautioned, “white identity didn’t just spring to life full-blown and unchanging”. It had important antecedents that included a growing sense of a pan-European identity; longstanding cultural associations that saw white as a symbol of purity and virtue; and bog-standard ethnocentrism.

Still, with only slightly exaggerated precision, we can say that one of the most crucial developments in “the discovery of personal whiteness” took place during the second half of the 17th century, on the peripheries of the still-young British empire. What’s more, historians such as Oscar and Mary Handlin, Edmund Morgan and Edward Rugemer have largely confirmed Du Bois’s suspicion that while xenophobia appears to be fairly universal among human groupings, the invention of a white racial identity was motivated from the start by a need to justify the enslavement of Africans. In the words of Eric Williams, a historian who later became the first president of Trinidad, “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery”.

If you asked an Englishman in the early part of the 17th century what colour skin he had, he might very well have called it white. But the whiteness of his skin would have suggested no more suitable basis for a collective identity than the roundness of his nose or the baldness of his head. If you asked him to situate himself within the rapidly expanding borders of the known world, he would probably identify himself, first and most naturally, as an Englishman. If that category proved too narrow – if, say, he needed to describe what it was he had in common with the French and the Dutch that he did not share with Ottomans or Africans – he would almost certainly call himself a Christian instead.

That religious identity was crucial for the development of the English slave trade – and eventually for the development of racial whiteness. In the early 17th century, plantation owners in the West Indies and in the American colonies largely depended on the labour of European indentured servants. These servants were considered chattel and were often treated brutally – the conditions on Barbados, England’s wealthiest colony, were notorious – but they were fortunate in at least one respect: because they were Christian, by law they could not be held in lifetime captivity unless they were criminals or prisoners of war.

Africans enjoyed no such privilege. They were understood to be infidels, and thus the “perpetual enemies” of Christian nations, which made it legal to hold them as slaves. By 1640 or so, the rough treatment of indentured servants had started to diminish the supply of Europeans willing to work on the sugar and tobacco plantations, and so the colonists looked increasingly to slavery, and the Atlantic-sized loophole that enabled it, to keep their fantastically profitable operations supplied with labour.

The plantation owners understood very well that their cruel treatment of indentured Europeans, and their even crueller treatment of enslaved Africans, might lead to thoughts – or worse – of vengeance. Significantly outnumbered, they lived in constant fear of uprisings. They were particularly afraid of incidents such as Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676, which saw indentured Europeans fighting side-by-side with free and enslaved Africans against Virginia’s colonial government.

To ward off such events, the plantation owners initially sought to protect themselves by giving their “Christian” servants legal privileges not available to their enslaved “Negroes”. The idea was to buy off the allegiance of indentured Europeans with a set of entitlements that, however meagre, set them above enslaved Africans. Toward the end of the 17th century, this scheme witnessed a significant shift: many of the laws that regulated slave and servant behaviour – the 1681 Servant Act in Jamaica, for example, which was later copied for use in South Carolina – began to describe the privileged class as “whites” and not as “Christians”.

One of the more plausible explanations for this change, made by Rugemer and the historian Katharine Gerbner, among others, is that the establishment of whiteness as a legal category solved a religious dilemma. By the 1670s, Christian missionaries, including the Quaker George Fox, were insisting that enslaved Africans should be inducted into the Christian faith. The problem this posed for the planters was obvious: if their African labourers became Christians, and no longer “perpetual enemies” of Christendom, then on what legal grounds could they be enslaved? And what about the colonial laws that gave special privileges to Christians, laws whose authors apparently never contemplated the possibility that Africans might someday join the faith?

The planters tried to resolve the former dilemma by blocking the conversion of enslaved Africans, on the grounds, as the Barbados Assembly put it in 1680, that such conversion would “endanger the island, inasmuch as converted negroes grow more perverse and intractable than others”. When that didn’t work (the Bishop of London objected) they instead passed laws guaranteeing that baptism could not be invoked as grounds for seeking freedom.

But the latter question, about privileges for Christians, required the colonialists to think in a new way. No longer could their religious identity separate them and their servants from enslaved Africans. Henceforth they would need what Morgan called “a screen of racial contempt”. Henceforth, they would need to start thinking of themselves as white.

As late as 1694, a slave-ship captain could still question the racial logic newly employed to justify his trade. (“I can’t think there is any intrinsick value in one colour more than another, nor that white is better than black, only we think it so because we are so,” Thomas Phillips wrote in his diary.) But whiteness quickly proved itself a powerful weapon that allowed transatlantic capitalism to secure the labour – “white” and African – it needed. As the historian Theodore Allen put it, “The plantation bourgeoisie deliberately extended a privileged status to the white poor of all categories as a means of turning to African slavery as the basis of its system of production.”

The economic utility of the idea of whiteness helped spread it rapidly around the world. Du Bois was not wrong to call it a religion, for like a religion, it operated at every psychological, sociological and political scale, from the most intimate to the most public. Like a religion, too, it adapted to local conditions. What it meant to be white in British Virginia was not identical to what it would mean in New York before the American civil war, in India during the Raj, in Georgia during Jim Crow, in Australia after Federation, or in Germany during the Third Reich. But what united all these expressions was a singular idea: that some group of people called white was naturally superior to all others. As Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian prime minister and one of the most committed race ideologists of his time, put it, “race implies difference, difference implies superiority, and superiority leads to predominance”.

The idea of whiteness, in other words, was identical to the idea of white supremacy. For the three centuries that preceded the civil rights movement, this presumption was accepted at the most refined levels of culture, by people who, in other contexts, were among the most vocal advocates of human liberty and equality. It is well known that Immanuel Kant argued we should treat every other person “always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means”. Less well known is his proposal, in his Lectures on Physical Geography, published in 1802, that “humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites”, or his claim, in his notes for his Lectures on Anthropology, that native “Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus, serve only as slaves”. Even Gandhi, during the early part of his life, accepted the basic lie of whiteness, arguing that “the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan” and that “the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race”.

As though aware of their own guilty conscience, the evangelists of the religion of whiteness were always desperate to prove that it was something other than mere prejudice. Where the Bible still held sway, they bent the story of Noah’s son Ham into a divine apologia for white supremacy. When anatomy and anthropology gained prestige in the 18th and 19th centuries, they cited pseudo-scientific markers of racial difference like the cephalic index and the norma verticalis. When psychology took over in the 20th, they told themselves flattering stories about divergences in IQ.

South Africa in 1967.
South Africa in 1967. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

For all their evident success, the devotees of the religion of whiteness were never able to achieve the total vision they longed for. In part, this was because there were always dissenters, including among those who stood to gain from it, who rejected the creed of racial superiority. Alongside those remembered by history – Elizabeth Freeman, Toussaint Louverture, Harriet Tubman, Sitting Bull, Franz Boas, Haviva Reik, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela – there were millions of now-forgotten people who used whatever means they possessed to resist it. In part, too, the nonsense logic that regulated the boundaries of whiteness – the one-drop rule in the US, which said that anyone with Black ancestry could not be white; the endless arguments over what “caucasian” was supposed to mean; the “honorary Aryan” status that Hitler extended to the Japanese – was no match for the robust complexities of human society.

Yet if the religion of whiteness was never able to gain acceptance as an unchallengeable scientific fact, it was still hugely successful at shaping social reality. Some of this success had to do with its flexibility. Thanks to its role in facilitating slavery, whiteness in the US was often defined in opposition to blackness, but between those two extremes was room for tactical accommodations. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin could claim that only the English and Saxons “make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth”, and nearly 80 years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson would insist that the Irish, like the Chinese and the Native American, were not caucasian. Over time, however, the definition of who counted as culturally white expanded to include Catholics from southern Europe, the Irish and even Jews, who for centuries had been seen as quintessential outsiders.

The religion of whiteness also found success by persuading its adherents that they, and not the people they oppressed, were the real victims. In 1692, colonial legislators in British Barbados complained that “sundry of the Negroes and Slaves of this island, have been long preparing, contriving, conspiring and designing a most horrid, bloody, damnable and detestable rebellion, massacre, assassination and destruction”. From there, it was a more or less straight line to Woodrow Wilson’s claim, in 1903, that the southerners who started the Ku Klux Klan were “aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation”, and to Donald Trump’s warning, when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, that Mexican immigrants to the US were “bringing drugs. And they’re bringing crime. And they’re rapists.”

Where the religion of whiteness was not able to win converts with persuasion or fear, it deployed cruder measures to secure its power, conscripting laws, institutions, customs and churches to enforce its prerogatives. Above all, it depended on force. By the middle of the 20th century, the presumption that a race of people called white were superior to all others had supplied the central justification not just for the transatlantic slave trade but also for the near-total extinction of Indians in North America; for Belgian atrocities in Congo; for the bloody colonisation of India, east Africa and Australia by Britain; for the equally bloody colonisation of north and west Africa and south-east Asia by France; for the deployment of the Final Solution in Nazi Germany; and for the apartheid state in South Africa. And those are merely the most extreme examples. Alongside those murdered, raped and enslaved in the name of whiteness, the total number of whom runs at least to nine figures, are an almost unthinkable number of people whose lives were shortened, constrained, antagonised and insulted on a daily basis.

It was not until the aftermath of the second world war that frank endorsements of white supremacy were broadly rejected in Anglo-American public discourse. That this happened at all was thanks largely to the efforts of civil rights and anti-colonial activists, but the war itself also played a role. Though the horrors of the Nazi regime had been more acute in their intensity than anything happening at the time in the US or the UK, they supplied an unflattering mirror that made it impossible to ignore the racism that was still prevalent in both countries. (A New York Times editorial in 1946 made the connection explicit, arguing that “this is a particularly good year to campaign against the evils of bigotry, prejudice and race hatred because we have recently witnessed the defeat of enemies who tried to found a mastery of the world upon such a cruel and fallacious policy”.)

Political appeals to white solidarity diminished slowly but certainly. In 1955, for example, Winston Churchill could still imagine that “Keep England White” was a winning general-election theme, and even as late as 1964, Peter Griffiths, a Conservative candidate for parliament, would score a surprise victory after endorsing a nakedly racist slogan. By 1968, however, when Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of Blood” speech – in which he approvingly quoted a constituent who lamented that “in 15 or 20 years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” – he would be greeted by outrage in the Times, which called it an “evil speech”, and expelled from the Conservative shadow cabinet. In the US, too, where a century of racial apartheid had followed a century of slavery, open expressions of racism met with increasing public censure. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Congress passed a series of statutes that rendered explicit racial discrimination illegal in many areas of public life.

This gradual rejection of explicit, government-enforced white supremacy was hugely consequential in terms of public policy. Yet it did not mean that whiteness, as a political force, had lost its appeal: in the weeks after Powell’s speech, to take just one example, a Gallup poll found that 74% of Britons supported his suggestion that brown-skinned immigrants ought to be repatriated. It also left unresolved the more difficult question of whether whiteness was truly separable from its long history of domination.

Instead of looking too hard at the sordid history of whiteness, many white people found it easier to decide that the civil rights movement had accomplished all the anti-racism work that needed doing. The result was a strange détente. On the one hand, whiteness retreated as a subject of public attention, giving way to a new rhetoric of racial colour-blindness. On the other hand, vast embedded economic and cultural discrepancies allowed white people continue to exercise the institutional and structural power that had accumulated on their behalf across the previous three centuries.

A demonstration in support of Enoch Powell.
A 1972 demonstration in support of Enoch Powell. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty

Similarly, while blatant assertions of white power – such as the 1991 gubernatorial campaign of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, in Louisiana – met with significant elite resistance, what counted as racist (and therefore subject to the taboo) was limited to only the most flagrant instances of racial animus. Among liberals and conservatives, racism was widely understood as a species of hatred, which meant that any white person who could look into his heart and find an absence of open hostility could absolve himself of racism.

Even the phrase “white supremacy”, which predates the word “racism” in English by 80 years and once described a system of interlocking racial privileges that touched every aspect of life, was redefined to mean something rare and extreme. In 1923, for example, under the headline White Supremacy Menaced, the New York Times would print an article which took at face value a Harvard professor’s warning that “one of the gravest and most acute problems before the world today” was “the problem of saving the white race from submergence in the darker races”. In 1967, the US supreme court invalidated a law that prevented whites from marrying people who were not white, on the grounds that it was “obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy”, and two years later, the critic Albert Murray would use the phrase to describe everything from anti-Black prejudice in police departments to bigoted media representations of Black life to influential academic studies such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family.

By the 80s and 90s, however, at least in white-dominated media, “white supremacy” was reserved only for the most shocking and retrograde examples of racism. For many people who grew up at that time, as I did, the phrase evoked cross burnings and racist hooligans, rather than an intricate web of laws and norms that maintained disparities of wealth, education, housing, incarceration and access to political power.

Perhaps most perverse of all was the charge of “reverse racism”, which emboldened critics of affirmative action and other “race-conscious” policies to claim that they, and not the policies’ proponents, were the true heralds of racial equality. In 1986, Ronald Reagan went so far as to defend his opposition to minority-hiring quotas by invoking Martin Luther King Jr: “We want a colour-blind society,” Reagan declared. “A society, that in the words of Dr King, judges people not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Of course not everyone accepted this new dispensation, which scholars have variously described as “structural racism”, “symbolic racism” or “racism without racists”. In the decades following the civil rights movement, intellectuals and activists of colour continued to develop the Du Boisian intellectual tradition that understood whiteness as an implement of social domination. In the 80s and 90s, a group of legal scholars that included Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and Richard Delgado produced a body of research that became known as critical race theory, which was, in Bell’s words, “ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalised in and by law”.

Alongside critical race theory, and in many ways derived from it, a new academic trend, known as whiteness studies, took shape. Historians working in this subfield demonstrated the myriad ways in which the pursuit of white supremacy – like the pursuit of wealth and the subjection of women – had been one of the central forces that gave shape to Anglo-American history. For many of them, the bill of indictment against whiteness was total: as the historian David Roediger put it, “it is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.”

In the fall of 1992, a new journal co-founded by Noel Ignatiev, one of the major figures in whiteness studies, appeared in bookstores around Cambridge, Massachusetts. Called Race Traitor, the magazine wore its motto and guiding ethos on its cover: Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity. The issue opened with an editorial whose headline was equally provocative: “Abolish the white race – by any means necessary.” This demand, with its echoes of Sartre by way of Malcolm X, was not, as it turned out, a call for violence, much less for genocide. As Ignatiev and his co-editor, John Garvey, explained, they took as their foundational premise that “the white race is a historically constructed social formation”, a sort of club whose membership “consists of those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society”.

A waiting room in Durham, North Carolina, in May 1940.
A waiting room in Durham, North Carolina, in May 1940. Photograph: PhotoQuest/Getty

For Ignatiev and Garvey, whiteness had been identified with white supremacy for so long that it was folly to think it was salvageable. “So long as the white race exists,” they wrote, “all movements against racism are doomed to fail.” What was necessary, in their view, was for the people called “white” – people like them – to forcefully reject that identification and the racial privileges that came with it. Whiteness, they suggested, was a fragile, unstable thing, such that even a small number of determined attacks – objecting to racist educational programmes at a school board meeting, say, or capturing racist police behaviour on video – ought to be able to unsettle the whole edifice.

But while whiteness studies produced much work that still makes for bracing, illuminating reading, it was soon mocked as one more instance of the very privilege it meant to oppose. “The whole enterprise gives whites a kind of standing in the multicultural paradigm they have never before enjoyed,” Margaret Talbot wrote in the New York Times in 1997. “And it involves them, inevitably, in a journey of self-discovery in which white people’s thoughts about their own whiteness acquire a portentous new legitimacy.” Even Ignatiev would later say he “wanted nothing to do with” it.

By the mid-2000s, the “colour-blind” ideological system had become so successful that it managed to shield even the more obvious operations of whiteness – the overwhelming numbers of white people in corporate boardrooms, for instance, or in the media and tech industries – from much censure. In the US, when racial disparities could not be ignored, it was often suggested that time was the only reliable remedy: as the numerical proportion of whites dwindled, so too would their political and economic power diminish. (Never mind that whiteness had managed to escape predictions of demographic doom before, by integrating groups it had previously kept on its margins.)

Meanwhile, younger white liberals, the sort of people who might have read Bell or Crenshaw or Ignatiev at university, tended to duck the subject of their own racial identity with a shuffling awkwardness. Growing up white in the decades after the civil rights movement was a little like having a rich but disreputable cousin: you never knew quite what to make of him, or the extravagant gifts he bought for your birthday, and so you found it easier, in general, just not to say anything.

The absence of talk about whiteness was so pervasive that it became possible to convince yourself that it constituted one of the central obstacles to racial progress. When I was in graduate school during the early 00s, toward the end of the whiteness-studies boomlet, I often heard – including from my own mouth – the argument that the real problem was that white people weren’t talking enough about their racial identity. If you could get people to acknowledge their whiteness, we told ourselves, then it might be possible to get them to acknowledge the unfair ways in which whiteness had helped them.

The trouble with this notion would become clear soon enough, when the presidency of Barack Obama offered the surest test to date of the proposition that whiteness had separated itself from its supremacist past. Though Obama’s election was initially hailed by some as proof that the US was entering a new post-racial phase, it took just a few months for the Tea party, a conservative movement ostensibly in favour of small government, to suggest that the opposite was closer to the truth.

In September 2009, Jimmy Carter caused a stir by suggesting that the Tea party’s opposition was something other than a principled reaction to government spending. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter said. (Carter’s speculation was later backed up by research: the political scientist Ashley Jardina, for instance, found that “more racially resentful whites are far more likely to say they support the Tea party and rate it more positively.”)

A Tea party march in Washington to protest against the healthcare reform proposed by Barack Obama in 2009.
A Tea party march in Washington to protest against the healthcare reform proposed by Barack Obama in 2009. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

The white backlash to Obama’s presidency continued throughout his two terms, helped along by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and the Republican party, which won majorities in both houses of Congress by promising to obstruct anything Obama tried to accomplish. Neither project kept Obama from a second term, but this does not mean that they were without effect: though Obama lost white voters by 12% in 2008, four years later he would lose them by 20%, the worst showing among white voters for a successful candidate in US history.

At the same time, Obama’s victory suggested to some observers the vindication of the demographic argument: the changing racial composition of the US appeared to have successfully neutralised the preferences of the white electorate, at least as far as the presidency was concerned. (“There just are not enough middle-aged white guys that we can scrape together to win,” said one Republican after Obama’s victory.)

What’s more, the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests, which attracted international attention in the summer of 2014, prompted a torrent of demonstrative introspection among white people, especially online. As the critic Hua Hsu would write, half-teasingly, in 2015, “it feels as though we are living in the moment when white people, on a generational scale, have become self-aware”.

Not for the first time, however, what was visible on Twitter was a poor indicator of deeper social trends. As we now know, the ways in which whiteness was becoming most salient at mid-decade were largely not the ways that prompted recent university graduates to announce their support for Rhodes Must Fall on Instagram. Far more momentous was the version of white identity politics that appreciated the advantages of whiteness and worried about them slipping away; that saw in immigration an existential threat; and that wanted, more than anything, to “Take Back Control” and to “Make America Great Again”.

It was this version of whiteness that helped to power the twin shocks of 2016: first Brexit and then Trump. The latter, especially – not just the fact of Trump’s presidency but the tone of it, the unrestrained vengeance and vituperation that animated it – put paid to any lingering questions about whether whiteness had renounced its superiority complex. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who more than any other single person had been responsible for making the bumbling stereotype of whiteness offered up by Stuff White People Like seem hopelessly myopic, understood what was happening immediately. “Trump truly is something new – the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president,” Coates wrote in the autumn of 2017. “His ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

In 1860, a man who called himself “Ethiop” published an essay in The Anglo-African Magazine, which has been called the first Black literary journal in the US. The author behind the pseudonym was William J Wilson, a former bootmaker who later served as the principal of Brooklyn’s first public school for Black children. Wilson’s essay bore the headline, What Shall We Do with the White People?

The article was meant in part meant to mock the white authors and statesmen who had endlessly asked themselves a similar question about Black people in the US. But it was not only a spoof. In a tone that mimicked the smug paternalism of his targets, he laid out a comprehensive indictment of white rule in the country: the plunder and murder of the “Aborigines”; the theft and enslavement of Africans; the hypocrisy embodied by the American constitution, government and white churches. At the root of all this, he wrote, was “a long continued, extensive and almost complete system of wrongdoing” that made the men and women who enabled it into “restless, grasping” marauders. “In view of the existing state of things around us,” Wilson proposed at the end, “let our constant thought be, what for the best good of all shall we do with the White people?”

Much has changed since Wilson’s time, but a century and a half on, his question remains no less pertinent. For some people, such as the political scientist Eric Kaufmann, whiteness is what it has always pretended to be. Though he acknowledges that races are not genetically defined, Kaufmann nevertheless sees them as defensible divisions of humanity that have some natural basis: they emerge, he suggests, “through a blend of unconscious colour-processing and slowly evolved cultural conventions”. In his 2019 book Whiteshift, Kaufmann argues that the history of oppression by white people is “real, but moot”, and he advocates for something he calls “symmetrical multiculturalism”, in which “identifying as white, or with a white tradition of nationhood, is no more racist than identifying as black”. What shall we do with the white people? Kaufmann thinks we should encourage them to take pride in being white, lest they turn to more violent means: “Freezing out legitimate expressions of white identity allows the far right to own it, and acts as a recruiting sergeant for their wilder ideas.”

From another perspective – my own, most days – whiteness means something different from other racial and ethnic identities because it has had a different history than other racial and ethnic identities. Across three-and-a-half centuries, whiteness has been wielded as a weapon on a global scale; Blackness, by contrast, has often been used as a shield. (As Du Bois put it, what made whiteness new and different was “the imperial width of the thing – the heaven-defying audacity.”) Nor is there much reason to believe that whiteness will ever be content to seek “legitimate expressions”, whatever those might look like. The religion of whiteness had 50 years to reform itself along non-supremacist lines, to prove that it was fit for innocuous coexistence. Instead, it gave us Donald Trump.

Yet even this does not fully answer Wilson’s question. For if it’s easy enough to agree in theory that the only reasonable moral response to the long and very much non-moot history of white supremacy is the abolitionist stance advocated in the pages of Race Traitor – ie, to make whiteness meaningless as a group identity, to shove it into obsolescence alongside “Prussian” and “Etruscan” – it seems equally apparent that whiteness is not nearly so fragile as Ignatiev and Garvey had imagined. Late in his life, James Baldwin described whiteness as “a moral choice”, as a way of emphasising that it was not a natural fact. But whiteness is more than a moral choice: it is a dense network of moral choices, the vast majority of which have been made for us, often in times and places very distant from our own. In this way whiteness is a problem like climate change or economic inequality: it is so thoroughly imbricated in the structure of our everyday lives that it makes the idea of moral choices look quaint.

As with climate change, however, the only thing more difficult than such an effort would be trying to live with the alternative. Whiteness may seem inevitable and implacable, and Toni Morrison surely had it right when she said that the world “will not become unracialised by assertion”. (To wake up tomorrow and decide I am no longer white would help no one.) Even so, after 350 years, it remains the case, as Nell Irvin Painter argues, that whiteness “is an idea, not a fact”. Not alone, and not without much work to repair the damage done in its name, it still must be possible to change our minds.

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