In recent years, feminist and multi-cultural scholars in the United States have begun to problematize the very idea of Whiteness. In this article, I want to advance that discussion. To begin, I want to use the term racialization, as I also do in my book Sight Unseen (Kaschak, 2015), which more accurately describes these visually based cultural constructs. I have come to the conclusion, after much thought and research, that the very system of marking human beings for life as members of a racial category, racialization, is entirely a product of racism and not the reverse. Racism precedes race or racialization. Without it as a foundation, the entire edifice crumbles. What need would there be for the categories of race but to divide and conquer? In the service of those goals, the very concept of race was introduced in American and European societies long ago. It is not enough and not even possible to ferret out the racism apparent or hiding in our racial system. The very idea of categorizing human beings must be rejected as racist in its inception and its uses today.
As an ethical imperative, as well as an analysis of power distribution, an invented distinction masked as genetic or biological must be unmasked. Genetically, research has begun to demonstrate that there is simply no such thing as race (Bolnick, 2008; Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi, & Piazza, 1994; Kaplan, 2011); there is no black and white at all. One has only to use one’s eyes to see that this distinction is void. Yet most of us do not see well, as the indeterminate cultural observer colonizes our very eyes, demanding that we do not see what is apparent visually. From where then did this pervasive and damaging idea come?
Various researchers (Roediger, 1991) have noted that the racial designation White arose to describe European explorers, traders and settlers who came into contact with Africans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. As the New World was developing, West African societies were already practicing slavery and, thus, already had a supply of slaves to trade with Europeans (Roy, 2001).
While both groups were regarded as heathens by “our” Christian forefathers, the colonizers felt that Native Americans did not adapt well to enslavement; in contrast, Africans had already adapted to subjugation by African tribal chiefs. Thus, racial theories were more easily applicable to justify their enslavement (Gossett, 1963).
The first Africans landed in America in 1619. They were not enslaved and operated on a basis of equality with Whites (Bennett, 1988). These Africans in pre-racial America occupied the social status of free persons or indentured servants (Roy, 2001, p. 85). However, facing the birth of a nation and socio-economic forces, including a worldwide demand for tobacco, cotton and sugar, 17th Century colonial leaders needed a large labor force to meet market demands. Native American populations proved too difficult to submit to enslavement, and “...European Christians were reluctant to enslave other Christians [such as the Irish]” (Roy, 2001).
The colonial leaders decided to “... base the American economic system on human slavery organized around the distribution of melanin in human skin” (Bennett, 1988). The idea of whiteness was then strengthened by the development of America’s free-labor market. White workers demanded they be entitled to a legitimate status of “freeman,” a status that combined white supremacy, an exclusively occupational trade and civil rights. To legitimate status differences, laws were enacted that imposed the status of ‘slave for life’ on enslaved Africans. By virtue of this distinction, White European indentured servants might eventually end their servitude, while Africans could not (Gossett, 1963).
Europeans, prior to the late 1600s, did not use the label, Black, to refer to any “race” of people, Africans included. Only after the racialization of slavery around 1680 did whiteness and blackness come to represent racial categories. “Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis told the United States Senate ‘One of the reconciling features of the existence [of Negro slavery] is the fact that it raises every white man to the same general level, that it dignifies and exalts every white man by the presence of a lower race.” (Banton).
To expose this false perspective even further, there has been, since colonial times, a triple conflation of White, European, and Christian that implies moral and cultural superiority first codified within the language of race in 15th century Spain and adopted into the colonial discourse of white superiority and non-white inferiority in the New World (Bennett, 1998).
Which combinations of seen attributes are salient at a given moment depends on context. It is the multiplicity of characteristics in context to which our human eyes/minds attribute meaning. I am a particular kind of White person, as judged from the outside. There are those whose skin color is lighter than mine and are not members of the White group, including many Latin Americans whom I know. There are Europeans who are darker than many of these Latins, but are still considered White. Color itself cannot explain these distinctions, so what can? How is our very perceptual system implicated? The human perceptual system is designed to organize visual images into patterns and then to relegate as much as possible to the unconscious mind. The most ordinary task would be impossible without this organizing system. These patterns are organized by issues of meaning or mattering. In this way, the consciousness-lowering that we call socialization creates these meanings and, like a cultural magician, makes them disappear from view. Of course, like magic, this is only an optical illusion. The racism or sexism is still alive and well, but hidden from sight.
Multi-cultural psychology is unique to the U.S. It is as Western as the dominant culture itself and takes for granted Western values and categories for sorting human beings. Thus, it is in extreme danger of mirroring the categories of American racism unquestioningly. From a larger global perspective, things are not so black and white, nor are people.
A friend of mine who is a member of the racialized group, African-American, had an illuminating experience one day in a café in Paris. She was, of course, getting their famously atrocious service. She reflexively attributed it to racialization, as she had learned through many hard lessons in the American South of her childhood. On further investigation, she discovered that she was indeed being treated badly, but it was because she was an American. She had never thought of herself as an American, but always as a particular kind of American, an African-American. The Parisian waiters did not perceive that distinction.
Whiteness then is not so much a personal quality as it is a reflection of power embedded in the very structure and functioning of American culture. One of the functions of the indeterminate observer is to metabolize the outlandish into the ordinary, taken-for-granted. In that process, the seen becomes unseen, the visible invisible and the rational, irrational.