Unpacking Whiteness: An Origin Story

When I was in nineteen, one of my friends – who I partnered with to help our college student body engage in conversations about racism and privilege – looked at me and said, “You know you are white right?” I was startled, but answered “Yes.”

Still this question has lingered with me for twenty years. It made me uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable because I understood more than knew that whiteness connoted and bestowed power. Specifically power over, instead of power with and for. I was uncomfortable because it came with a legacy of abusive behavior that I rejected yet was entangled within. I was uncomfortable because I recognized ways that I myself, unfortunately, demonstrated this “whiteness.” I feared that some problematic behavior of mine prompted this question. I was upset because I wished that I had been afforded the opportunity to give another answer. This question, and more the discomfort, prompted me on a journey to figure out what being “white” was all about.

The truth is that there is no good answer because it is amorphous. The best definition I have found comes from Paul Kivel’s book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice: “Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”

Whiteness is not an ethnicity. It is not a religion. It is not bound to a place. It is not a language. It is not any of the things, that if you study human societies before the Renaissance and the dominance of Western political powers, tended to delineate one people from another.

In the beginning of colonial America, neither one’s skin color nor one’s country-of-origin provided security, as the brutal exploitation of European indentured servants showed.  These economically vulnerable people died in cargo holds crossing the seas, not as much as their enslaved African counter-parts did, but in rates that demonstrated how disposable they were to controlling powers. “The sloop Sea-Flower, leaving Belfast in 1741, was at sea sixteen weeks, and when it arrived in Boston, forty-six of its 106 passengers were dead of starvation, six of them eaten by the survivors” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States). When they arrived they were bought and sold like slaves. Many died, having been starved, beaten, and worked to death. This could have continued but there simply were not enough European indentured servants to grow food, fight the indigenous tribes, and export nature resources back across the Atlantic, and thus colonial powers turned instead towards the African slave trade, which had already been well established in the Caribbean.

Though the governing and commercial powers feared slave revolts and attacks by native peoples, what they feared most was that poor and exploited whites would join the revolution. This was particularly true after Bacon’s Rebellion. To neutralized this threat, those of European dissent were legally defined as “white” and given certain privileges and protections, including land, food, money, the right to bear arms, reduced punishments for crimes and “freedom.” (One does not have to search hard to find modern corollaries.) After two hundred years of bare survival, in the early 1700s, these new “whites” leapt at the offer even though the conditions determining their lives only marginally changed and even though they often lost their ancestral cultural heritage in the process.  So we see that the development of “whiteness” was a politically constructed bribe that was used to negate a potential coalition that could have potentially upended the status quo. The reality is that this corrosive deal is built into the systems that continue to define American life.

Over the next two weeks, during our White and Woke worship series, we will explore how this origin story is still playing out, and finally how we can act in ways that liberate us from this pattern of oppression and which can set new patterns for wholeness in our lives.

In the meantime, check out the above hyperlinks and this 15-part podcast Seeing White out of Duke University.