More answers to questions I've heard (and had myself) after learning about the history of race
"Slavery has existed for a lot of human history, so was the American variety really unique?"
- Slavery has indeed been common for much of human history, particularly as a way to deal with prisoners of war
- Slavery had even existed among Africans in Africa before the Europeans arrived
- But, that style of slavery in Africa was usually more similar to serfdom—slaves could marry and own property, and enslaved people weren’t always separated from their home areas or biological family networks
- There were a few major differences about slavery in America:
- It was by race. In Africa (and elsewhere in the world), people could be treated as slaves if their tribe or kingdom was conquered. In America, all people of color were treated poorly once slavery was institutionalized. In America, your race would dictate your legal rights, and it was clear that whites were always the masters and people of color were always the slaves
- It never ended. In prior forms of slavery, people were enslaved for a certain number of years. In America (as of 1640), slavery would be for life
- It was passed from one generation to another. In prior forms of slavery, the individual was enslaved. In America, their descendants would be slaves as well, providing the plantation owners with a perpetual force of labor
- It kept growing. The plantation system of agriculture led to more demanding work conditions and at a far larger scale than had been common with slavery in the past in Africa and elsewhere
"Is it really true that people of different lineages got along in early America before racism was institutionalized (i.e., before the rich plantation owners pitted the servants against each other by race to stop further rebellions)?
That seems like an unrealistic romanticized view of the past."
- Let's go back to very early America: The English colony of Jamestown was struggling after its founding. The English indentured servants there (of European origin) were dying in the harsh conditions, and the colonists were desperately in need of more people to keep the colony going. In the early 1600s, they were able to purchase some African slaves from the Spanish, and they put them to work
- Compared to what would come later, the slaves were treated relatively well. Over the next two decades, some were allowed to raise their own crops and cattle and eventually purchase their freedom. They were even sometimes allowed to marry, not only other Africans but also English settlers
- By the 1640s, some of those families owned their own farms. In the 1650s, some of the Africans even acquired European (“white”) servants
- Yes, even during that relatively good period in the mid-1600s, there were very likely bigotted Europeans who looked down on the people of African lineage. But racism was not institutionalized, and few people talked about Africans as being stupid, dirty, or lazy (as would become common later). Some of those Africans even had reputations for being particularly clever and successful with their tobacco plantations
- There’s evidence that many of the indentured servants from a variety of lineages (European, African, Native) worked together, socialized together, and married
- Their future actually seemed relatively promising for a while, until 1705—less than a century later—when slavery became institutionalized in Virginia and the people of African and Native descent were stripped of many of their rights
- In short, yes, while the historical evidence isn't quite as robust compared to other topics on this site, what I was able to find does point to the fact that people of different races got along fairly well before they were forced apart
- That's why—when the rich plantation owners came up with their plan to divide people by race rather than by class—they had to beat and even exile many of the white servants who at first refused to turn on their fellow servants of African and Native descent
"Hierarchies have probably existed for nearly all of human history.
So it doesn't seem fair to use the term 'white supremacy culture' or 'whiteness' to include characteristics like perfectionism, striving to climb the ladder, and looking down on people below you.
Rather, those are probably just human nature, i.e., nothing to do with racism, right?"
- This was an objection I had as well. When I first read "the characteristics of white supremacy culture," I had a strong reaction—it seemed a bit ridiculous to claim that things like "defensiveness" and a "sense of urgency" were invented with the creation of the white race. It took me a while to get it, so I'll do my best to explain how I see it now:
- First of all, one mistake I made was believing that the claim here was that the invention of race was also the invention of those "characteristics of white supremacy" (e.g., that perfectionism hadn't existed before that)
- While I can't speak for the authors of that particular document, my understanding now is different: Yes, many of these attributes have already existed in other groups throughout human history. But, the claim is simply that there are some unique elements related to race in America that have amplified their effect here
- So, it's not so much saying that the invention of race led to the invention of things like perfectionism, but rather that things like perfectionism are common in a culture that was built upon dominance by racial identity
- Remember all the trauma inflicted when the rich plantation owners separated the servants of color from the white servants
- The owners bribed or beat the white servants until they saw themselves as more similar to those white landowners rather than their fellow servants who happened to be of African or Native lineage
- And those plantation owners told those white servants that if they didn't get on board with this new hierarchy then they'd be treated like slaves themselves
- So, that created the beginning of a unique culture of hierarchy in America. Sure, hierachies had existed in the past, but this one was unique because it was by race, a concept that had been invented and whose definition was changed over time
- Remember how courts would later rule first that "white" meant "light-skinned," but then they changed it to mean "descended from the Caucasian lineage," and then they changed it again to be defined according to "undefinable characteristics"
- Remember too how some groups that we see as white today—such as people of Irish descent—were originally not included under the umbrella of "white"
- So, one of the attributes of white supremacy culture was instilling a desire in people to prove that they were white according to whatever definition was being used by the people in power
- In other words, they desperately needed to prove "I'm just like you" if they wanted to be treated as full humans and citizens with legal rights
- So yes, hierarchies have existed before, but there arose a special version in America that was: (1) defined according to the whims of those in power, and (2) extremely harsh toward those at the bottom of the hierarchy
- That's why white supremacy culture includes characteristics like perfectionism, either/or thinking, individualism, power hoarding, a sense of urgency, and defensiveness
- That's how white supremacy culture started, and that's why those characteristics are so ingrained in white Americans today (i.e., the idea of "whiteness")
- And here's the especially nefarious part: Because white supremacy culture is so ingrained in our society today and because so many leaders and organizations are caught up in their whiteness, the culture of white supremacy keeps getting perpetuated because—in order to survive and thrive in America today—we feel pressured to operate within that paradigm ourselves
- In other words, to even convince leaders to listen to us talk about the concept of white supremacy culture, we have to talk about it through the lens of white supremacy culture
- For example, if someone proposes a diversity & inclusion training at work, they'll probably be asked by leaders:
- "How can you deliver the message as quickly as possible? We can afford to give you one hour for your training. That should be enough, right?"
- "How will we measure success? What key performance indicators can we track to prove that the training was effective?"
- "Can you just tell everyone the solution? Can we just give everyone a checklist of all the ways they shouldn't be racist?"
- In other words, there's a sense of urgency, scarcity, quantity over quality, and fear of open conflict (all of which are characteristics of white supremacy culture)
- There's a feeling that there's no time to slow down and sit with the complexities inherent in all this
- There's no time to build toward a place of real vulnerability and quality relationship
- Rather, everyone is wearing masks and wanting to jump straight to whatever solution seems most convenient (or will get the training over with so they can go back to business as usual)
Most importantly, if you're in a workshop or other group learning space and someone—especially a facilitator or person of color—asks you to stop, just stop.
Don't try to explain what you were trying to say or what you were about to say. It's too late for that.
You messed up, even if you don't realize why yet. You can ask another white person later, but for now just stop talking so you don't do more harm.
(And yes, it's possible that there was a misunderstanding, but if they've told you to stop then now is not the time to explain yourself.)