I’m listening to your podcast right now and you’re repeatedly asking a question about the history of racism. You even mentioned that humankind has “always seen lighter as better” to paraphrase.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that “whiteness” is a relatively new invention, and the eugenics practiced on this continent and later exported to Europe and Africa, was a pseudo-science based framework designed to support the legal instruments specifically aimed at concentrating wealth among a “chosen” group.
In Egypt, slaves from Jerusalem were not necessarily darker than the Egyptians who enslaved them. Also, trade routes between Rome, Greece, Northern and Western Africa, Constantinople and into the far East also do not reflect race based hierarchy–tribalism, perhaps, but not race based hierarchy.
Here is an article that suggests that the first reference to people as “white” appeared in a play in the 1600’s. In the play, the neutral observation is made by an African King. It does not come with any hint that the “whiteness” is an indicator of superiority, and does not bear any resemblance to the institutional “Whiteness” that serves as the engine of the racism we’re attempting to contend with in this country at this time.
When what we now call the North American continent was populated by Europeans, there is evidence that indentured servitude and the rights distributed among the servant class, scant as they might have been, were distributed relatively equally amongst races. There are at least two documented factors that changed this before the slave trade became an industry in North America. One was that white servants were able to escape, relocate, and change their identities before serving out their terms, blending in with other European settlers who were actively populating the land. Here we remember that there was no voluntary influx of Black people to the continent, so “blending in” wasn’t as much of an option. Another very practical factor was that it appears as though imported African workers were a stronger workforce, and therefore more valuable as laborers as commerce became viable on the continent.
While the Spanish had assumed a rather intricate system of colorism to determine class (one that persists today), the issue was not so much about whiter skinned people being superior to darker skinned people, but one of blood purity. The Spanish resentment of the prevalence of influence of the darker skinned Moors likely had more to do with adversarial relationships based on trade and religion. The crusades were not a race war and it’s hard to say who really won. Muslims, at the time, were not considered inferior.
If you believe in the Christian story of Jesus at all, he became the “savior of the western world” and is described in their own book as having skin of a “darker hue and that his hair was woolly in texture.” If dark skin were considered inferior, how could the narrative have become so impactful among those who did not share it. While depictions of Jesus’ race have reflected every race under the sun, this could have to do more with “relatability” and “branding” rather than actual assessment of the inferiority of darker skinned people.
No. Whiteness is truly a relatively new invention, whose definition has changed a great deal since it came into being. Many “fair skinned” people were not included as “white” in early definitions, and were not afforded the privileges that came with the designation. For example, Sicilians petitioned to earn entry into the club, and in the South at least, the impoverished Irish who were treated abhorrently, purchased their way into “whiteness” by serving as patrollers of slaves (the blueprint of today’s problematic policing culture as it relates to Black people). This effectively means they bought their whiteness by killing black people.
Darker skinned people also petitioned to become white based on various criteria, either their social status in their home countries, or based on the pseudo-science “White” people invented to define whiteness. In VA, a family of indigenous people were declared to be white because they were already wealthy (powerful) land-owners before “whiteness” was a thing. If you dig into this material for even the smallest amount of time, you may find the story of Bhagat Singh Thind, the brown but literally Aryan Caucasian immigrant/veteran who petitioned for the “white” designation so he could naturalize. He was unsuccessful, but the fact that in 1919, such a claim could be argued before the highest court in the land could imply that the issue of “Whiteness” was still quite debatable, even as late as just one century ago.
As the descendant of almost exclusively free black people on this continent dating back to at least the 1700’s, I am painfully aware that Blackness was not equated with the word “slave” until the Dred Scott decision of 1857, though most white Americans to this day, seem to believe that the narrative of every Black person on the continent begins with their enslaved ancestor. Black Americans have a much more varied history than that in this country. I haven’t encountered many people who even know that Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the Boston Massacre that precipitated the Revolutionary War was A BLACK MAN amongst a crowd described by John Adams himself as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack Tarrs” when defending the British soldiers who shot him. Here again, “races” are together at the crucible moment when our nation was being born. “Whiteness” had not yet taken hold and become the disease it would later become.
To reiterate, though we humans have found grounds on which to determine hierarchy throughout history, I think it would be difficult to any evidence that supports that light skin has always been equated with superiority. Such a belief is likely the remnant of the Eugenics-based educational system that was still poisoning our minds when I was growing up in the 80s. Jayson’s question in seeking a scientific explanation for why lighter skinned people are innately perceived as better reveals a bias that he shares with many, including myself when I was younger, but the truth is there is no scientific support because the bias was created, not intrinsic. There is enough evidence of the global cultural impact of dark skinned people to suggest that we, as a species, like dark skinned people at least as much as they are denigrated.
I would assert that the monied class invented whiteness to create a method by which to control the distribution of wealth. It (this monied class) disseminated the illusion of difference to divide the working class and protect its assets. They invented what whiteness was, developed a pseudo-science to support it, and brutishly executed legal and financial instruments to sustain it. It is the invention of “Whiteness” that birthed the idea of race based “otherness,” and the myth of whiteness that created the propaganda of superiority that now infects those exposed to it at what appears to be the cellular level.
I wish I had time to site sources for all of this, but most of it is not hard to find. A book I found most impactful around tracking the history of “Africans in America” that is not all about slavery is Leronne Bennet, Jr.’s tome called “Before the Mayflower.” https://www.amazon.com/Before-Mayflower-History-America-Revised/dp/0140178228
If you want to know more about the strange history of whiteness, here’s a link to a podcast that I found handled the material really well out of Duke University. All of Season 2 is devoted to the topic and I think it’s constructively illuminating.
I really hope this information serves to further the conversation. I felt the guests on the show punted the question, and I have a number of ideas as to why that might have been the case, but it seemed as though their main answer to the question is that the past doesn’t matter when it comes to dealing with the future. While I understand the spirit of this reasoning, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. As with any disease, our ideas about the cure and the success thereof can very well be dependent on an accurate sense of both its epidemiology and its pathology.
Thank you for using your platform to open this important conversation amongst your powerful and intentional tribe.
Yours in growth and awakening!