Updated: Jan 20, 2022
Prejudice against others, if not downright fear of others culturally and ethnically different from oneself – xenophobia – is written into human history from day one. Yet the phenomenon of racial superiority, particularly white supremacist racism, is a relatively recent invention.
More than once I have asked myself: why do some people think that having less melanin in their skin signifies intrinsic superiority over others with darker pigmentation?
The Souls of White Folk is by sociologist and social critic W.E.B. Du Bois (b.1868; American sociologist, historian, author, editor, and activist, and cofounder of the NAACP). He is considered one of the most important Black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Du Bois wrote about 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.”
But the religion of which Du Bois writes did not arise from a theological foundation or ideological philosophy. The roots of it are what makes the world go round . . . and it’s not love.
In The Invention of Whiteness (The Guardian, 20 April 2021) Robt Baird writes: “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”
Baird notes that religious identity became crucial for the development of the slave trade – and eventually for the development of racial whiteness. Africans were understood to be infidels, and thus the
“perpetual enemies” of Christian nations. Baird aptly notes:
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.
18th and 19th century slavers could look to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant for support. He claimed in his Lectures on Anthropology (1798) that “Native Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus, serve only as slaves.” Kant continues this theme in his 1802 Lectures on Physical Geography where he stated that “humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites.”
Baird adds the observations:
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 (skull size and shape). When psychology took over in the 20th, they told themselves flattering stories about divergences in IQ.
The religion of whiteness worked hard to persuade its adherents that they 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.”
Baird one more time:
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 colonization of India, east Africa and Australia by Britain; for the equally bloody colonization 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, antagonized and insulted on a daily basis.
Economic advantage continues to play a major role in racist ideology (people of color, it is still often claimed, are divinely ordained to serve Whites), and striving for the upper economic strata is foundational to what has morphed into a belief in blatant white supremacy. This is undoubtedly often complemented by a sense of inadequacy that prompts those with a poor self-image to identify individuals and/or groups whom they can consider inferior.
What percentage of White people consider themselves superior to people of color is an unknown. While it might appear to be a minority, many Whites subconsciously or unconsciously assume a hidden sense of superiority. Thankfully, the twenty-first century is producing thinkers and authors who encourage determined, serious self-examination by those of us born into White privilege.
Racism is evil. It is venomous. All clear-headed people of good will would do well to acknowledge its existence . . . and work toward its extermination.